How does chronic stress affect the body?That stress, chronic or acute, can lead to a heart attack or another medical crisis has been known for a long time. In chronic stress, stress hormones are present in the body over much greater periods, causing the body’s fight- or-flight mechanisms to be activated much of the time. Chronic stress has these effects on the body:
• Blood pressure remains higher and, over a long period, can cause damage to the lining of arterial walls, resulting in lesions to which plaque can adhere.
• Since the blood clots more easily, it is easier for clots to form inside the arteries.
•Muscles contract, and potassium and magnesium nutrients needed for proper artery function are used up, while sodium and calcium accumulate. This imbalance can result in abnormal artery constriction, including constriction of the coronary arteries, which can cause spasm and perhaps a heart attack.
• Cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands in reaction to stress, causes fat breakdown and circulation of LDL in the bloodstream. In an ongoing stress response, the blood consistently has high hormone and fat levels, potentially contributing to the formation of atherosclerotic plaque.
Stress can have other indirect, insidious effects. It can contribute to increased risk of overeating, heavy smoking, excessive drinking, or apathetic behavior that prevents us from pursuing exercise, a healthy diet, and social interaction.