Stress can make you sick, and the latest research proves it. From getting colds more often to increasing your chances of suffering a life-threatening condition, stress can stick in nasty ways.

Family Health Diary examines the impact of stress… and how your attitude can affect how well your body deals with it.

Chronic stress makes a cold more unpleasant and harder to kick by letting inflammation linger, a recent study has found.’

“The symptoms of a cold are not caused directly by the virus, they’re caused by the inflammatory response to the infection,” says Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and lead author of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“You want to produce enough inflammation to fight off the infection, but not so much that you experience cold symptoms.”

The problem concerns the stress hormone cortisol, which serves as the off switch for the body’s inflammatory response. It is overproduced with chronic stress, and then the immune system becomes resistant.

“You have people whose immune cells are not responding to cortisol and, at the same time, they’re exposed to a virus system creating an inflammatory response. But the body doesn’t have the mechanism that allows it to turn off the inflammatory response, which manifests as cold symptoms,” explains Cohen.

This finding also makes it likely that inflammatory diseases such as asthma, autoimmune disease and cardiovascular disease, are connected to emotional stress too. Dr. Redford Williams, director of Duke University’s Behavioral Medicine Research Center, said the study adds weight to stress management as a medical treatment.

“There’s evidence that coping skills training can really reduce both the psychological and biological manifestations of stress.”  He says that as we learn more about the biological pathways between stress and disease, doctors will be able to more easily design effective interventions.

“We will enter an era of personalised medicine where we’re able to prevent the disease from ever starting.”

The numbers of people with diabetes worldwide is increasing, so there’s been particular focus on the cause of this epidemic. Researchers have found a link to stress in both men and women. One study published in the journal Diabetic Medicine included about 7000 men with no diabetes, heart disease or stroke history, born in Gothenburg, Sweden. Those men who perceived themselves as being permanently stressed at home or work were, after 35 years, found to be 45% more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, compared with those only reporting periodic stress or no stress. Researchers had already taken into account other known diabetes risk factors, such as high blood pressure, age and exercise level.

“Self-perceived permanent stress is an important long-term predictor of diagnosed diabetes, independent of socio-economic status, BMI and other conventional Type 2 diabetes risk factors,”  the researchers wrote in the study.

A completely separate review conducted by the University College London, which involved 200,000 participants in Europe in 13 studies between 1985 and 2006, also showed a connection between stress and diabetes in women. Unfortunately, the review also found a connection between stress and shorter telomeres. Shorter telomeres could potentially speed up aging and may even lead to cancer.

The bad news doesn’t stop there, results also showed an overall 23 percent increased risk of a heart attack if a person had a demanding, straining job. Sadly, it seems proven that stress is connected to many deadly health issues.

According to study researcher David Almeida, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, a public research university in the United States, there are two types of people – Velcro and Teflon.

“With Velcro people, when a stressor happens, it sticks to them. They get really upset and, by the end of the day, they are still grumpy and fuming. With Teflon people, when stressors happen to them they slide right off. It’s the Velcro people who end up suffering health consequences down the road.”

His study found that people who were more stressed out and anxious about everyday life stresses were more likely to have chronic health conditions (such as heart problems or arthritis) 10 years later. The study included 2,000 Americans, who were surveyed via phone for eight nights in a row to monitor the participants’ behaviour pattern, in particular to find who was constantly reacting to stressors and who was not reacting so strongly. Saliva was also taken to measure cortisol, the stress hormone. Researchers also found that older people — aged 65 and over — handled stress worse than younger people, possibly because the young are more exposed to stressors.

A recurring theme across all research was that if you perceive yourself as being permanently or chronically stressed, you have a higher risk of something going wrong with your body. In addition, if you have a ‘velcro’ attitude, then the stress you do have is compounded as you hang on to it, increasing the potential for health problems even more.

Taking steps to make your environments less stressful, learning coping mechanisms or de-stressing methods, and generally taking a more ‘teflon’ non-stick approach to troubles, could quite literally save your life.