We tend to think of stress as an emotional problem, but it also has physical effects that weaken the body’s ability to function. Here’s what you need to know.

Modern life presents us with daily challenges: getting to work on time, feeding our family healthy meals, balancing our finances… These may give us a certain amount of stress, but it is hopefully manageable because our adrenal glands, which are near our kidneys, release a hormone called cortisol to help us deal with stressful situations. But when we live with ongoing stress (a sick family member, an impossible boss, anything that causes constant worry), our bodies create too much cortisol. This can cause a number of problems like insomnia, depression, weight gain and a weakened immune system.

Our immune system is our body’s defence against disease and infection. Stress can reduce the number of lymphocytes (the white blood cells that help fight infection), so ongoing stress can make us more vulnerable to colds and flu, and developing cold sores. You’ve probably heard people complaining of being ‘run down’ when they keep getting sick. That’s exactly what stress does – it ‘runs down’ the immune system so it can’t work properly.

Recent research has shown that our digestive system is closely linked to our immune system, and unrelenting stress can also cause constant digestive problems like acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome and even stomach ulcers.

Other problems that can develop as a result of constant stress are:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease (irregular heartbeat, heart attack, stroke)
  • Skin problems (eczema, acne)
  • Hair loss
  • Menstrual and sexual problems
  • Muscle tension
  • Obesity
  • Eating disorders 

It’s clear that stress has a huge impact on our body’s wellbeing, so if you’ve noticed that you’re not sleeping well, feeling overwhelmed by everyday activities, constantly catching colds or getting stomach upsets, speak to a doctor about these stress-related illnesses. It’s important to go further than simply treating the symptoms – for example, a cold remedy isn’t going to help prevent the next infection. 

Your doctor might prescribe medicine to help you sleep or ease your bowel spasms, but may also suggest lifestyle changes (See ‘Tips to relieve stress’) or counselling to get to the root cause of your stress. Support groups (for depression and anxiety, and people involved with long-term care of a family member) are of great help. You can share the burden of your stress with people who understand because they are going through the same thing.

Exercise – recommendations suggest 30 minutes a day three times a week, but even 10 minutes of moderate exercise will reduce your cortisol level at night, helping you sleep better, which in turn reduces stress.
Eat sensibly – add some (easy) calming foods to your diet: oats (contains magnesium which regulates cortisol), oranges (vitamin C boosts the immune system), and spinach (contains both magnesium and vitamin C).
Drink water – if you are dehydrated, your cortisol level increases.
Choose to relax – make time to consciously do something to relax. It can be as simple as practising deep breathing or listening to music – or to ensure you relax regularly join a yoga or tai chi class.
Be kind, pray or meditate – studies have shown that cortisol levels drop during prayer and meditation, and even during an act of kindness.

For free advice on any health problems or queries, Jet Club members can call our helpline

Pharmacy and Clinic Services Helpline
SA & Namibia
0800 00 45 45
Botswana, Lesotho & Swaziland
+2711 991 8258


IS STRESS MAKING YOU SICK IS STRESS MAKING YOU SICK Reviewed by Jet Club on February 27, 2020 Rating: 5
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