Can Too Much Stress Really Make You Sick? The Answer is Complicated

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    While some stress is good for you, consistent stress can lead to real problems. Fortunately, stress can be managed.

    What is stress?

    Stress is one way your body responds to pressure, affecting your mental health. When you feel challenged or threatened, it can trigger a chemical response in your body. Once you respond to the situation, your body will typically relax. But sometimes stress can become frequent, which can lead to other health problems.

    Symptoms of stress

    Stress can affect us in a variety of ways, and can affect each of us differently, based on a range of other factors. Stress symptoms can affect your emotional well-being as well as the proper functioning of your body. According to the American Psychological Association, consistent stress can increase the risk for:, fatigue, digestive issues, a declining sex drive, headaches, muscle tension, difficulty focusing, and feelings of fear or irritability. Stress also impacts your musculoskeletal system, causing muscles to tense up. Muscles naturally tense up as a way of protecting against pain or injury. But when we’re in a state of long-term stress, our muscles can stay that way, triggering other reactions throughout the body.

    Stress and cortisol

    Our bodies try to combat stress through a series of reactions in our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocrotical axis. Here’s how that works: When you’re stressed, your hypothalamus – a collection of nuclei connecting the brain and the endocrine system – sends a message to the pituitary gland to produce a hormone that then signals to your adrenal glands to increase the production of cortisol. (Our bodies are certainly complex!) During times of stress, cortisol can help provide the energy you need to deal with your challenges. However, if you experience a high long-term stress level, causing your cortisol levels to remain high over a prolonged period of time, you can experience negative health effects. Some of these include: lack of energy, a weakened immune system, a decline in bone health, sleep problems, memory problems, declining immune function, and greater difficulty managing weight. Heightened cortisol levels can also be bad for your mood.

    Physical effects of stress

    Cardiovascular health

    Stress impacts cardiovascular health in a variety of ways and can lead to an array of cardiovascular challenges. The heart and blood vessels are two pieces of your cardiovascular system that work in concert to supply nourishment and oxygen to your body’s organs. During times of acute stress – caused by a short-term challenge, like having to finish a time-sensitive work assignment, or slamming your brakes while driving – these elements coordinate to help your body respond; you’ll feel this as an increase in your heart rate. Problems arise, though, when stress becomes chronic, as chronic stress can contribute to longer-term problems for your cardiovascular system. The ongoing increase in your heart rate, coupled with elevated blood pressure, can harm the body and increase the risk of cardiovascular issues. Stress can also contribute to issues in the circulatory system, including blood vessels.

    Gastrointestinal effects

    The gut, with its hundreds of millions of neurons, is constantly communicating with the brain. Stress impacts gastrointestinal functioning in the short and long term. Experiences of stress can interrupt brain-gut interactions (known as the “brain-gut axis”), leading to a range of problems. Stress has been shown to aggravate the digestive system, and may even be one of its leading causes. Broadly speaking, stress can lead to changes in your gastrointestinal tract, none of which are good for you. These changes don’t only affect your bowels, either. Because stress can lead people to change their eating habits, stress can also increase sensitivity to stomach problems, including bloating and nausea.

    Sleep quality

    Stress impacts your sleep quality in negative ways. Because stress increases your cortisol levels, you can end up in a heightened state for longer than you should be. This can lead to poor sleep quality and general restlessness.

    Skin health

    A recent study of medical students showed that high stress levels can lead to common skin problems. Medical students with higher stress levels reported a higher incidence of a variety of skin problems, including oily, waxy patches on their scalps, dry/sore rashes, itchy skin, hair loss, acne, and warts. The highly stressed students also reported skin problems that were caused by stress-related behaviors, including biting of nails and pulling of hair.

    Consequences of long-term stress

    It’s clear that long-term stress can have a negative impact on your mental and physical health. It may cause: mood changes, sleep problems, cardiovascular issues, digestive function challenges, skin problems, blood pressure challenges, issues with muscle health, and more. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you may want to consider whether stress is a contributing factor. That way you can start to be proactive about combating your stress.

    Healthy ways to combat stress

    We have good news for you: It is possible to manage stress! You’re never going to get rid of stress entirely, and you wouldn’t want to. Some stress is healthy. What you want to look out for is chronic stress.

    The first thing you’ll want to do is figure out which circumstances are causing your high stress level. Is there anything you can do to change those circumstances? If you’re not sure, you may want to consider speaking to a mental health professional. Other ways to manage stress include: maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, carving out time for self-care, staying connected to friends, cutting down on your caffeine and alcohol intake, and getting adequate sleep (7-8 hours).

    You may also want to consider taking supplemental adaptogens, which have been shown in studies to support a healthy response to stress. At Care/of, we offer The Stress Less Pack, which includes ashwagandha, B-complex, fish oil, and probiotic blend.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Our Editorial Staff
    Freelance Contributor
    The Care/of Editorial Team is made up of writers, experts, and health enthusiasts, all dedicated to giving you the information you need today. Our team is here to answer your biggest wellness questions, read the studies for you, and introduce you to your new favorite product, staying up to date on the latest research, trends, and science. Each article is written by one of our experts, reviewed both for editorial standards by an editor and medical standards by one of our naturopathic doctors, and updated regularly as new information becomes available.