The link between stress and NCD

21 May 2024
Aalia Qureshi

The link between stress and NCD

In what ways can stress impact levels of NCD? 

Despite lots of progress being made regarding research into mental health and how it is fundamentally linked to physical health, there still exists a strong stigma around conversations to do with mental and emotional states, as well as how modern lifestyles can increase our risk of experiencing high stress or other mental health conditions.

Social Determinants of Health 

People who face inequalities in their social conditions face detrimental impacts to their long-term health in many ways, for example through stress.  These are known as the social determinants of health – non-medical factors which influence long-term health outcomes, such as income, education, job security, employment, working conditions, childhood development, food security, health services, housing, gender, race, and disability. These factors don’t occur at one point in life, but often occur over someone’s life course, such as during a child’s development, mental illness during teenage years or work-related stress in adult years.  Experiencing a combination of inequalities is likely to trigger a person’s psychosocial stress pathways, which in turn increase someone’s risk of engaging in behaviours that are risks for NCD (non-communicable disease also known as chronic disease such as most cancers, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and diabetes). This can include unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, tobacco smoking, and excess alcohol consumption.

Stress and Inflammation 

Chronic stress, which is psychosocial stress experienced consistently over an extended period, leads to metabolic wear and tear and increased exposure to NCD. Specifically, this refers to rapidly fluctuating blood pressure levels, increased arterial plaque occurrence but also a dysregulated pro-inflammatory response  — this is when the body can’t control or restrain an immune response and either underreacts to foreign invaders which can cause infections to spread quickly or overreacts to foreign invaders which can cause the immune cells to attack healthy cells, tissues, and organs. Having a consistently increased inflammatory response can independently cause mental ill health, since people experiencing this may also feel symptoms of fatigue, malaise, diminished appetite and restlessness – these symptoms are also commonly associated with depression.  Inflammation and inflammatory markers are also predictive of heart attacks and progression of coronary heart disease.  Diabetes is also linked to chronic stress, since stress causes an increase in blood sugar levels, which overtime can lead to insulin resistance.

Stress-Related Metabolic Syndrome 

Stress-related NCD have been called the major health crisis of the 21st century: one particular pathway through which stress contributes to NCD risk is the stress-related metabolic syndrome, which consists of hypertension, high cholesterol, truncal obesity, and reduced responsiveness to insulin.  Since NCD are responsible for 74% of deaths worldwide annually,  managing stress through effective policy change has the potential to decrease the NCD burden on health care budgets.

Reducing Stress 

Although, the factors causing psychosocial stress and mental ill health are often out of our control, small, sustainable behavioural changes could help those experiencing high stress to attain better health outcomes. These can be grouped in activities that help your mental wellbeing, emotional wellbeing or physical wellbeing, such as improving sleep hygiene, catching up with friends or family or listening to uplifting music. Since it takes 30 days to form a habit, choosing one of these tasks and implementing it daily over a month could contribute to someone’s overall wellness.   As well as this, organisations should implement policies that include allowing paid leave for personal issues and promoting a work culture which values mindfulness and relaxation.

Why not try C3’s free guides; ‘Take care of yourself’ and ‘Improve your sleep’ that provide tips to improve your wellbeing and help you get a good nights rest.