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How does stress impact the lungs and respiratory health?

By Apollo 24/7, Published on - 15 December 2020

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Stress is often misconstrued as a mental state of being but the fact is that it can impact every part of the body. And the effect can be detrimental, especially on critical organs like the heart and lungs. Studies indicate that stress can lead to wear and tear of the lungs thereby deteriorating respiratory health. It is also known to worsen the symptoms of chronic lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to a threat or a change which requires response or adjustment. Stress makes the body release hormones to make the brain more alert as a result of which breathing becomes faster, pulse increases, and muscles become tense. These reactions protect the body by helping it manage the situation causing the stress.
The effect of stress is not always negative. It can keep people motivated for handling tough situations like meeting a deadline or fleeing to safety in case of danger or an accident. But if the stress persists for a longer duration (chronic stress), it can lead to health complications.

How does stress affect the lungs?

Stress and strong emotions can cause breathing difficulties such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing. In a healthy person, the effects caused by stress on the lungs are usually not dangerous, but for people with breathing problems, it could worsen the symptoms.
  • Stress triggers the release of the hormone adrenaline during a stressful or life-threatening event. The release of adrenaline makes the heart beat faster and expands the air passages of the lungs to take up more oxygen.
  • People with respiratory conditions find it challenging to cope with a stressful situation due to their existing breathing difficulties and the inability to breathe in more oxygen. This can increase the risk of flare-ups.
  • Under stressful situations, it is common for people with healthy lungs to hyperventilate (breathing at an abnormally rapid rate) when panicking. But for people with COPD or other chronic lung conditions, hyperventilation can cause flare-ups.
  • A stress response is found to trigger the release of molecules such as histamines and leukotrienes in the body. This causes narrowing of the airways causing breathing difficulty.
  • Studies show that stress increases the risk of asthma attacks in children suffering from asthma. Though stress does not cause asthma, it is found to increase the body’s inflammatory response to asthma triggers. This in turn increases the duration, frequency, and severity of the symptoms.
  • Stress stimulates the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve plays an important role in respiration, and it connects to the airway smooth muscle. It affects respiration by contracting and narrowing the bronchi (large airways that lead from the windpipe to the lungs).
  • People suffering from chronic lung diseases experience stress because of the disease itself. They are always worried and anxious about breathing difficulty or a trigger of another episode.

Tips to reduce stress

Here are a few tips to reduce stress:
  • Practice relaxation techniques - Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing can help relax muscles and relieve tension and emotional stress.
  • Exercise regularly - Regular exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress. Aerobic exercises and stretching are found to boost the production of chemicals in the brain that has positive effects on mood and help manage stress.
  • Get enough sleep every night - Lack of sleep means less energy, and one may not be able to cope with stress. One should develop good sleeping habits to get enough sleep.
  • Eat a well-balanced nutritious diet - One should avoid caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods that can increase stress. Include fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains for stress relief.
  • Reduce stressors - Identify the major causes of stress and try to resolve them. Also, avoid situations that can trigger stress. Spending time with family and friends and indulging in a favourite hobby can help combat stress.

Conclusion

High and prolonged levels of stress can be harmful to the lungs and respiratory functions, especially in people with pre-existing conditions. Hence, avoiding situations that trigger stress and taking measures to lower it can help reduce the negative effects on the lungs.
Consult a pulmonologist for any queries on respiratory health.

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