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You’re probably familiar with the insidious effects of stress on your sleep quality and its link to anxiety and depression. Now growing body of evidence suggests that stress can take a physical toll, too, damaging everything from your heart to your immune system. It may even shorten your lifespan.
“Chronic emotional stress can affect virtually every organ system in negative ways,” says Dean Ornish, M.D., founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif. “But stress is not simply a function of what you do. It’s also a function of how you react.”
While scientists are just beginning to untangle the hows and whys of stress-related illness, they believe that certain hormones are involved. Three of those brain chemicals—cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine—that are released when we’re stressed seem to have damaging effects on the body. “When you’re under chronic stress, your body tenses up to prepare for battle in the fight or flight response,” Ornish says, describing that hormone rush, “so the same mechanisms that are really protective can themselves become harmful and even lethal when they’re chronically activated.”
Cortisol seems to “tune down” the immune system and make it less able to fight infection, says Esther Sternberg, M.D., director of the integrative neural immune program at the National Institute of Mental Health. Various studies by Ohio State University (OSU) scientists have found that dementia caregivers have poorer immune function and suffer more sick days, especially respiratory illnesses, than other people. Even immunizations don’t offer them as much protection as they do noncaregivers: Caregivers of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients make fewer antibodies (disease-fighting proteins) when they’re vaccinated against the flu, making them more susceptible to catching the virus, the OSU researchers and scientists at the University of Bristol in England found.