Is stress always bad for health?

General Health

In the first instalment of our new stress, energy and sleep series, lifestyle coach Effie Parnell-Hopkinson explains how stress affects health and gives her top tips on how to battle stress.

14/03/2019


Effie Parnell-Hopkinson
MSc BDA & SENr Registered Nutritionist

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Let me ask you this: how do your conversations start with your colleagues or friends? Probably with a greeting, then asking how the other person is doing, which is usually answered with something along the lines of “yes I’m good, stressed as always but that’s life!”. Does this sound familiar?

You are not alone because a study conducted last year revealed that 85% of UK adults experience stress regularly with the most common cause of this stress being money, followed by work, health concerns, failure to get enough sleep and household chores [1]. Whilst it may seem like there is no way out, especially with the unforgiving stress and strain of modern life, it is of utmost importance we start to find activities and techniques that help us manage, reduce and ultimately, alleviate our stress.

Let us explore the differences and consequences of chronic and acute stress, and exactly what effect stress has on our health, all with the aim of attacking the root causes of your stress, instead of attempting to improve only what we can see on the surface.

What does stress do the body?

To begin with, it is vital to recognise that stress isn’t actually necessarily a bad thing, despite the surrounding myths! Stress is a set of physical adaptations to a change in your environment that requires your body to adjust and react in response, and is what allowed us as human beings to evolve. The onset of stress was the internal alert that elicited action, otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’ mode. Stress signals your body to release a series of hormones and chemicals including adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine that prepare your body for physical activity. These changes also lead to a diversion of blood to the muscles, an increase in respiratory and heart rate as well as the shutting down unnecessary bodily functions, including the digestive and immune systems.

So just from this, we can see that the body goes through a lot when faced with a stressful situation, which isn’t a problem when experienced in acute, short-term scenarios. However, when we put our bodies through these physiological responses frequently and over a long period of time, otherwise known as chronic stress, it can be detrimental to our health. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands during times of stress. It plays an important role in many bodily processes including regulating blood sugar levels, metabolism, blood pressure and inflammation. Prolonged stress can cause health problems including heart disease, digestive problems, headaches and insomnia. 

Chronic stress negatively affects our overall health, wellbeing and has the potential of contributing to a variety of conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, insomnia, obesity and diabetes [2]. With this permanent state of stress, cortisol levels become excessively elevated which leads to suppressed immune function, increased appetite [3], abdominal weight gain and obesity [4]. All these symptoms have been linked back to evidence that shows chronic stress causes neuroendocrine/immune imbalances that lead to low-grade inflammation [6], a precursor for illness and disease. Aside from the physical symptoms of chronic stress, mental wellbeing can also fall victim with evidence of increased irritability, anxiety, and depression [4, 5]. Chronic stress is also responsible for many changes in behaviour including alcohol and drug abuse, overeating or not eating enough and social withdrawal [7].

When stress begins to interfere with our daily lives for an extended period, there are inevitable consequences that can lead to long-term health conditions and the evidence certainly doesn’t look promising if we don’t do something about it straight away. Although a lot of us find ways to improve and manage our stress levels, including exercise, going for a walk or listening to music [1], it still may not be enough. So, what can we do to begin to reduce our stress levels? Well, perhaps the most useful thing we can do is to recognise our stress, what exactly it is that is making us feel stressed, identify the situations and emotions linked to the stress and understand the impact stress has on our daily lives. From there, it will make it much easier for us to create a solution as we will have identified the problem.

Top tips for battling stress:

1) Identify the cause
If you are feeling stressed, write down what you think the cause might be, how you are feeling and your general mood. Once you have begun to identify the cause you can start to develop a plan to combat the stress, whether that is setting more realistic expectations for yourself or asking for help from others with chores and tasks.

2) Move regularly
I am sure that you were expecting a specific exercise prescription, however, when you are stressed, it has been shown that the likelihood and desire to exercise is significantly reduced [7]. So, although only 32% of the UK population has been reported to use exercise as a form of stress reliever [1], the key here is to focus on incorporating any form of physical movement. Going for a walk outside, doing some gardening or even just getting on top of some of the more physically-demanding household chores can provide you with the same endorphin boost as going to the gym! So, you’ll not only benefit from the stress-relieving benefits of exercise, but you’ll also be working up to the NHS physical activity and exercise recommendations [9]. 

3) Work on your sleep hygiene
No, sleep hygiene isn’t about how clean your bedroom is! Sleep hygiene is the unique routine surrounding your bedtime, that ensures you to have good night-time sleep and full daytime alertness. We are going to going more in-depth with this topic later in this series but getting enough good quality sleep is vital to resilience and stress relief. Stay tuned for our tips on how to get a good night's sleep!

4) Make time for self-care
Beyond the recommendations for exercise, a healthy diet, social interaction and getting good quality sleep, there is plentiful evidence to suggest incorporating activities such as mindfulness and other meditative practices such as yoga can have a positive impact on our abilities to manage stress as well as other aspects of our mental health and well-being. Incorporating activities such as meditation and mindfulness has shown to improve anxiety, depression and pain [10], as well as decreased physiological markers of stress including cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate [11]. Although the concept may seem simple and a bit unusual for some, studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can reduce stress, alter brain structure and function, and have a positive effect on the immune system [12].

In conclusion, stress is a natural reaction to changes in our environment and it is perfectly natural to experiences increases in these levels within short-term periods of time. However, when these physiological changes within the body stay on ‘high-alert’, those chemical reactions become more harmful than helpful. It is very important we find ways that allow us to manage and reduce the stress we experience from everyday life otherwise our health will start to suffer. If you feel that you live a stressful life, begin by implementing a couple of the tips we mentioned above. However, if you continue to feel overwhelmed consult with your medical healthcare professional who will be able to advise you on ways to help manage your stress.


[1] Forth (2018). Stress Statistics UK: Survey of 2000 British People on Cause of Stress and How They Relieve It. (https://www.forthwithlife.co.uk/blog/great-britain-and-stress/)

[2] Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal, 16, 1057-1072.

[3] Vicennati, V., Pasqui, F., Cavazza, C., Pagotto, U. & Pasquali, R. (2009). Stress-related development of obesity and cortisol in women. Obesity (Silver Spring), 17(9), 1678-83.

[4] Spencer, S. J. & Tilbrook, A. (2011). The glucocorticoid contribution to obesity. Stress, 14(3), 233-46.

[5] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.

[6] Blix, E., Perski, A., Berglund, H., & Savic, I. (2013). Long-term occupational stress is associated with regional reductions in brain tissue volumes. PLoS One, 8(6), 64-65.

[7] Mariotti, A. (2015). The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future Science OA, 1(3), 2056.

[8] American Psychological Association (2016). How stress affects your health. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress.aspx.

[9] National Health Service (2011) Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults: Factsheet. (https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/fitness/Documents/adults-19-64-years.pdf)

[10] Goyal, M., et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357-68.

[11] Pascoe, M. C., Thompson, D. R., Jenkins, Z. M., & Ski, C. F. (2017). Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 95, 156-178.


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