Can Stress Make You Physically Sick?

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
August 24, 2022

Everyone experiences stress now and then. Short-term stress that goes away or resolves quickly can be helpful. For example, it may motivate us to meet a work deadline or help us avoid potential harm or danger. But chronic stress can impair our immune system, which can lead to physical illness and disease in some people.

In this article, I’ll discuss how stress can make you sick and other ways stress impacts the body.

Then I’ll detail the various illnesses stress can cause. I’ll wrap up with tips for managing stress and when to see a medical provider.

Can Stress Make You Sick?

Long-term stress can lead to physical illness or disease. Several studies show that chronic stress can impact the immune system and prevent the body from initiating a prompt, efficient immune reaction. This can lead to infection and illness.

Chronic stress can also aggravate and exacerbate pre-existing conditions, including acne, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. 

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How Stress Impacts the Body

Stress is a survival response that triggers what is known as “fight-or-flight” mode. When in fight-or-flight mode, many resources get redirected toward survival. 

Bodily responses that occur during moments of acute stress include:

  • Increased cortisol production
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood flow to the muscles
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Elevated blood pressure 

These responses can help us quickly react to dangerous and sometimes life-threatening situations. But when produced regularly as a result of chronic stress, they can damage our body and health.

Stress and Illness

Though everyone’s response to stress is different, research shows that chronic stress can lead to infection and physical illness in some people. 

Viral Illnesses

Chronic stress can hyave an immunosuppressive effect. Several studies show that a compromised immune system caused by stress can increase the risk of the common cold and other viral illnesses.

Stomach problems and nausea

Chronic stress can impair gastrointestinal system function

Research shows that stress can damage the stomach’s absorption process, acid secretion, intestinal permeability, and inflammation. 

Common symptoms of stress that affect the stomach include:

Certain GI diseases such as  irritable bowel syndrome are highly associated with stress.  

Depression

Many factors can cause depression, including life events and stress. Specifically, chronic stress is associated with a greater risk of depression

Headaches and migraine headaches

Headaches are a common sign of chronic stress.

Migraine is a headache disorder that can cause recurring attacks of painful and debilitating headaches. Though the exact cause of migraine headaches is unknown, many experts believe that stress may be a possible cause and/or risk factor.  

Allergies and asthma

Stress is believed to exacerbate allergies and asthma in some people predisposed to these conditions. In one mini-review, researchers found that stress alters the airway inflammatory response that can increase the frequency, duration, and severity of symptoms in people with asthma

Obesity

Chronic stress leads to extended cortisol production. Also known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol helps trigger the survival response that enables us to react to dangerous situations.

But extended, increased cortisol production can cause appetite changes, poor sleep, and increased levels of blood sugar and insulin. For these reasons, chronic stress has been associated with weight gain, particularly visceral fat gain around the stomach. 

However, some research suggests that this association may be present only in people who have increased glucocorticoid exposure or sensitivity

Heart disease

Different forms of stress, including financial, emotional, and work-related stress, can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and heart attack.

Aches

Increased muscle tension is an important part of the survival response, enabling us to run from and/or fight a potential threat. But chronic muscle tension can cause aches and pain in different parts of the body.

Tips for Managing Stress

Managing stress can help keep the central nervous system calm and reduce feelings of anxiety and panic. Finding the right stress management techniques for you might take some trial and error, but there are several things you can try:

Build your support network

A network of trusted friends, family, and providers gives you people you can talk to when you need support.

Eat well and exercise

Healthy eating and regular physical activity can reduce stress. 

Exercise in particular can help your body release certain feel-good hormones, like dopamine and serotonin, which can combat the effects of stress on the body. Even gentle activity like walking can be helpful

Try breathing techniques

During a stress response, breathing becomes fast and shallow. Learning how to breathe deeper and slower can help counteract this effect and produce a relaxation response. 

Specifically, research demonstrates that breathing and muscle relaxing exercises can help reduce stress, cortisol, and heart rate and may even help control how our nervous system responds to stressors over time.

Get enough sleep

Regular quality sleep can help keep your stress levels low. To help get more sleep, stick to a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends. Avoiding bright lights, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime may also help.

Enjoy the outdoors

Studies show that spending time in nature can reduce the symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression

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When to See a Medical Provider

Experiencing chronic stress can damage your health and quality of life. 

If you’re experiencing chronic stress, contact your medical provider.  

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes.

K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does stress make you physically sick?
There are several ways stress can make you physically sick. Chronic stress can compromise your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and infection. Chronic stress can also cause digestive issues, including an upset stomach and nausea, and increase your risk of depression.
What are the symptoms of excessive stress?
People process stress differently, and there are many ways that stress can manifest physically. Some symptoms of excessive or chronic stress include headaches, upset stomach, insomnia or sleep troubles, and aches and pains.
Can stress give you flu-like symptoms?
Stress is unlikely to give you certain flu-like symptoms, like a cough, sore throat, or runny nose. But chronic stress can result in other flu-like symptoms, including headache, body pains, and fatigue. Plus, chronic stress can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to the flu and other infectious illnesses.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.

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