You probably try to limit the amount of the dreaded "s" word you have in your life: Stress. After all, it's been linked to weight gain, heart attacks, hair loss and more. There's even been some buzz about the creation of a vaccine on the distant horizon that can protect your brain from the effects of stress. However, there's plenty of research that finds stress may actually be good for you.
"Stress is a very healthy thing, because it gives you the energy you need to live life," says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, medical director of the national Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers and Chronicity and author of Real Cause, Real Cure. "Without it, you wouldn't have the energy you need to take action."
Consider adrenaline junkies who seek out stressful situations in order to reap a physical and emotional high. Those anxious feelings trigger a fight-or-flight response that releases cortisol and adrenaline for a surge of energy that pushes you to react when you need to (such as moving fast if you're about to be hit by a car) while offering protective health benefits such as enhanced immunity. "It's when stress becomes excessive and lasts for long periods of time and when your body doesn't release it through physical activity or emotional reactions that it becomes unhealthy," says Dr. Teitelbaum. It's all about balance: While we're not suggesting you take up skydiving, just know that some stress is not only healthful--it's essential. It's when you have stress overload that it becomes toxic to your mind and body.
So the next time your palms get sweaty before a speech; your heart races when you're getting cavities filled; or your blood boils after your neighbor's dog tears apart your garbage again, take heart: It's just your body's own natural defense system operating smoothly. Check out these seven healthy benefits of stress.
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1. It could help ward off colds and flu. If you're feeling deadline pressure in the short-term, your body will most likely work overtime to keep you well. That's because some stress is helpful to rev your immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria since it's the stress-regulating adrenal glands that balance immunity. "These glands help release cortisol, an anti-inflammatory, in response to either physical or emotional stressors so you can tap into your energy reserves and resist infection," says Dr. Teitelbaum. It's when your stress levels stay high for more than a few hours that you can exhaust your adrenal glands and become prone to getting sick.
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2. It may speed recovery after surgery. Going under the knife is stressful. But the short-term stress of surgery can work in your favor by actually helping you to heal faster. "The biological changes that take place during short-term stress are the brain's way of preparing the body for something stressful that is about to happen or is already happening," says Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, director of research at the Stanford University Center on Stress and Health. In nature, wounds usually happen following stressful situations, such as when a gazelle is being chased by a lion. The idea is that short-term stress hormones surge through the body in anticipation of the potential outcome--like the gazelle getting bit but managing to escape--and gets the body ready for the fast healing that will have to take place. It does this by triggering the release of the body's "soldiers" or immune cells into the blood stream and redirecting those fighter cells to where they are most needed for healing, such as the skin and lymph nodes.
Researchers tested this hypothesis in humans by collecting a series of blood samples from 57 patients undergoing knee surgery before and after the procedure. Patients whose immune systems responded to the stress of surgery by mobilizing and redistributing large numbers of pathogen-fighting cells recovered more quickly and completely, according to a study in The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. "The physiological acute stress response may serve as a defensive or preparatory 'call to arms,' to improve wound healing and recovery," says Dr. Dhabhar.
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3. It helps you bond. Even if you're not the type to actually embrace stress, it may motivate you more to reach out to others. In fact, short-term stress has been shown to boost levels of oxytocin, a.k.a. the bonding hormone, says Kathleen Hall, PhD, founder of The Stress Institute and The Mindful Living Network. "Oxytocin actually inhibits the production of stress hormones such as adrenaline and reduces blood pressure by dilating the arteries to help buffer the body from the more negative affects of anxiety."
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4. It may make vaccines more effective. Do needles make you woozy? That reaction might make the protective powers of getting a shot last longer. When researchers studied acutely stressed mice before giving them an immunization, they had higher numbers of disease-fighting memory T-cells and mounted a larger immune response as many as nine months later (a long time in mice years) compared with the non-stressed control group, finds a study in the American Journal of Physiology - Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology.
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5. It enhances memory. Have you ever been in a stressful situation where your mind felt super-aware and laser-sharp? It's the rush of hormones to the prefrontal cortex (a brain region important for controlling cognition and emotion) that may boost your working memory, or the short-term kind used in problem solving and processing sensory information. While some studies link chronic stress to the development of brain plaques tied to Alzheimer's, acute stress has been shown to improve recall. Stressed-out rats forced to swim scored better on tests of working memory when compared with their calmer counterparts, reports a recent study in Molecular Psychiatry. Researchers say acute stress helps facilitate key brain receptors that are essential for the type of memory that can help you better figure out the task at hand.
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6. It could fight tumors. While the kind of chronic stress that keeps you up at night has been shown to suppress the immune system and lead to disease, the short-lived kind might help fight skin cancer. According to a study in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, when mice were exposed to cancer-causing ultraviolet light for 10 weeks, those put in brief stress-inducing conditions (such as being confined in ventilated plastic tubes) developed fewer tumors than the non-stressed mice. One possible explanation may be that the stress triggered the mice to express more immune-activating genes and direct more immune cells to tumors to help suppress tumor growth. So the next time you're in a stressful situation, such as finding yourself inside the elevator alone with the big boss, tell yourself that this uncomfortable moment may be a boon for your health.
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7. It boosts your resiliency. Whether you're stressed because you lost your job or are having marital problems, those feelings could be life-changing--in a good way. When several psychologists recently asked nearly 2,400 people about their history of adverse experiences--everything from whether they'd been through a divorce or natural disaster to if they'd ever lost a loved one--they found that those who had faced some misfortune were actually more well adjusted than those who'd had no bumps in the road at all. "Having to deal with challenges may toughen us up," says Mark Seery, PhD, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, "and leave us better equipped to deal with subsequent challenges."
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TELL US: What causes you the most stress in your life?
--By Holly Corbett Bristol, Prevention
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