Health Effects of Stress

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If left untreated, stress can affect well-being and cause severe health problems. Stress can contribute to heart disease and may cause heart attack, sudden cardiac death, and stroke.

In addition to smoking, obesity/overweight, and a lack of exercise and activity, stress is a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases. Stress increases blood pressure, constricts blood vessels, raises cholesterol levels, triggers abnormal heart rates (arrhythmias), and increases the rate at which blood clots.

Stress often causes gastrointestinal problems. It can affect the stomach, causing stomach ulcers, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, gas, and bloating. Stress also increases the risk for developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colitis.

There is growing evidence that stress affects the immune system. Severe stress may reduce the ability of the immune system to resist bacteria and viruses (including the common cold).

Research also has shown that stress may play a role in a variety of immune system disorders, including HIV/AIDS, herpesvirus, viral infections, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain allergies.

Stress also can affect mental health. When a person feels as though stress is overwhelming and unrelenting on a daily basis, it can lead to a variety of mental health conditions (e.g., clinical depression).

Publication Review By: Karen Larson, M.D.

Published: 07 Jan 2007

Last Modified: 06 Oct 2015