Stress can certainly make you feel down and under the weather, but can it actually increase your risk of getting sick? Surprisingly, there’s a whole field devoted to answering questions like these called psychoneuroimmunology, a very specialized field that looks at the effect psychological pathology has on the immune system. If you feel like you get sick more often when you’re going through stressful times, it may not be your imagination. Can stress and anxiety make you sick?
Can Stress Make You Sick?: How Stress Affects the Body
People who are stressed or anxious often experience unpleasant physical symptoms. Stress can cause changes in appetite, lack of energy, sleep difficulties, and fatigue. Some people experience more severe symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea due to the effects stress has on the nervous system which controls digestive function. But, what about illnesses such as colds and flu?
Can Stress Make You Sick?: Colds and Flu
It turns out that stress can cause more than just loss of appetite and sleep problems. Studies suggest that stress has an affect on the immune system and the body’s ability to fight off disease. One study carried out in 1994 showed that college students preparing for exams (a stressful activity for most of them) had reduced T cell activity. T cells are a type of immune cells that fight off viruses and other pathogens. These students also reported experiencing more colds and flu.
Another study showed that adults who were injected with the influenza virus had more severe flu symptoms when they were under high levels of stress. Another way stress can increase the risk of viral infection is by its effects on cortisol levels. People suffering from stress-related anxiety or depression often have higher levels of this hormone which can suppress immune function.
Can Stress Make You Sick?: Heart Disease
Researchers have long thought that stress increases the risk of heart disease. Stressful circumstances causes certain hormonal changes to occur as the body prepare to “fight or flee” the stress or perceived danger. This results in the release of adrenaline, among other hormones, which increases the heart rate and raises blood pressure. If this response is sustained it puts excessive stress on the heart and blood vessels which can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Can Stress Make You Sick?: Other Diseases
Studies show that when the body is under stress, it mounts an inflammatory response. This results in the release of a variety of proteins known as cytokines. When levels of these inflammatory proteins stay elevated for too long it increases the risk of a variety of diseases from autoimmune disease to diabetes. Prolonged inflammation is never good for the body.
The Bottom Line: Can Stress Make You Sick?
There’s certainly compelling evidence that it can. Reducing stress levels may turn out to be just as important as exercise and a healthy diet when it comes to overall health and longevity.
Psychosomatic Medicine March 1999;61:175-180