Chronic stress is a major contributing factor for telogen effluvium, a common form of hair loss resulting from a change in the number of hair-growing follicles. It may play a role in hair loss caused by alopecia areata, a condition in which hair follicles are attacked by the body’s immune system. Research on mice suggests that chronic stress may contribute to graying hair by causing DNA damage and reducing the supply of pigment-producing cells in hair follicles.
One of the effects of the stress hormone adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) is to cause enlarging or dilation of the pupils. Eyestrain and dry eye brought on by chronic stress can cause blurry vision.
It can also trigger eyelid twitching (blepharospasms) and may worsen symptoms of nystagmus, a condition in which the eye makes uncontrollable movements. Chronic stress is a risk factor for central serous choroidopathy, a disease that causes fluid to build up under the retina.
Chronic stress can result in structural, functional, and connectivity-related changes in the brain. Studies suggest that these changes can result in loss of brain volume, cognitive impairment, and increased risk for mental problems such as anxiety and mood disorders.
Stress hormones cause muscles to tense up, as a reflex to protect against perceived danger (the “fight or flight” response). Muscle tightness and constricted blood flow can lead to tension-related headaches, backaches, and neck or shoulder pain.
Stress causes muscles that help breathing to tense up, resulting in hyperventilation and shortness of breath. The stress hormone adrenaline expands air passages, allowing more oxygen into the lungs. Stress can worsen the symptoms of lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.
Stress hormones cause heart rate and blood pressure to rise. The hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine are both linked to increases in heart rate. Acute stress can cause a person's blood flow to increase by an estimated 300 to 400 percent. Research suggests that chronic stress may increase cardiovascular disease risk because the amygdala, a region of the brain that plays a key role in the body’s stress response, boosts production of white blood cells that cause arterial plaque formation and inflammation.
Increased levels of stress hormones cause the liver to produce more glucose. Research has shown that the hormones’ continued effects on blood glucose levels can lead to poor diabetes control and may even contribute to the disease’s onset.
High blood pressure and high blood sugar associated with chronic stress can raise the risk for kidney disease. Studies suggest that chronic stress may also promote development of kidney stones.
Chronic stress produces prolonged high levels of cortisol that can affect the body’s ability to regulate inflammation, which plays a role in many diseases. It also reduces white blood cells known as lymphocytes, which help fight infection.
The gastrointestinal tract is filled with nerve endings and immune cells that can be affected by a sustained flood of stress hormones. It can cause acid reflux and worsen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. It can trigger a drop in levels of prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals that coat the stomach’s lining and help protect it from acids.
Chronic stress has been linked to erectile dysfunction and low sex drive, related to psychological factors as well as effects on blood vessels. Studies have shown that high levels of cortisol can block the effects of the male sex hormone testosterone. In women, chronic stress can alter the functioning of the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that controls hormones that regulate menstrual cycles, causing irregular or missed periods (amenorrhea).
Chronic stress can lead to skin breakouts, rashes, and hives. Research suggests that stress-related corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) in the skin’s sebaceous glands drives up the skin’s oil production. Stress hormones increase perspiration. Sweating helps cool the body when stress-related increases in respiration and heart rate raise the body’s temperature (psychogenic fever).
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