Effects of stress on body systems.

effects of stressStress can affect you on many levels. Here are some of the symptoms that are associated with stress:

*Cognitive symptoms: Headaches, insomnia, difficulty remembering things, inability to concentrate;

* Physiological symptoms: Ulcers, increased heart rate, hypertension, sexual problems, gastrointestinal problems, frequent illnesses increased respiratory rate, disruption in glucose production and breakdown;

*Behavioral symptoms: Crying, disrupted eating habits, grinding of teeth, hostility, increased use of substances, difficulty communicating with others, social isolation;

*Emotional symptoms: Crying, fatigue, anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, impulsiveness. Irritability.

This article describes how stress affects the systems in the body and the health risks associated with stress, which are summarized in table 1. Each system (cardiovascular, nervous, digestive, and immune) has a specific function, and stress can affect all of them because they are all connected. For example, if stress caused a heart attack, all four systems would suffer. The cardiovascular system would be affected because the heart couldn’t pump blood. The nervous system would be affected because the heart attack would cause low blood flow to the brain. The digestive system would be affected because the lack of oxygen to the brain would impair its ability to tell the body how to properly break down food. And the immune system would be affected because with the heart unable to pump blood, the body couldn’t react quickly to fight off illness or infection.

Cardiovascular System

The carsiovascular system consists of the heart and blood vessels (arteries, capillaries, and veins). Pulmonary circulation connects the heart and the lungs in a loop, and systemic circulation sends blood from the heart to other parts of the body.

Several studies have examined the association between stress and cardiovascular disease (CVD). For example, one study examined the relationship between burnout and CVD. The study found that burnout puts people at a higher risk of CVD and cardiovascular-related event, even if the stressor disappears. Because the body adapted to function under stressful conditions, it was difficult for it to go back to working at normal levels (Melamed et al. 2006).

            The effects of stress on the cardiovascular system could cause major health problems. When the body is under stress, blood vessels constrict, causing heart rate and blood pressure to increase. People who experience chronic stress are at a higher risk of developing CVD, hypertension, and atherosclerosis, a disease that  blocks blood vessels with fatty deposits.

Table 1. Effects of Stress on Body Systems


Possible effects of stress


CVD, hypertension, atherosclerosis


Reduced ability to perform essential tasks


Inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, irritable bowel movement, gastroesofageal reflux disease, intestinal barrier function


Lowered immune functions, potentially leading to autoimmune disorders, immunodeficiency disorders, allergies, or cancers


Nervous system

The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. It functions both under voluntary control and under the autonomic nervous system. When your brain signals your feet to run up the stairs, you’re experiencing an example of voluntary control. Your heart beating, on the other hand, is an example of the autonomic system at work. The autonomic nervous system has a parasympathetic division and a sympathetic division. The parasympathetic division is at work when people are relaxed and the sympathetic division is at work when they are aroused (APA 2008).

One study examined people who feel they have a purpose in life and the effects of that feeling on the nervous system. Participants (32 men and women) were asked to complete the Manifest Anxiety Scale, the Cornell Medical index, and the Youth and Adulthood Experiences Inventory. Afterwards, they were asked to watch a video of a roller coaster, which would be used to measure the effects of stress on the nervous system, The study concluded that participants who had a positive childhood and who believed they had a purpose in life were less likely to experience stress and had a better coping strategies. Participants who didn’t believe that they had a purpose in life were more likely to experience stress (Ishida and Okada 2006).

Because the nervous system plays a vital role in the body, its inability to function properly could alter a person’s life. The nervous system is the main communication line to every part of the body. The effects of stress on the nervous system can damage the ability of the bodyd to perform essential tasks, such as walking, reaching for a cup, and so on.


Digestive system

The digestive system consists of the alimentary canal (digestive tract), liver, and pancreas. The alimentary canal includes the stomach, intestines, and esophagus. The digestive system absorbs food into body. Food is broken down into nutrients, vitamins, and minerals and is distributed throughout the body. Waste is removed from the body as feces.

Several studies have examined the association between stress and the digestive system. A review of past literature determined that people develop inflammatory bowel disease (an inflammation of the intestines that can lead to ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease) due to the effects of stress on the neurotransmitters, hormones, and immune cells. As a result, the digestive system can’t properly produce acids to break down the food and get rid of waste (Niess et al. 2002).

People who don’t learn how to manage their stress are at risk for developing trouble with the digestive system. Stress, especially chronic stress, could cause the body to create more acid and slow down gastric emptying. Stress has been known to cause ulcers, irritable bowel movements, gastroesophageal reflux disease, intestinal barrier function, and inflammatory bowel disease (AIS 2007a).


Immune system

The immune system consists of tissues, cells, and organs. Its purpose is to protect the body from anything that could cause illnesses. There are two types of immunity: innate (or natural) and acquired (or adaptive). Innate immunity is found naturally in the body; skin and mucous membranes are two examples. Acquired immunity is immunity that is developed throughout life. It can be either active or passive. Hepatitis shots and tuberculosis shots are examples of active immunity. Passive immunity is immunity that is taken from another source, such as when babies receive antibodies from their mother’s breast milk.

In a study that examined the effects of stress on the immune system and aging, researchers examined stress levels during the stages of life. The study found that acute or chronic stress early in life lowered people’s immune functions. In other words, the effects of stress early in life aren’t necessarily observable at the time, but as people grow older, their ability to fight off illnesses and infections decreases (Graham, Christian, and Kiecolt-Glaser 2006).

Having a strong immune system is important for maintaining a healthy life. Although there are several defense mechanisms to protect the body, experiencing stressors throughout life reduces the ability of the immune system to fight off illnesses or infections. If the immune system is unable to fight, stress could put a person at risk for developing autoimmune disorders (when the body mistakenly attacks healthy organs and tissues), immunodeficiency disorders (when the immune system is not working properly), allergies, and cancers.


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