How Stress Can Cause Illness

Stress can cause illness

Stress and illness have always been known to be closely related.

The stress response in short bursts is necessary for us to adapt and respond to the environment around us, but when it becomes a long-term or constant experience, it will almost indefinitely lead to illness in one form or another.  

Every individual reacts uniquely to various forms and levels of stress, and different kinds of stress tend to elicit different illnesses. There are a few different ideas as to how stress can lead to illness in the body:

  1. Physiological effects of hormones released from the adrenal and pituitary glands
  2. Negative implications of the inflammatory process
  3. Lowered ability to defend against new or pre-existing stress. This is commonly referred to as a lowered "vitality".  


Your innate ability to resist stress: 

The body has many tools that it uses to manage and defend itself against stress of different kinds. We might sweat to reduce heat, shiver to warm up, dilate the lung bronchioles when confronted with fear in order to run away or fight, or send immune cells to attack a foreign pathogens or allergens. There are countless ways the human body can respond to stress. How well our body is able to respond varies greatly from person to person however. 


The bodies innate ability to resist stress can vary from person to person through factors like:

  1. Genetics inherited from the parents
  2. Physical weakness or strength
  3. Learned body responses
  4. Nutrition
  5. Developmental factors


These factors may or may not be under your control. For example, you can not choose the genes you are given when you were conceived, and these genes may have a stronger, or weaker ability to resist different kinds of stress. On the other hand, you DO have the ability to choose what you eat, so this factor can be at least partly controlled.   

Depending on how these factors have come together, combined with the level of stress you are subjected to will determine how soon, and to what extent the damage will ocurr. 


This concept is sort of like a cargo ship...

....Let's say you have a cargo ship (this represents your ability to resist stress, your"vitality"). You are using this boat to move some shipping containers across a lake. Everybody's boat is a different size, shape, and material. Let's say your boat is small and made of a pliable material, and you begin loading it up with containers. It will be able to carry a few, but eventually the force of the containers will be too great, and the boat will break and sink under the weight. A different ship, however, could be made of a strong material, and perhaps is a bit larger. It will take a lot more weight before the boat breaks or sinks.

This is the same as our bodies ability to resist stress. By allowing the stress to build, eventually, the weight from this stress will be greater than your ability to contain and resist it. For some of us, who may have a higher resistance naturally (a larger or stronger boat), it can take years of constant stress to hit that breaking point. Others who may have a naturally weaker resistance may be affected much sooner. 

Vitality boat

The damage caused by stress feeds itself. 

There are any number of illnesses that can result when we finally hit that breaking point. Emotional and financial stresses often show up as anxiety, depression, and insomnia, whereas physical stress tends to show up more as a reduction in the functioning of the various organs of the body but this is not a rule. Physical stress can bring with it neurological problems and vice versa.  

When this damage begins to occur, it tends to further increase the stress load. When we constantly stress the liver cells with drugs, alcohol, or other toxins for example, and this breaking point is reached. The cells begin dying, as they die, the load increases on the remaining cells who are then forced to work overtime. This, of course, causes them to die even faster, which in turn places more and more of a load on the remaining cells. 

This can also be seen with emotional stress when the stress become too great for the body to resist effectively, and illness begins, such as with depression, it can add to the stress load even further as now there is an issue that needs to be worked around in regards to otherwise normal situations.  


What illnesses can result from stress? 

There are a variety and a nearly endless amount of illnesses that can result from stress when that breaking or tipping point has been reached.  

The most common mental illnesses that may result include anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Physical symptoms can vary greatly depending on the tissue that is exposed to the stress, but common ones include digestive disorders like colitis, ulcers, or Crohn's disease, liver disorders like cirrhosis and fatty liver disease, or renal failure. One illness that is often related to an overburdening of stress is chronic fatigue syndrome. this condition is poorly understood, but is widely agreed to be the result of chronic, and overburdening stress, Usually from a variety of factors including dietary, and emotional. 


How to manage stress with Adaptogens

This class of herbs is the top of the pyramid when it comes to preventing or managing stress. By their very nature, they are used to increase the bodies innate ability to resist stress. They are non-specific in their action, which means they have such a wide range of benefits, they tend to act on the whole body rather than just improving one aspect of one's health. This class of herbs is discussed in more detail in this article.  

Adaptogens are generally used as a daily supplement, and can be tailored depending on the form of stress most commonly experienced by the individual, or depending on the natural or innate constitution of the person taking it. Chinese medicine and ayurvedic medicine excels in this form of herbalism, and many of the greatest adaptogenic herbs come out of recognition from these medical systems. They look at the broader picture of the person and their constitution. There are many ways to identify this, and it can change many times over a person's lifetime. This is why there is no such thing as a be all and end all herbal adaptogen for any one person. Let's use the example of those with what we could call hot (overactive), or cold (underactive) constitutions since this is the very basic concept of using herbal adaptogens effectively in various individuals. This is a very broad range and can be applied to nearly all individuals fairly easily. 

Keep in mind however that there are other factors that a herbalist or natural practitioner considers when formulating an adaptogenic or tonic herb program, but this is a good place to start.


Cold Constitutions

Herbs such as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Black ant (Polyrhachis), or turmeric (Curcuma longa) for example, are best for those with a "cold" constitution. This indicates generally a deficiency type of weakness in the individual. The bodies response to stress is slower and thus unable to keep up with the damage caused by the stress. By using these sorts of stimulating or "warming" adaptogens, the immune responses, metabolic processes, and blood circulation can be improved, which increases the ability to respond quickly and effectively to the stress.  


The best herbs for these individuals to increase their stress resistance includes: 


Asian ginseng

(Panax ginseng)

Ginseng is likely one of the best and is certainly the most famous adaptogens available. In China, Korea, and Japan, ginseng was used for nearly all conditions and was suggested to promote longevity and general wellbeing. Some of its main constituents, the saponins (known as ginsenosides) are a class of chemicals that have undergone significant study in the recent decades. Ginseng is especially useful in treating and preventing neurological damage, and cognitive decline as a result of stress on the body, and some evidence has shown benefits to the adrenal system as well. The adrenal glands are directly responsible for our stress response through hormone messengers. When these organs burn out as a result of extreme, or chronic stress a condition known as chronic fatigue can occur. Ginseng is highly specific for treating, and preventing this condition. 

Find it on Amazon here. 


Siberian ginseng

(Eleutherococcus senticosus)

This species is referred to as Siberian ginseng not for its close relationship to true ginseng (Panax spp.) but instead for the fact that is used in pretty much the exact same way, and is also a root medicinal. Siberian ginseng contains a whole different set of chemicals to panax ginsengs, yet accomplished much the same results. Where Panax ginseng is most beneficial to cognition, siberian ginseng is more beneficial to the physical body. Both have a significant benefit on the adrenal glands. Siberian ginseng and panax ginsengs are considered mildly stimulating however, and are considered warming in nature. This is why they are especially useful in those with colder constitutions, and underactive responses to stress.

Find it here. 



(Curcuma longa)

Turmeric is famously used in the Indian "curry". It is a systemic antinflammatory, and has been found to offer a significant benefit to the adrenal glands as well. These glands as mentioned earlier are the bodies regulator of the stress response through the hormones cortisol, and corticosterone (among others). It acts on the various cells throughout the  body to communicate that a stressful event is occuring. If stress is triggered over a long period of time and the adrenal glads are forced to constantly release these hormone, eventually they will burn out and fail to respond effectively. Turmeric helps to reduce the causes of this initial stress, and protects the adrenals so they do not burn out as quickly if at all. It is a favourite herb for many experiencing chronic inflammation, and heart conditions. 

Find it here. 


Hot Constitutions

With warmer constitutions, on the other hand, adaptogens such as Withania, reishi, or cordyceps may be used more effectively since with these individuals the weakness tends to be in the bodies exaggerated immune response and subsequent hormonal burnout from managing these stresses. These individuals tend to respond to stress very fast and effectively in short bursts but tend to burn out much with long term exposure. By using colder, or more sedating adaptogens, the response can be modulated down a little bit, and tonified in order for it to last longer, and avoid damaging side effects that may have occurred from the over response. This can be seen with conditions such as the damaging cytokine storms caused by viral or bacterial infections, hay fever symptoms of an overactive immune response, and heat exhaustion due to an inability to reduce the bodies metabolic processes low enough to avoid overheating.


The best herbs for these individuals includes:



(Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha is useful for nearly all forms of stress but is best in those with hot constitutions. This is because, on top of its general ability to improve the effectiveness of stress resistance, it is also mildly sedating, and is able to manage both overactive, and underactive immune responses effectively. It improves sleep, hormone levels (males and females), and can reduce chronic inflammation. Some of the main constituents of interest are alkaloids known as withanolides. 

Find it here. 


American Ginseng

(Panax quinquefolius) 

American ginseng is very similar to Asian ginseng, but is considered much more cooling in nature. It has a much less stimulating effect, and some even consider it mildly sedating. Even the taste is far  smoother and has less of a spiciness than asian ginseng does. American ginseng has the same slurry of saponin chemicals referred to as the ginsenosides, but has them in different ratios than asian ginseng does. It has also been found to improve fatigue levels, and improve cognitive function, but is especially useful in those with hot, overactive onstitutions, and is much more useful in conditions indiced by heat type stress. 

Find it here. 


An herbalist, Chinese medicine practitioner, or Ayurvedic doctor can identify these changes and adapt an herbal adaptogen or tonic program accordingly to prevent the accumulating effects of stress. 


Justin Cooke (@JuzzieCooke)

-The Sunlight Experiment (@TheSunlightExp)