Can stress cause a serious illness?

Posted on 29 September 2017

According to a psychiatrist at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg, stress is not a medical condition. Multiple studies show that stress causes a biological response in the body, allowing us to face or escape the situation – but it is meant to be a short-term survival instinct, not an everyday occurrence. So what happens when it builds and builds?

‘Stress can be good for you,’ says psychiatrist at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg, Dr Fayeda Mahomed. ‘When we talk about the flight-or-fight reflex, that’s a necessary instinct in everyday situations. But when high levels of stress are a consistent occurrence in your body, your health is at risk.’

The fight-or-flight response is a result of the hypothalamus in the brain activating the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system, releasing adrenaline and cortisol throughout your body. Your heart rate quickens, your muscles tense up and you become very alert. However, if you are continually exposed to stress, in the form of a difficult relationship, financial troubles or a challenging work or political environment, your body is constantly running at full throttle.

‘Patients exposed to prolonged stress usually present with a range of physical and psychological conditions, from chronic insomnia or fatigue to panic attacks and unexplained physical pain, including back spasms, chest pains or migraines,’ she says.

‘People say, “It’s just stress. I’ll get over it.” Or maybe they’ll self-medicate and hope it goes away. But all these symptoms are warning signs.’

Overlooking the signs of stress can be harmful to your health, as your body will continue to work overtime, disrupting your ability to sleep and or manage your life effectively. If stress is acute, it can lead to disorders such as acute stress disorder and insomnia.

‘People who are most at risk for stress-related problems include nurses, police officers, paramedics … or anyone who deals with trauma on a daily basis,’ says Dr Mahomed. ‘Speaking to someone who is able to help them unpack their experiences and who understands the realities of their stress will do these people the world of good,’ she says.

Several studies have also linked stress with a higher risk for conditions such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes, or more severe deterioration of these conditions.

A recent study has proved that children from stressed households stand a much greater chance of developing asthma later in life: the 2009 study by the University of Southern California found a jaw-dropping 50% rise in the risk of developing asthma.

Furthermore, in a 2010 study by the Endocrine Society, it was shown that high cortisol levels increase your chances of heart disease by up to five times “The results of our study clearly show that cortisol levels in a general older population predict cardiovascular death, but not other causes of mortality,” said lead scientist Nicole Vogelzangs.

‘Stress comes from many directions, and we all respond to daily stressors differently,’ says Dr Mahomed. ‘Generally, cortisol and adrenaline will build up in the body, and in the long term, they can lead to chronic illness, including depression.’

Most of the conclusive evidence linking stress and depression points to people who are already predisposed to depression. Many stressful situations, like death and divorce, are also extremely sad ones. The brain responds to these situations with decreased dopamine and serotonin – classic indicators of depression. People who are predisposed to depression, however, have difficulty regulating, or ‘switching off’, these receptors, which can trigger depression.

Click here for advice on how you can work with an expert to develop better stress-management mechanisms.

Adrenal Fatigue: Miasma or Myth?

Depending on which expert you speak to, adrenal fatigue is either a psychosomatic tiredness that can simply be slept off, or a serious medical condition that requires careful and deliberate treatment.

Proponents of the former position maintain that while certain conditions, like Addison’s disease, result in a serious and measurable insufficiency of hormones produced by the adrenal glands, so-called adrenal fatigue simply does not show up on the scientific radar enough to be considered a definite medical condition.

Others point out that chronic stress clearly results in adrenal insufficiency, which, while relatively mild in terms of actual chemical alteration, nevertheless results in symptoms that need to be taken as seriously as any other medical condition. Over time, say people who have had adrenal fatigue, it can be as debilitating as a disease.


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In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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