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Sick man covering his mouth while being stressed

Can stress make you sick?

Medically reviewed on November 22, 2022 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Table of contents


You probably know that stress can make you feel run down in a million little ways, from keeping you up at night to making you distracted, irritable, and anxious during the day.

But can stress make you sick?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Stress can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to illnesses and various health conditions [1]. While we can’t avoid or fix everything that stresses us out, there are ways we can minimize the damaging effects of stress.

The first step is understanding just how stress impacts our whole-body wellness. Here, we’ll explore the connection between stress and illness, how stress affects the immune system, and what you can do to take your health back.

How are stress and illness related?

Stress and illness are more directly connected than you may realize. Studies have found that stress—especially chronic stress or long-term stress—causes inflammation and weakens the immune system [2] (Related: Blood test for inflammation).

When we're stressed, our body releases a cascade of stress hormones, including [3]:

  • Adrenaline
  • Norepinephrine
  • Cortisol

Together, this hormonal trio can pack a nasty punch, especially when you’re stressed out over long periods. Long-term exposure to high levels of adrenaline and norepinephrine has even been shown to cause damage to DNA [3].

As for cortisol, this is one of the key hormones involved in our bodies’ “fight or flight” response, which helps us deal with dangerous or urgent situations. But when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, this can have negative effects on our health.

In fact, one study found that people who had high stress levels were more likely to develop inflammation and upper respiratory infections, like the common cold, than those who were not stressed [1]. So, if you're feeling under the weather after prolonged stress, it may not be a coincidence—stress could be making you sick.

What are some disorders that can be caused by stress?

Chronic stress puts our bodies into a constant state of fight-or-flight. While we’re biologically wired to tolerate this for short periods (from minutes to hours), low-level stress that persists for weeks or months can lead to health problems like heart disease [4].

Some of the most common ones include:

  • Digestive problems – How does stress affect the digestive system? Stress can disrupt the balance of microbes in your gut, leading to gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcers, and indigestion [5].
  • Sleep disorders – Stress can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, leading to irritability, fatigue, and insomnia [6].
  • Anxiety and depression – Stress can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression or even trigger their onset [7].
  • Skin problems – Conditions like acne, psoriasis, eczema, and hives can all be exacerbated by stress [8,9]. Premature aging of the skin has also been found to be accelerated by stress [10].
  • Weight gain – Stress can not only lead to overeating, binge eating, and decreased motivation for exercise, but increased cortisol levels also contribute directly to weight gain [11].

What are some symptoms of stress?

You may be surprised to discover how broad the range of physical and psychological symptoms caused by long-term stress really is. For most people, it’s a mix of both physical and psychological effects.

Physical symptoms can include [12]:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Stomach problems
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Psychogenic fever
  • High blood pressure

Psychological symptoms may include [13]:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Irritability or anger

How can you manage stress?

You may not be able to avoid every stressful situation, but you can control how you handle physical and psychological stress. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and deep breathing exercises are proven to help relieve feelings of anxiety [15].

Here are a few other important ways to keep your day-to-day stress under control:

  • Get adequate sleepHow does sleep reduce stress? Since stress and sleep are connected, not getting adequate sleep can cause your body to go into survival mode, which causes it to release stress hormones. So, to help prevent it, you can start improving sleep hygiene by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Additionally, avoiding screen exposure, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime can all benefit sleep quality.
  • Eat healthy foods – Eating a balanced diet with plenty of variety supports your immune system and can help lower stress [16]. Be sure to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
  • Take frequent breaks – When you're feeling overwhelmed, take a few minutes to yourself. Step away from your desk for a few minutes each hour. Try to spend a few minutes each day outdoors.

When should you seek professional help for stress?

If you're experiencing chronic stress that’s lowering your quality of life, don’t tough it out alone. A mental healthcare provider can guide you toward tools and resources to help you manage stress. They can also help you identify any causes of your symptoms, whether immediate stressors (like a family illness) or an underlying condition like anxiety or depression.

Take charge of your health with Everlywell

If you think anxious feelings are injuring your overall well-being, take a closer look at your stress hormone levels with the Sleep and Stress Test from Everlywell. This at-home test examines whether your body is producing normal levels of three hormones involved in your body’s stress and sleep response. You’ll collect a sample in the comfort of your home, send it to our CLIA-certified labs, and we’ll send you a secure, easy-to-understand report in just days.

You know your body best. With Everlywell, it’s never been easier to get detailed information about where your health stands to start building wellness from the inside out.

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References

  1. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Doyle WJ, Miller GE, Frank E. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012;109(16):5995-5999. doi:10.1073/pnas.1118355109
  2. McEwen BS. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: Central role of the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 2006;8(4):367-381. doi:10.31887/dcns.2006.8.4/bmcewen
  3. Flint MS, Baum A, Episcopo B, et al. Chronic exposure to stress hormones promotes transformation and tumorigenicity of 3T3 mouse fibroblasts. Stress. 2013;16(1):114-121. doi:10.3109/10253890.2012.686075
  4. Dhabhar FS. Effects of stress on immune function: The good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunologic Research. 2014;58(2-3):193-210. doi:10.1007/s12026-014-8517-0
  5. Gao, X., Cao, Q., Cheng, Y., Zhao, D., Wang, Z., Yang, H., Wu, Q., You, L., Wang, Y., Lin, Y., Li, X., Wang, Y., Bian, J.-S., Sun, D., Kong, L., Birnbaumer, L., & Yang, Y. (2018). Chronic stress promotes colitis by disturbing the gut microbiota and triggering immune system response. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(13), E2960–E2969.
  6. Li S-B, Borniger JC, Yamaguchi H, Hédou J, Gaudilliere B, de Lecea L. Hypothalamic circuitry underlying stress-induced insomnia and peripheral immunosuppression. Science Advances. 2020;6(37). doi:10.1126/sciadv.abc2590
  7. Hammen C, Kim EY, Eberhart NK, Brennan PA. Chronic and acute stress and the prediction of major depression in women. Depression and Anxiety. 2009;26(8):718-723. doi:10.1002/da.20571
  8. Bagatin, E., Freitas, T., Rivitti-Machado, M. C., Machado, M., Ribeiro, B. M., Nunes, S., & Rocha, M. (2019). Adult female acne: a guide to clinical practice. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 94(1), 62–75.
  9. Picardi, A., Pasquini, P., Abeni, D., Fassone, G., Mazzotti, E., & Fava, G. A. (2005). Psychosomatic Assessment of Skin Diseases in Clinical Practice. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 74(5), 315–322.
  10. Chen Y, Lyga J. Brain-skin connection: Stress, inflammation and skin aging. Inflammation & Allergy-Drug Targets. 2014;13(3):177-190. doi:10.2174/1871528113666140522104422
  11. Geiker NR, Astrup A, Hjorth MF, Sjödin A, Pijls L, Markus CR. Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa? Obesity Reviews. 2017;19(1):81-97. doi:10.1111/obr.12603
  12. Stress: Signs, symptoms, management & prevention. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed November 1, 2022. URL
  13. McEwen BS. Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. European Journal of Pharmacology. 2008;583(2-3):174-185. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2007.11.071
  14. McEwen BS. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: Central role of the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 2006;8(4):367-381.
  15. Cho H, Ryu S, Noh J, Lee J. The Effectiveness of Daily Mindful Breathing Practices on Test Anxiety of Students. PLoS One. 2016;11(10):e0164822. Published 2016 Oct 20. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164822
  16. Simone Radavelli-Bagatini, Lauren C. Blekkenhorst, Marc Sim, Richard L. Prince, Nicola P. Bondonno, Catherine P. Bondonno, Richard Woodman, Reindolf Anokye, James Dimmock, Ben Jackson, Leesa Costello, Amanda Devine, Mandy J. Stanley, Joanne M. Dickson, Dianna J. Magliano, Jonathan E. Shaw, Robin M. Daly, Jonathan M. Hodgson, Joshua R. Lewis. Fruit and vegetable intake is inversely associated with perceived stress across the adult lifespan. Clinical Nutrition, 2021; 40 (5): 2860 DOI: 10.1016/j.clnu.2021.03.043
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