Stress Effects Nervous System

When you’re in danger, the “fight or flight” stress response kicks in, giving your body the energy it needs to respond to a threat and keep you out of harm’s way. Long-term stress, however, can lead to serious health consequences involving the nervous system, including sleep problems, chronic stress, fatigue, and stress-related digestive disorders. Learn about the link between stress and the nervous system.

Stress and Migraines

A variety of triggers can cause migraines, although scientists disagree on which of these are primary causes of these debilitating headaches. Some researchers believe that certain foods and food additives are the main perpetrators, while others firmly place the blame on stress.

The cause of migraines is clearly complex, but extreme stress–whether it’s financial, work-related or personal–can play a role in their development.

Chronic Stress and Fatigue

According to a study conducted by The Endocrine Society (2008), a link may exist between stress and chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating condition characterized by constant exhaustion not improved by rest.

Study participants included 19,381 Georgia residents, 292 of which suffered chronic fatigue syndrome and 268 with chronic health problems. Women with chronic fatigue syndrome showed abnormally low morning levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. Men both with and without this condition had no difference in morning cortisol levels.

Results indicate that chronic fatigue syndrome may be related to imbalanced interactions of the body’s stress management systems. The fact that only women’s cortisol levels were affected may explain why women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome.

Sleep Problems and Stress

Since the stress response speeds your heart and respiration rates, it makes sense that sleep problems may ensue; when your body is revved up, it’s extremely difficult to fall asleep. According to research conducted by the Better Sleep Council (BSC), and reported by Moma’, 51 percent of Americans report that their sleep is disturbed by stress.

A Finnish study published in SLEEP (2007) and reported by Psych Central, found that subjects suffering from anxiety due to a stressful life event commonly experienced sleep problems for at least six months after the event. This study also revealed that subjects sensitive to anxiety are two to three times more likely to develop sleep disturbances after a stressful event as those without this sensitivity.

Enteric Nervous System: Stress and Digestive Troubles

In addition to the central nervous system, the body’s digestive system has a secondary nervous system of its own. Called the “enteric nervous system,” it sends and receives information and responds to emotions. The enteric and central nervous systems interact constantly, creating “butterflies in your stomach” and other digestive distress when you’re stressed.


Endocrine Society. (2008). News briefs. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from

Health Guidance. (2010). Migraines and stress. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from

King’s Psychology Network. (2010). The enteric nervous system: The brain in the gut. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from

Mamas Health. (2010). Stress and how it affects sleep. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from

Nauert, R. (2007). Stress-related sleep problems. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from

Nauert, R. (2008). Stress triggers chronic fatigue syndrome. Retrieved September 28, 2010, from