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When you’re stressed, your body reacts to whatever threat you’re perceiving regardless of what it is.
That means your body responds the same way whether you’re facing a charging dog or a spilled cup of coffee on your clothes as you’re leaving the house.
One is potentially dangerous; the other is not. But your body doesn’t know the difference.
But whatever the threat, your body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to prepare it for fight or flight.
For some people, however, the line gets blurred. The body begins operating in a constant state of stress where fight-or-flight hormones are always firing.
That in turn can lead to health problems like anxiety and depression, digestive dysfunction, headaches, muscle tension and pain, cardiovascular and sleep problems, weight gain and issues with memory and focus.
Sobering news for those of us who deal with chronic stress. But when researchers at Ohio State University decided to examine stress’s role in a cluster of conditions that can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, they did find a silver lining…
How stress inflames metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is influenced by lifestyle and genetics, among other factors. This syndrome includes conditions like excess belly fat, high blood pressure, low HDL (or good) cholesterol and high levels of fasting blood glucose and triglycerides.
People are diagnosed with metabolic syndrome when they have at least three of these five conditions. But another contributing “symptom” may soon be added to the list…
Previous research has shown that inflammation is the common pathway of many diseases and disorders. But few studies have specifically examined the involvement of inflammation in stress’s connection to metabolic syndrome.
Ohio State researchers set out to do that using data from a sample of 648 individuals with an average age of 52 who participated in a national survey.
“We were specifically examining people in midlife — a time that is critical to determine those who will experience accelerated aging,” says senior author Jasmeet Hayes, a psychology professor at Ohio State. “Stress is an important contributor to several negative health outcomes as we age.”
The respondents’ perceived stress levels were analyzed alongside their blood biomarkers for inflammation and physical exam results indicating metabolic syndrome risk factors.
“There’s not much research that has looked at all three variables at one time,” says first author Savana Jurgens.
The researchers calculated inflammation composite scores using blood biomarkers including C-reactive protein and found not only does stress have a relationship with metabolic syndrome — but inflammation explained 61.5 percent of that connection.
“There is a small effect of perceived stress on metabolic syndrome, but inflammation explained a large proportion of that,” Jurgens says.
These findings added to mounting evidence that stress and its connection to inflammation can have a huge impact on health.
“People think of stress as mental health, that it’s all psychological. It is not,” Hayes says. “There are real physical effects to having chronic stress.”
Managing stress to lower risks
So what is the silver lining?
If stress can raise your risk of metabolic syndrome, lowering stress levels can reduce that risk.
“Everybody experiences stress,” Hayes says. “And stress management is one modifiable factor that’s cost-effective as well as something people can do in their daily lives without having to get medical professionals involved.”
There are many ways to decrease feelings of stress, but there’s one that also helps re-balance the chronic stress flight-or-fight response and decrease the risk of heart events that come with metabolic syndrome. It helps by improving “heart rate variability.”
Your body’s heart rate changes as a normal response to being in “fight-or-flight” or “rest and repair” mode. If you have a high heart rate variability, it shows that your heart can adapt to these changes. If your heart rate can’t adapt to changes between “fight-or-flight” and “rest and repair,” it could trigger inflammation.
The secret? Calming music can increase heart rate variability, lower the potential for inflammation and a heart event, decrease anxiety and increase positive feelings.
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Inflammatory biomarkers link perceived stress with metabolic dysregulation — Brain, Behavior & Immunity – Health
Chronic stress puts your health at risk — Mayo Clinic