The Physical Effects from Stress

What are the Physical Effects from Stress?

The physical effects from stress can take a toll on your bodyWhen stress takes over, it can feel like it’s taking years off of your life. The fact is, it may well be. The physical effects from stress are serious.

Illness, job loss, single parenthood, an unhappy marriage, a job you hate, all of these things and more can contribute to chronic stress. When you’re under stress, especially over the long-term, your cortisol levels rise, causing inflammation, which can affect you all the way down to the cellular level and influence all of your major physiological systems.

In the nucleus of each of your cells is a set of chromosomes and at the end of each chromosome is a bit of genetic material known as a telomere. Each time the cell divides, the telomeres grow shorter, until they are gone, at which point the cell dies. Chronic or intense stress can shorten the telomeres prematurely, increasing the risk of age-related ailments. Research conducted in 2014 on a group of nine year old boys discovered that the telomeres of those boys from disadvantaged families were nearly 20% shorter than those in better environments.

The first place we see changes is in the nervous system. The brain is made to adapt to new experiences, particularly in childhood when the brain is developing, particularly the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flee, or freeze reactions. It is estimated that a third of all anxiety disorders develop in response to early trauma. Children who grow up in orphanages have been shown to have amygdalae that are larger than normal, even after adoption.

People who are under chronic stress or suffer from depression or anxiety disorders are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Scientists aren’t certain why, but it’s believed that stress increases blood pressure and triggers unhealthy behaviors. In some cases, sudden stress can significantly weaken the heart in a condition known as broken heart syndrome.

Chronic stress and gastrointestinal distress seem to go hand in hand. Individuals with irritable bowel syndrome tend to have abnormally high levels of cortisol. The gut actually is responsible for making many of the neurotransmitters – or chemical messengers – used in the body. For this reason, the gut is sometimes referred to as the second brain. It is not surprising then, that chronic low-grade inflammation of the gut and GI tract has actually been linked to depression.

Stress also makes you more vulnerable to illness. Research conducted at the Ohio State College of Medicine found that the physical effects from stress can make vaccines less effective and wounds take longer to heal. Another study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University found that stress lowers the body’s defenses against many viral infections. Scientists believe this is because cortisol, the main stress hormone, inhibits inflammation. When the body has persistently high levels of cortisol, the immune system begins to ignore cortisol. When this happens, cytokines, the protein that causes inflammation, can flare out of control.

Cortisol is critical to regulating blood sugar levels. Cortisol levels follow natural cycles during the day, rising overnight to peak early in the morning, then slowly dropping during the day. Scientists have found patients with depression have especially high cortisol levels. They aren’t quite sure what the significance of this is, but offers a clue to how stress can influence sleep cycles and perhaps how disrupted sleep influences cortisol production.

Increased belly fat is another one of the physical effects from stressChronic stress can cause a vicious cycle in the metabolism. Elevated cortisol increases belly fat, which increases risk of diabetes, which impairs the brain’s stress response. These individuals may also have damage to the hippocampus, a part of the brain particularly vulnerable to the physical effects from stress with a high concentration of cortisol receptors.

The truth of the matter is that chronic stress literally affects every system in our body. The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) system is made of every organ and biological response, which targets stress and its effects to our health. The NEM has six responses – which include inflammation, cardionomic, neuro-affective, metabolic, hormonal, and detoxification. These are a result of an overwhelming amount of stress that is unrelenting and chronic. Chronic stress affects the heart, nervous system, mental state, immunity, sleep, blood pressure, and feelings. It seeps into every system in our body, wreaking havoc on our body function. Realizing that all of our systems are interconnected proves helpful with trying to eradicate stressors in our life, which is the first step in healing from AFS and repairing our natural defenses. Finding methods to deal with stress in our lives and in turn lowering respective cortisol levels will not only improve our health, but could give us years back.

Physical effects from stress


  • Edith Zang says:

    One night last July I developed a bad pain in the lower left side of my abdomen. I spent most of the night awake because of it, and when I went to the nearest hospital and it was determined that I had “broken heart syndrome.” After spending 2 nights in the ICU, I went home and started taking a beta blocker and also took my blood pressure a couple of times/day. It turned out that I have a labile blood pressure that fluctuates during different times of the day between ~125/70, to 150/70 – 170/80. One morning it even went to 200/202. I now wonder whether my earlier “broken heart syndrome” episode in July could have been set off by a very high, but undetected, blood pressure? I now take a low dose b.p. medication (Lisinopril) besides the beta blocker, but my blood pressure still fluctuates during the day from normal or low to high, although no longer goes to above 170/80.

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Fluctuating bp can be due to many factors and a much more detailed history is needed before I can tell you more. Sorry.


  • Kender says:

    I’ve been sweating for no apparent reason. I think it’s stress but I’m not sure. Any advice?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      Excessive sweating can happen in some people who are under stress. It is a symptom and not a disease in and or itself in majority of cases so you need to trace to the root problem and get it resolve.

  • Sarah says:

    I never realized stress could impact the body so greatly. Other than trying not to stress, what are other ways to protect the hippocampus from stress?

    • Dr.Lam says:

      You can optimize brain health with plenty of good fat and reduce oxidative damage to neurons. Fish oil, Vitamin E, CoQ10, and Melatonin in high dose are good natural compounds to consider

      Dr Lam

  • Gerald Knowles says:

    Thanks for the article Dr Lam. Im going to have some of my friends at work read this.

  • Jen says:

    If you are able to get ride of chronic stress by eliminating stressors in life, are you able to resolve Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome?

    • Newsletter says:

      That will certainly help a great deal. In reality, stress is not necessarily bad. Its just that too much over time and not enough effort to give the body the tools and rest time is the problem for most people. Toxic relationship is usually among the top stressors and knowing how to be grateful always help.

      Dr Lam.

  • Elvira Walker says:

    It is wonderful that we can get vital and important information from Dr. Lam for free. Thank you.

    • Newsletter says:

      You are welcome. More and more research are showing how stress can physically impact your body. Living in the modern world is no easy task if you want balance in life. The more stress you are able to remove or handle, the less chance you get adrenal fatigue.

      Dr Lam.