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Health Information Stress and Health

Do you know what stress is doing to you?

There’s no getting around it: Dealing with some stress is a normal part of life. But constant stress can affect your health in ways you might not realize.

TMJ. Stress has been linked to problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), where the lower jaw meets the skull, says Christine Schauerte, MSPT, DPT, a physical therapist at Rush University Medical Center.

TMJ problems can include pain around the jaw, earaches, headaches, uneven wear of the teeth, clicking or popping with opening of the mouth, locking of the joints, or pain when chewing.

“Stress can lead to increased muscle tension, and certain people will manifest that stress by grinding or clenching their teeth, especially while asleep,” Schauerte says.

Belly fat. Stress can go to your waistline, says Annabelle Volgman, MD, director of the Rush Heart Center for Women.

“Cortisol (released by your body during stress) tends to make both women and men, but especially menopausal women, deposit fat more in the belly area,” she says. Excess fat stored around the middle is linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Depression. Stress can exacerbate existing depression and actually cause depression in some people, notes psychiatrist John Zajecka, MD, clinical director of the Depression Treatment Research Center at Rush.

Studies show that elevated cortisol levels can lead to physiological changes in the brain, including the degeneration of cells that help regulate memory and mood, Zajecka says.

Major life changes, grief and isolation can increase your risk for depression but so can being constantly bombarded by everyday stresses at work or at home. Add a family history of depression to the mix, and your risk is even higher.

Your skin. Although problems such as eczema and psoriasis have genetic causes, stress appears to worsen them, according to Michael Tharp, MD, chair of the Department of Dermatology at Rush. Similarly, stress may also aggravate hives.

One explanation involves the nerve network that extends from the skin to the brain, where we perceive sensations such as hot or cold. Under stress, this “electrical hookup” could work in reverse, so that the brain signals the release of chemicals in the skin, triggering an inflammatory response.

Stress awareness. Stress has been implicated in a number of health problems, including asthma attacks, poor diabetes control and increased cancer risk. And according to Lynne Braun, PhD, ANP, nurse practitioner in cardiology at Rush, many doctors believe there’s a correlation between stress and heart disease, though more research is needed to prove this link. Some studies suggest that stress also raises heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure or cholesterol.

Because stress can take such a toll on your health, it’s important to watch for early signs of stress overload, which include headaches, fatigue, troubled sleep, increased irritability or anxiety, or getting sick more often than usual, says Zajecka. “People have to listen to their bodies.”

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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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