Is Stress Ruining Your Health?

Stress can be a wrecking ball to your body, mind, and spirit. Here's what to do about it.
By Sarah Tuff

We don’t need researchers to tell us that stress is rampant in the US. But in its 2009 Stress in America study, the American Psychological Association found that 24 percent of adults are experiencing high levels of tension—and 42 percent of us were more stressed out last year than the previous year. And it’s not just because of the recession, traffic jams, and rat-a-tat pace of grim news headlines—it’s how we handle the challenges of daily life. “Western cultures are more and more isolating to the individual, and families are moving far distances from each other, so we’re increasingly in the position to manage our stress in isolation,” says Jill Evenson, ND, president of the Wisconsin Naturopathic Physicians Association. “We are faced with so many decisions and choices that we must engage in the short-term stress response frequently, and there is little opportunity for things to return to the state of rest.”

Over time, these short-term stress responses can pile up to produce a state that New York City’s Roberta Lee, MD, author of The SuperStress Solution (Random House, 2010), calls “superstress”—a chronic illness that taxes nearly every part of your body, from your decision-making processes to your bones, liver, and cells. “You get headaches, your libido drops, your memory goes, and you’re excessively tired,” says Lee, listing some of the more common stress symptoms.

Even more serious, stress can wreak havoc on your cardiovascular and immune systems. “Stress, by far, is one of the biggest things that gets in the way of your health,” says Michael Smith, ND, of the Carolinas Natural Health Center in North Carolina. “And most of us don’t realize just how stressed we really are.”

When you are physically, mentally, or emotionally overloaded, your brain triggers a release of hormones, including the glucocorticoids adrenaline and cortisol, from the adrenal glands. For anyone who’s ever felt the rush of meeting a deadline on time or completing a challenging project, stress—that little burst of adrenaline—can seem like a good thing. And it can be, says Evenson, because after we successfully complete a task with the “fight-or-flight” response, stress hormones decrease back to normal levels. Also, mild to moderate short-term stressors enhance memory, make us feel less pain, and release pleasure-providing dopamine, writes Stanford University stress expert Robert Sapolsky, PhD, in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping (Holt Paperbacks, 2004). But when you continually confront traumatic situations out of your control, the flight response turns to constant fight in the body.

Here, experts shed light on that fight and what you can do to win the stress battle naturally.

Breathe. “It can be as simple as three long breaths while sitting at your desk,” says Smith. “That oxygen is going to help nourish your body—your muscles and organs—and provide stress relief.” Slow, relaxed breathing calms the autonomic nervous system, producing more energy, better immune function, and lower blood pressure. Start aiming for 25 deep breaths a day; whenever you notice the clock tick forward to another hour, take three long breaths.

Move more (even a little bit). “Even though exercise stresses, or challenges, your body, it does so in a nourishing way,” says Evenson, explaining that exercise lowers levels of norepinephrine/epinephrine (adrenaline), helping turn off the sense of alarm you get when these chemicals are present. Your lungs also receive more oxygen, the muscles get nutrients, and the immune system “cleans house,” thanks to muscle contractions that move lymphatic fluid back to the organs of elimination, helping your digestive system and metabolism. But you don’t have to grumble through a lifeless exercise routine at the gym. “My personal favorite is dancing,” says Evenson. Also, try parking in the farthest spot from the grocery store or office door to increase how many steps you take per day. Or set a goal of doing 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups each day. Start with 25 of each exercise (perform push-ups with your knees on the floor, if necessary) and add 5 more of each every day to help reach that goal.

Change your diet. It may feel like a natural instinct to reach for chips, candy, soda, or alcohol when you’re stressed, but as Smith explains, these items only worsen stress by increasing oxidative damage in your body. “Your body now has to work twice as hard to purge existing stress, as well as oxidative damage from poor dietary choices,” says Smith, who advises that anxiety-prone people stock their fridges with berries and other antioxidant-rich, brightly colored produce in order to counter this damage. “Green tea is also really beneficial for calming and relaxing the body,” he says, so strive to drink one cup every day. Even the ritual of putting the kettle on can calm you down, according to a 2009 study by London psychologists. And in a study presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 2010 meeting, the Mediterranean diet (rich in fruits, vegetables, monounsaturated fatty acids, and whole grains) was found to help people better handle potentially stressful situations.

Consider supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil and certain plant and nut oils, can help balance your endocrine system, reduce stress-induced inflammation, and lower cortisol levels—aim for 1 gram a day, says Lee. B-complex vitamins (1,000 mcg per day) and holy basil (10 to 15 drops per day) help support the adrenal glands and regulate the release of glucocorticoids. To help the liver eliminate toxins from the body, Lee recommends 100 mg a day of alpha lipoic acid.

Try yoga and meditation. Numerous studies have shown that yoga, meditation, and other mind-body techniques can relieve stress. Massachusetts researchers from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine recently found that yoga, meditation, and similar therapies such as repeated prayer actually change the way our genes behave in response to stress.

Sarah Tuff is a health, fitness, and adventure sports writer who lives in Shelburne, Vermont, with her husband and two young children. Her favorite stress releases include running and skiing.

Stress and Your Body

Brain: You’re not just imagining that fuzzy-brained feeling you get when you’re stressed: Glucocorticoids secreted by the body during times of crisis can damage the hippocampus—the part of the brain that controls long-term memory and spatial navigation—says Sapolsky. A study published last year in Biological Psychiatry found that stress alters the structure of nerve cells, resulting in behavioral consequences such as depression.

Breasts: Stress, specifically the type associated with social isolation, may make women more than three times more susceptible to developing breast cancer, says a study published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Liver: This organ metabolizes food into energy, removes alcohol from the blood, and produces bile to aid digestion. Stress can hinder these daily processes, while glucocorticoids can cause inflammation in the liver, increase the risk of liver cancer, and worsen liver diseases, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Bones: Stress produces inflammation, which prevents calcium from being absorbed by the body, says the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Stress also causes your number of osteoblasts—cells that build bones—to decrease, reducing bone density and your body’s ability to repair and grow skeletal mass.

Heart: The chronic stress felt by victims of Hurricane Katrina contributed to a threefold increase in heart attacks in New Orleans, announced Tulane University School of Medicine researchers at the American College of Cardiology’s Scientific Session in 2009. What’s more, a new Swedish study found that men who bottle up their anger at work are more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or die of heart disease than those who find a release for their stress.

Abdomen: High cortisol levels from stress make us more prone to belly fat, which can contribute to blocked arteries and metabolic syndrome (a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and heart disease), according to a 2009 study from Wake Forest University. Your gastrointestinal system suffers from stress, too: In 2009, the US Navy and State University of New York discovered that high-stress jobs are associated with diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and other GI disorders.

Sexual and reproductive health: By raising levels of glucocorticoids, stress decreases levels of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), the body’s main hormone responsible for ovulation, sperm count, and sexual activity. A new study from the University of California, Berkeley shows that stress also increases the gonadotropin-inhibitory hormone (GnIH) that further inhibits GnRH and can cause reproductive dysfunction.

Skin: Remember that pimple you got right before prom? By flooding the body with hormones, stress can trigger not only acne, but also fever blisters, eczema, and rosacea, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. A 2008 study by McMaster University found that chronic stress can aggravate immune cells, causing skin irritation.

QUIZ: Gauge Your Anxiety Take this test to find out whether stress is ruining your health.
Respond to each question using the following scale: | 0 = Never | 1 = Rarely | 2 = Sometimes | 3 = Often

How often do you …
1. Interrupt people when they are talking to you?
2. Worry about money?
3. Find yourself actively feuding with someone?
4. Find yourself sensitive to the criticism of others?
5. Feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish what you need to do?
6. Feel forgetful?
7. Feel tired during the daytime?
8. Feel like you’re going to lose control?
9. Feel lonely?
10. Lie awake at night ruminating?
11. Have difficulty sitting still?
12. Feel exhausted after you wake up in the morning?
13. Have trouble focusing?
14. Feel like you are close to tears?
15. Try to do everything yourself?
16. Feel emotionally drained or used up at the end of the day?
17. Have two or more major problems that you can’t seem to resolve?
18. Feel that your stomach is tied up in knots?
19. Cancel social engagements or family outings to finish a work project?
20. Become angry with family members?

Scoring: Identify your “superstress” type by adding up your answers to specific questions. Your highest score out of the following five indicates your “type”—and yes, you can be more than one.

Type I Total for questions 7, 9, 12, and 16 ___
Type II Total for questions 6, 8, 13, and 17 ___
Type III Total for questions 2, 4, 14, and 18 ___
Type IV Total for questions 5, 10, 15, and 19 ___
Type V Total for questions 1, 3, 11, and 20 ___

Based on your answers to the above questionnaire, your stress type is:

Type I: Burned out, exhausted, numb, depressed
Stress has been present for so long that you can no longer mount much of a reaction and have started to “check out” emotionally. Although you are at risk for chronic fatigue and hypothyroidism, take heart: Eating whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables will help moderate your stress, and you will also benefit greatly from relaxation exercises like Thai massage. (To learn more, type “Thai’d Together” into the search box at

Type II: Agitated, overwhelmed by life
If you frequently have days when your agitation is so great that you’re distracted by your own restlessness and you can’t sleep at night, you are a typical Type II. You are at risk for anxiety and panic attacks, heart palpitations, hyperthyroidism, premenstrual syndrome, and migraines. You should begin to eat a diet that works against inflammation: high in omega 3-fatty acids, antioxidants, and whole foods, yet low in sugar, caffeine, white flour, and processed foods. (For an anti-inflammatory diet, visit and type “The Acid-Alkaline Diet” into the search box.) Take 1 gram of omega-3 supplements during the day, and supplement with 1 mg of melatonin, 100 mg of L-theanine, and a cup of chamomile tea with honey at night to support sleep.

Type III: Emotionally sensitive
Have you lost your sense of humor? Are you weepy or melancholy, despite efforts to be your old self? Do you wonder how you became so emotionally vulnerable and sensitive to criticism? If this describes you, you are most likely a Type III, for whom every little stressor hits the digestive system. As a result, you are often bloated, gassy, and crampy. Eat small amounts of low-fat animal protein and seafood, along with lots of greens and fruits to soothe your digestive system. Increase your turkey consumption: Tryptophan is calming. Walk 20 minutes a day to help your nervous system.

Type IV: Driven, controlling
You are a first-rate goal achiever, and that’s admirable. But the flip side is that overattention to detail and micromanagement have become the only ways you can handle situations that feel out of control. You may have symptoms that reflect this tension, such as constipation, neck and back pain, and stomach problems. Follow a Mediterranean–style diet—fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy fats help ease tension—and start a probiotic supplement regimen of 6 million to 10 million colony-forming units daily, taken on an empty stomach. Burn off steam through exercise—a half-hour a day is optimal—and make time regularly for family and friends.

TYPE V: Explosive, can’t slow down
Do you use every means possible to keep things going at an ultrafast pace, living on caffeine and sugar-laden foods? Do you have little tolerance for mistakes? Do you sometimes overreact or explode when mistakes are made (yours or someone else’s)? If so, you are a Type V, at risk for heartburn, indigestion, and heart disease. To counter these conditions, wean yourself off of caffeine and sugar. To avoid withdrawal symptoms, if you now drink five cups of caffeine a day, drink only four for the first three days, then three for the next three days, and so on. To stabilize moodiness and support relaxation, take 200 mg of magnesium glycinate twice a day. For Type Vs, what’s more important than the amount of time you spend exercising is that you do something every day.

Adapted from The SuperStress Solution (Random House, 2010) by Roberta Lee, MD

Top Relaxation Techniques
• Eastern forms of exercise such as yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong • Transcendental meditation: repeating a single sound or mantra for 20 minutes, twice a day • The Sedona Method: a series of questions you ask yourself that aim for release and awareness • Relaxation audio: listening to soothing music or hypnosis on CDs or MP3s • Getting outside: taking a walk on the grass at least once a day • Pausing to check in to become present in the moment. Every hour, “reset” your clock by trying to forget what you just did or what’s next, if only for a moment.