Fetal Exposure May Be a Factor

Some people can be predisposed to stress at birth. Malnutrition in pregnant women, for example, can lead to low birth weight and stress in the fetus, which can set the child up for a lifelong hyperactive stress response, says Dr. Chrousos. Every time these small children are stressed, they have a big response. By the time they are 35 or 40 years old, they have metabolic syndrome, which includes high blood pressure, high blood lipid levels, obesity, glucose intolerance and excessive cytokines in the blood. Having that constellation of risk factors, says Dr. Chrousos, predisposes people to higher rates of atherosclerosis, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and early death. 

Trauma Can Lead to Delayed Stress

Physical or psychological trauma – sexual abuse or losing a loved one, for example – can also change stress circuitry in some people. Some researchers think post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when, during the initial trauma, the norepinephrine that is released to help imprint memories acts too strongly or too intensely on the brain. People with PTSD have recurring, unbidden memories or flashbacks of their trauma, as well as nightmares and insomnia, which can keep their stress and norepinephrine levels high long after the trauma occurred. People with fibromylagia who have symptoms of PTSD – 56 percent in one study – have higher levels of pain and stress than those with no PTSD symptoms. 

Hormones Affect Women's Stress

Women appear more susceptible to stress than men. The culprit? Estrogen. While intense stress suppresses estrogen production in the body – which is partly why female athletes who train intensely can stop menstruating – estrogen itself seems to make the brain more responsive to stress. Interestingly, men with RA tend to have elevated levels of pro-inflammatory estrogens and decreased levels of testosterone, an anti-inflammatory hormone, compared to men without RA.

Socioeconomic Status Can Be Key

People with low education levels have more acute or severe daily stressors, according to a recent study from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC. For instance, rain is an inconvenience to an office worker, but it means lost wages to an outdoor laborer. Your socioeconomic status also determines the type of resources you have to deal with stress, says study leader Joseph G. Grzywacz, PhD. Massages, mental health counseling or health-club memberships don't come easily to those struggling to meet basic life needs.

"Stress is really a component of every disease," says James Rosenbaum, MD, chair of the Division of Arthritis and Rheumatic Diseases and the Edward E. Rosenbaum professor of inflammation research at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Take a look at the adverse health effects: 

Increased abdominal fat, obesity. Researchers now know that excess cortisol ushers fat toward a person's middle, where the fat deposits and builds up around the abdomen. Even relatively thin, healthy women under chronic stress can exhibit some fat buildup around the middle. Excess abdominal fat and obesity are risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, and this type of fat secretes copious proinflammatory chemicals, worsening inflammation. 

Diabetes. Obesity is a leading cause of diabetes, but the chemical imbalances caused by stress, regardless of obesity, can also trigger type 2 diabetes development. Researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, found that increased levels of fear, lack of control and depression raise levels of glucose and insulin, each of which are danger signs for diabetes.