Written By: John Fernandez
Published: December 21, 2015
Disponible en Español
Stress is often ignored as a risk factor, and that’s especially problematic for those already dealing with obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes or other underlying health conditions.
The holidays should be a time to relax and enjoy the company of friends and relatives. But for many, this time of year marks an even more stressful time, with the added pressures of personal deadlines on top of the demands to finish projects at the office.
Stress is a common risk factor treated by family practitioners, such as Melissa Franco, D.O., a Baptist Health Medical Group physician with Baptist Health Primary Care in Palmetto Bay.
“We see many people whose complaints about physical problems stem from too much stress in their lives,” says Dr. Franco. “When a cascade of stressful things adds up to high blood pressure, for example, we ask the patient to step back and assess when these symptoms started and how stress can be alleviated, even if that means something as significant as changing jobs.”
The key to reducing stress is to have patients “take time for themselves, even if it’s 30 to 60 minutes a day for a brisk walk or other exercise to clear the mind and release stress levels,” Dr. Franco says.
A regular exercise program, improved nutrition or counseling, such as stress-reduction classes, are some of the steps people can take to help reduce stress levels, both at work and at home.
It’s even more important for individuals with existing health conditions to control their stress. Here are the top conditions made worse by stress:
- Heart disease. Researchers have long been studying the connection between stress and a higher risk of high blood pressure, or hypertension, and heart problems. The reasons why there is a connection are not entirely clear. But it is well established that stress can directly increase heart rate and blood flow, and that can fuel the release of cholesterol and triglycerides into the blood stream. Of course, stress is just one factor for many at risk for heart disease. Other possible factors are obesity, a result of poor dieting or lack of exercise, and smoking. But doctors also understand that sudden emotional stress can act as a potential trigger for serious cardiovascular issues, including heart attacks. People who are already at risk for heart disease should avoid stressful situations at home or at work. It’s important for these at-risk individuals, and everyone else, to successfully manage life’s day-to-day stress as much as possible, says Dr. Franco.
- Gastrointestinal problems. One debunked myth about stress and your health is that stress causes ulcers. It doesn’t. However, stress can worsen existing gastrointestinal conditions, such as chronic heartburn (or gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Stress is also a frequent factor in many other GI conditions. There are dozens of over-the-counter medications to treat acid reflux, or GERD, and ulcers — but no clear treatment for non-ulcer dyspepsia, one of the most common and recurring upper-gut disorders that has no clear physical cause, and for which there is no diagnostic test (it is a clinical diagnosis). “Non-ulcer stomach pain or dyspepsia can definitely be exacerbated by stress,” says Dr. Michael Sternthal, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the Baptist Endoscopy Center at Coral Springs.
- Asthma. Stress is a common trigger for asthma symptoms, including shortness of breath, anxiety or outright panic. Several studies have shown that stress can worsen asthma. Some findings have suggested that chronic stress among parents could elevate the risk of their children developing asthma. With persistent asthma, you have symptoms more than once a week, but not constantly. But if stress becomes a daily occurrence, asthma symptoms can grow out of control. If long-term asthma medication doesn’t work well, and wheezing and other symptoms occur too often, a harmful circle can begin to take place in which anxiety or stress worsens asthma — and the asthma worsens the anxiety or stress.
- Obesity. Many studies have found that excess fat in the belly poses greater health risks than fat distributed more widely over the body, especially the legs or hips. Making things worse, people with high stress levels seem to have a high probability of excess belly fat. But stress can trigger over-eating in anyone who is overweight or obes, making the consequences of a poor diet even worse. Obesity or being overweight is already a risk factor for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Avoiding stress is especially important for people committed to starting an exercise program and improved dietary habits. Stress and anxiety are common factors that derail the goals of individuals trying to lose weight.
- Depression and anxiety. A stressful event or ongoing pressures of everyday living can cause depression or anxiety disorders in some people, requiring treatment. Chronic stress is connected with higher rates of depression and anxiety. A recent review of multiple studies found that people who had stress related to their jobs had an 80 percent higher risk of developing depression within a few years, compared to people with lower stress. “Sometimes, a stressful event or ongoing pressure at work or in one’s personal life can develop into chronic depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Franco. “Before the condition gets serious, it’s important for that person to seek medical help to assess what’s going on and what can be done, such as counseling, medication or other treatments.”