Unabated psychosocial stress, compounded by unhealthy lifestyle practices, is the main culprit behind the epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases in modern societies.
Chronic stress causes you to die faster
Stress is your body’s natural defence state against a potential or existing threat (stressor) to your being, which could be psychological, environmental or physiological. When you are under stress, your body produces large amounts of stress hormones, namely cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which in turn, causes you to experience
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Muscle preparedness
- Blunted appetite
Under stress, these stress hormones prime your body to remove the stressor by directing blood flow away from the “unnecessary” digestive and reproductive organs to vital organs like your brain and heart as well as your muscles. Such acute stress responses are necessary and even beneficial for our survival and recovery.
However, when the stressor does not cease or even gets out of control, it results in a state of chronic stress. Your body starts to malfunction and slow its recovery from the assaults of daily life. For example, you find it harder to fall asleep, or you fall sick more easily and take a longer time to recover from it.
More insidiously, chronic stress causes premature ageing and contributes to the development of chronic diseases. In fact, research has shown that chronic stress is a common risk factor for 75 to 90% chronic diseases (1).
The most common stress-related chronic diseases include cardiovascular disease (e.g. high blood pressure, coronary artery disease), metabolic diseases (e.g. type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease), psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. depression, dementia, Parkinson’s disease) and even cancer (1).
Chronic stress causes chronic inflammation in your body
Inflammation is your body’s immune response to fight germs and recover from tissue injuries. If you have sprained an ankle before, you would certainly have experienced acute inflammation. The hallmarks of inflammation are (i) pain, (ii) swelling, (iii) warmth, (iv) redness and (v) loss of mobility.
Acute inflammation is essential to your recovery and survival. Without inflammation, your body cannot repair its damaged tissues and become more resilient against future attacks by germs and injuries.
Chronic stress activates a chronic state of low-grade inflammation in your body, which can persist for months and years. Moreover, chronic stress also can cause you to adopt unhealthy lifestyle practices (e.g. overeating, being sedentary, lacking sleep), which aggravates and perpetuates chronic inflammatory processes in your body. Over time, the deranged immune response turns against your body, thereby causing you to feel down, gain weight and develop nagging ailments and eventually, full-blown chronic diseases.
What you can do to reduce stress
Adopt a healthy lifestyle consisting of
- Regular exercise, at least 150 minutes per week
- Balanced diet, with lots of fruit and vegetables
- Sleep hygiene
- Mental stress management techniques (e.g. meditation, journalling)
These lifestyle practices form the foundation of optimal health, as they directly lower the levels of chronic stress and inflammation in your body. In addition, these practices also boost your body’s immune system and make your body more robust in coping with stressful times in your life.