The effects of stress on your health

by Jennifer Bowden / 10 January, 2013
Why does stress have such a far-reaching effect on our health?
The effects of stress on your health

Keith Miller, a test cricketer during the 1940s and 1950s, was widely regarded as Australia’s greatest all-rounder. One might logically assume he felt huge pressure to live up to his cricketing title. Yet in later years, when asked by TV chatshow host Michael Parkinson about pressure in cricket, Miller, who was a Royal Australian Air Force pilot during World War II, famously responded: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.”

Facing an enemy aircraft during wartime is an extreme example of stress. Nonetheless, the stresses we face at work and home are still significant, particularly when they’re ongoing. Stress causes headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, altered sex drive, stomach upsets and sleep problems. It can also cause anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anger, sadness, depression and a lack of motivation or focus. Stress may also lead to negative behaviour such as under- or overeating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol abuse, tobacco use or social withdrawal.

So, why does stress have such a far-reaching effect on our health? Normally, when we encounter a perceived threat – such as a large barking dog – the brain’s hypothalamus region sets off an alarm, which alerts our adrenal glands to release a burst of hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. Adrenalin increases our heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies. Cortisol increases sugar levels in the bloodstream, enhances glucose use by the brain, readies the body to repair damaged tissue, alters our immune system and curbs seemingly non-essential body functions such as digestion, reproduction and growth processes.

All this is great for escaping marauding dogs or enemy aircraft, but not so good if you’re chronically stressed as a result of a heavy workload or ongoing financial or family problems. Left unresolved, chronic stress can contribute to digestive and sleep problems, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Unsurprisingly, there’s growing interest in the effects of stress on health. Experimental studies have shown acute stress also affects dietary behaviour: when people have busy, stressful lifestyles, it seems they’re less aware of their eating behaviours and so are more likely to choose unhealthy foods.

A 2012 workplace-based study, published in Preventing Chronic Disease, found higher levels
of perceived stress were associated with lower levels of eating awareness and physical activity such as walking. What’s more, participants with lower levels of eating awareness, who perceived themselves under greater levels of stress, reported eating fewer servings of fruits and vegetables and more fast-food meals.

The negative effects of stress filter through to families, too. A 2012 study in Social Science and Medicine found parents who reported higher work-life stress had “less healthful family food environment characteristics”; that is, their families were more likely to consume fast-food meals and sugar-sweetened beverages and less likely to share family meals.

Researchers are investigating whether stress plays a role in mediating the significant relationship between poverty and obesity. A 2012 study, in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found people with higher-status positions tended to have lower stress levels, healthier eating patterns and lower body-weight levels; higher stress levels were associated with less-healthy dietary behaviour and higher body weights, especially among women.

More research is needed, particularly to determine the effect of stress-management techniques on healthy eating and obesity prevention efforts. However, there are clear health benefits to be gained from managing stress, and now is a good time to start.


  • Make a conscious decision to manage your stress.

  • Identify your stress triggers: work, finance, family.

  • Develop strategies to deal with each stressor. Brainstorm ideas with family or close friends.

  • Use relaxation techniques regularly to manage stress. If you’re a high achiever, you’ve probably placed little priority on relaxation, but relaxation is invaluable for maintaining good health. Choose what works for you: meditation, mindfulness, tai chi, yoga, walking outdoors or a relaxing sporting activity.

  • Prioritise healthy eating, regular exercise and getting plenty of sleep.

  • Maintain healthy friendships.

  • Seek professional counselling when needed.

Email:, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.
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