Stress, to put it bluntly, is bad for you. It can kill you, in fact. A study now reveals that stress causes deterioration in everything from your gums to your heart and can make you more susceptible to everything from the common cold to cancer. Thanks to new research crossing the disciplines of psychology, medicine, neuroscience, and genetics, the mechanisms underlying the connection are rapidly becoming understood.
The first clues to the link between stress and health were provided in the 1930s by Hans Selye, the first scientist to apply the word stress then simply an engineering term to the strains experienced by living organisms in their struggles to adapt and cope with changing environments.
One of Selyes major discoveries was that the stress hormone cortisol had a long-term effect on the health of rats.
Cortisol has been considered one of the main culprits in the stress-illness connection, although it plays a necessary role in helping us cope with threats. When an animal perceives danger, a system kicks into gear: A chain reaction of signals releases various hormones most notably epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol from the adrenal glands above each kidney.
These hormones boost heart rate, increase respiration, and increase the availability of glucose (cellular fuel) in the blood, thereby enabling the famous fight or flight reaction.
Because these responses take a lot of energy, cortisol simultaneously tells other costly physical processes including digestion, reproduction, physical growth, and some aspects of the immune system to shut or slow down.
When occasions to fight or flee are infrequent and threats pass quickly, the bodys stress thermostat adjusts accordingly: Cortisol levels return to baseline (it takes 40-60 minutes), the intestines resume digesting food, the sex organs kick back into gear, and the immune system resumes fighting infections.
|Contact: Katie Kline|
Association for Psychological Science