8 Stress-Induced Illnesses to Watch Out For

Dr. Sharon Orrange
Dr. Orrange is an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of Geriatric, Hospitalist and General Internal Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
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The sad news of Debbie Reynolds passing on the heels of her daughter has again raised the question: can grief and stress make you sick? Some stress is good, but after a while feeling like the zebra being chased by the lion is too much for your body.

So—what illnesses really are stress related? Can you make yourself sick with stress? Here you go . . .

  1. Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as Takotsubo Syndrome. A sudden temporary dysfunction of the left ventricle, the large squeezing chamber of the heart, may occur with severe mental stress. Believed to be related to increased catecholamines (epinephrine, norepinephrine) it’s a well described cause of temporary heart failure. Some wonder if this may have contributed to Debbie Reynolds’ death.
  2. Stress induced ischemia to the heart. Decreased blood flow to the heart resulting in a heart attack or ischemia (areas of decreased blood flow) occurs with mental stress. Women with coronary artery disease are more vulnerable to the adverse cardiovascular effects of psychological stress than men. Mental stress causes heart attack in a significant percent of coronary artery disease patients.
  3. Stress induced hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar). Release of epinephrine and cortisol are responsible for a rise in blood sugar with stress. This should not create a problem in non-diabetics, but if you are borderline diabetic or a diabetic on medications, you may notice the rise in blood sugar. Watch for this.
  4. Stress induced anxiety. This is well known to most folks, with the familiar symptoms of palpitations, chest pressure, insomnia, dry mouth—and of course, panic attacks and anxiety. Mindfulness techniques, meditation, exercise, ensuring you get enough sleep, surrounding yourself with people who love you—these are the ways to get through it.
  5. Stress induced depression. With acute stress, the stress hormone cortisol rises, while dopamine and serotonin fall. This leads to depressed mood. Start with the interventions for anxiety mentioned above, and if you aren’t feeling better, see your doctor for a therapist referral or medication options.
  6. Worsening pain with stress (stress induced hyperalgesia). Stress and anxiety change the way we feel pain. Of course the nature, duration and intensity of the stress matters. In particular, stress, fear, and anxiety exert strong, but complex, influences on pain.
  7. Stress induced inflammation. While the short-term effects of this are unknown, inflammatory markers in the blood: interleukin-6, C-reactive protein, and fibrinogen rise with stress.
  8. Stress induced gastrointestinal disorders (including nausea). A stress response causes many GI issues; nausea is one example. Stress causes release of oxytocin and vasopressin from the hypothalamus which affect gastrointestinal motility. Basically, exposure to stress delays your stomach emptying, which may cause nausea.

Dr O.

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