Mental stress linked to physical ills

Most would agree that mental stress contributes to physical illness. For example, if a person is under mental stress for any reason, it may interfere with their sleep, so they become chronically fatigued. It is a well known medical fact, as reported by the National Sleep Foundation, that adults need at least seven hours of sleep nightly to maintain proper health. If a person gets less than seven hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, this will definitely impact their health by not allowing their immune system to function properly to fight off illness. Not getting at least seven hours of sleep nightly will also impact their attitude, and this may also negatively impact their interactions with family, friends and co-workers.

Numerous medical studies have shown the impact of mental stress on heart disease. For example, it is well known that mental stress clearly will increase the risk of heart disease in men. Further, new research also shows that women who report high levels of mental stress are twice as likely to die from stroke or heart disease than those with low stress levels.

Look at these findings from a recent large study done in Japan, as reported in the Aug. 13, 2012, issue of Circulation – the Official Journal of the American Heart Association. Over an eight year period, Dr. Hiroyaso Iso gathered information and monitored the health status of more than 73,000 Japanese men and women aged 40-79. Each of the study participants completed a lifestyle survey that included questions about perceived stress levels.

In this large study, nearly 9,000 women and 7,000 men reported high mental stress. Researchers found that women in the high-stress group were more than twice as likely as those with low stress to suffer a stroke or develop heart disease. This held true even after taking into account other non-stress related factors that may have contributed to their increased risk for heart disease or stroke.

In addition, the women who reported high stress levels were more likely than their relaxed counterparts to report a history of high blood pressure or diabetes. The stressed-out women tended to be younger and less physically active. This current research also found that these high-stress women were also more likely to become angry, felt like they were always in a hurry, and less fulfilled with their current lifestyle. The men in this study who reported medium or high levels of mental stress were nearly twice as likely to suffer a heart attack.

There have been numerous studies regarding the role of mental stress and the risk for developing cancer. We know that emotional stress can cause a number of physical problems, including high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease. However, according to the United States National Cancer Institute, there is no strong evidence to suggest that mental stress can cause cancer.

However, it needs to be understood that mental stress can result in personal behaviors that will certainly increase cancer risk. For example, people under stress may develop certain personal cancer-causing behaviors, such as smoking, poor dietary choices and overeating leading to obesity, and alcohol abuse, all of which will definitely increase a person’s risk for cancer.

There are many healthy options to help people deal with stress in their lives. If this is a concern, be sure to check with your health care provider for assistance with mental stress management.

Editor’s note: Dr. Jim Surrell, author of “SOS (Stop Only Sugar) Diet,” has his practice at the Digestive Health Clinic at Marquette General Health System. Requests for health topics for this column are encouraged. Contact Dr. Surrell by email at