Does Stress Really Affect Every Cell in the Body?

Many doctors will tell their patients “Stress affects everything”; I’ve gone as far as telling patients “stress can affect every cell in the body”. I’m sure some patients and doctors may feel like this may be a gross overestimation. This article will shed some light on the true influence of stress and determine if stress actually affects everything.

The Claim: Stress Affects Every Cell In the Body

As you will see, stress absolutely affects every cell in the body.

What is Stress?

Stress is basically any internal or external stimulus that evokes some biological response, known as a stress response [1]. We know stress has both a physical (objective) and a psychological (Subjective) component [2].

Stress can actually be a good thing, in certain conditions. For example, exercise is a stress, but if our body has the ability to cope and adapt, the stress response results in something positive [3]. On the other hand, when the stress is too much, or our system is simply unable to adapt the stress can become a problem [3].

The Stress on Brain Function

The effects of stress on the nervous system has been investigated for more than 50 years [1]. Chronic stress has been shown in to reduce brain mass and decrease cognition [1], memory [1], learning [1]. It also has ties to depressive disorders, emotional disorders and behavioural dysfunction [2].

Stress and Immune System Function

This has been known for decades [1], and we know those under chronic stress have from impaired immune system and suffer from more frequent illness [2]. It also impacts the inflammatory system in such as a way that chronic inflammation is also associated with chronic stress.  There is even emerging research highlighting how chronic stress may lead to certain types of malignancies and cancers [1].

Stress and Cardiovascular Function

The is a very well-known association. Both acute and chronic stress can affect the nervous system (which indirectly affects the cardiovascular system) or affect the heart and blood vessels directly. Stress activates the Sympathetic Nervous System, which consequently increases heart rate [1] and strength of heart beats [1], expansion of the arteries [1] and narrowing of the veins [1] and decreasing sodium excretion by the kidneys [1].

Stress and Gut Function

Stress can affect many aspects of gut function. It is known to affect multiple facets of the Gut.

Firstly, stress can affect Appetite (including hunger and cravings).

It can also affect the secretion of mucus and stomach acid production, which would therefore affect the absorption process. Independent to these changes it can cause increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut). All of these factors can influence gut inflammation [1]. It’s also known to have negative effects on blood flow to the gut. Blood flow is important in gut repair, as well as getting the nutrition out of our food.

Stress is also known to cause structural changes, such as ulcers, fissures and strictures and even gut motility issues [1]. These changes are usually a result of the changes listed above.

Stress and Endocrine (Hormone) Function

There is a very broad effect of stress on the endocrine system. The Stress response, is, after all, carried out by a few hormones, such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. The hormone glands throughout the body are either activated, changed or inhibited by the presence of these stress hormones. The stress hormones affect a wide range of hormone producing tissues such as: hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal gland, adrenergic system, gonads, thyroid and pancreas [1].

Is Every Cell Affected by Stress?

Most organs and tissues have receptors which directly respond to stress; including the brain, heart, kidneys, spleen, immune cells and sympathetic nerves [2]. Other processes in the body may be indirectly affected by stress, or the tissues stress hormones affect [2]. So in short, yes, Stress Affects Everything!

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