How Money Problems Can Affect Your Health

Money influences countless factors in our lives, from the kind of peanut butter we buy at the grocery store to the neighborhood we live in to the friends we make. But did you know that money (and especially debt) can actually affect your health?

According to a recent an Associated Press-AOL Health poll, people who say they suffer from high stress due to debt were much more likely to suffer from health problems than those who weren't dealing with money troubles. That study confirms what researchers have known for years: Low incomes are linked to poor health, high levels of debt and increased stress.

About 27 percent of those in debt had ulcers or digestive-tract problems, compared with 8 percent of those with low levels of debt stress, and 44 percent had migraines or other headaches, compared with 15 percent of people with low debt stress.

Research has shown that the less money people have, the more likely they are to suffer from certain diseases, including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In low-income households, the rates of obesity, hypertension, and high blood pressure are often higher than average. A variety of factors are to blame, but the fact remains: Money makes it easier to stay healthy.

Here's a look at how your wallet is linked to your physical and emotional health, and how you can feel better – even if you don't hit the lottery or suddenly strike it rich.

Mounting stress
Stress can be a helpful and powerful motivator in life, if you're writing a paper for school that's due the next day or working on a project for a potential client. However, most of the stress in our lives is the negative kind. We're worried about relationships, our careers, and the world around us. And according to researchers, more than half of us are worried about money. Whether you're stressing over saving for retirement, paying off a credit card bill or finding the money to just put food on the table, your health can suffer because of your worrying.

Stress has been linked to a variety of ailments, including anxiety, depression, diabetes, hair loss, heart disease, hyperthyroidism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and ulcers. In that AP-AOL survey, those in debt were seven times more likely to suffer from anxiety and five times more likely to be depressed.

While there are ways to reduce day-to-day stress, chronic stress is a bit harder to treat without actually addressing the problem. (Are you in debt? Learn how to put yourself on a budget.) Stress from debt can lead to other problems in life. Find out how to deal with stress.

Stress forms an unhealthy cycle with anxiety and depression. They often go hand in hand, causing unhealthy emotions to mount. Stress-related anxiety makes those financial troubles seem worse and can begin to make it harder to manage your day-to-day life. Learn more about depression, and contact your health-care provider if you think you could be suffering from depression.

Reducing stress can improve quality of life, and people who cut their stress levels report fewer ailments such as headaches, stomach trouble, and general fatigue.

Fighting insomnia
Insomnia and poor sleeping habits are linked to stress, and our health suffers when we're not well-rested. Lack of sleep can cause irritability, moodiness, and eventually short-term memory loss, impaired motor skills and slowed reflexes.

A 2005 study found that adults who slept less than seven hours a night were significantly more likely to be obese; that adds to Harvard's Nurses' Health Study, which has linked insufficient or irregular sleep to increased risk for colon cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes. And the U.S. government also found a link between socioeconomic status and quality of sleep. Because people who have less money are at an increased risk for so many diseases, lack of sleep can aggravate health problems.

Sleep is also the time when our body repairs itself, so lack of Z's can make you more susceptible to colds, the flu and other illnesses. Your immune system needs to rest whether you're sick or well. Even if you think you're "getting by" on less sleep, your health is suffering.  (Are you getting enough sleep?)

Unhealthy ways of dealing
We all need a way to deal with stress. Many people exercise, others listen to music, and some turn to crafts--all of which are healthy outlets for stress and other emotions. However, many of us turn to unhealthy and often self-destructive outlets for our stress, such as alcohol or drugs, food or even more spending. Statistics show that the lower your income, the more likely you are to turn to such unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Caffeine fuels the stress
Caffeine might seem like your new best friend when you're trying to work extra hours or stay up late to figure out your problems. However, that bottomless cup of coffee or pricey energy drink is actually exacerbating your stress (and likely putting you more in debt).

While you think it might be increasing your energy, that caffeinated beverage or energy pill is actually robbing you of energy. It creates a cycle of dependency that leaves you tired and groggy in the long run. In excessive amounts, caffeine can cause anxiety and depression, a rapid heart rate, frequent urination, nausea and vomiting, restlessness and insomnia, and shakiness or tremors. Caffeine also has a mild diuretic effect, which can cause dehydration.

For women, caffeine can have even more of an effect: Evidence suggests that high caffeine intake (more than 300 milligrams, or three cups of coffee, a day) may speed bone loss.

However, coffee and tea drinkers may be able to counteract this negative effect by adding milk to their beverage. Cutting back on coffee also has been proven to reduce acute anxiety and insomnia.

Smoking as a stress reliever
According to the U.S. Census, the lower your income, the more likely you are to smoke. Regardless of your socioeconomic status, smoking is bad for your health. Many people turn to cigarettes as a coping mechanism and light up more frequently when life gets tough. Not only are cigarettes pricey (think about how much extra money you'd have if you quit!), but they affect the health of those around you, too. You'll not only improve your health and save money in the short-term by quitting, but your health risks will drop, possibly meaning fewer medical bills later on.

You might think smoking is keeping you calm, but it's probably the routine surrounding the smoking that's soothing your tension. Could it be the deep breathing, the moment of peace during a hectic day, the chance to catch up with a fellow smoker? Research has found that people who smoke are more likely to suffer from anxiety. (It remains unclear whether smoking causes anxiety or anxiety leads people to smoke.) Nicotine, the addictive ingredient in cigarettes, is actually a stimulant.

Quitting smoking can add years to your life, according to a study published in American Journal of Public Health. Though the benefit was greater for younger smokers, even 65-year-old smokers could expect to add four years to their lives, according to the study.

Drinking away your stress
A beer or a glass of wine might help you unwind at the end of the day, and a single serving of red wine can even help your heart health. But often, people don’t stop with one or even two drinks, and they don't drink for the right reasons. If you're drinking to forget the stress from your life, chances are that the alcohol will only cause more problems. In addition to harming your liver, drinking to excess is costly and dangerous.

If this is your only way of dealing with stress, it could be the sign of a drinking problem. Drinking is often a slippery slope, and it can negatively affect every aspect of your life, including your finances.

Even after five years or more of heavy drinking, alcoholics can extend their life expectancy by quitting, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Alcohol slows the metabolism and stimulates the appetite, which can lead to weight gain.

Turning to food for comfort
Who hasn't turned to ice cream or a bag of chips after a long, hard day? Every once in a while, indulging in an unhealthy food is fine; occasional treats can help you keep your healthy lifestyle on track. However, overeating should not be a regular coping mechanism for stress. Because overeating can increase your blood sugar levels, it can actually make stressful situations seem even worse.

Poor dietary habits can cause health problems down the road, and excessive eating can worsen your financial situation.

Less money for yourself
When you're living paycheck to paycheck or trying to get out from under debt, most of your money has to go toward the basics of living, such as food and shelter. You often have to cut corners, which means there's little left over for other aspects of life, including self care.

Preventative health care--including Pap smears, mammograms, colonoscopies, and even teeth cleanings--is crucial to keeping us in good shape. Such routine exams can detect serious health maladies early on, save money and even extend our lives. If your health insurance co-pay is too expensive or you don't have insurance, you can often find free cholesterol, blood pressure, and skin cancer screenings advertised in your local newspaper. If you don't make a lot of money, you might be eligible for free or reduced-cost check-ups and tests.

You might not be able to change your income, but you'll be able to change your spending habits and your savings. By making small changes, you can make big differences in your health.

No matter how much money you make, you can't afford to neglect your health. You are the most valuable asset you have, and regular exercise, nutritious food and a bit of TLC can help make any problem seem a little more manageable.

When things get tough, you can always start small. Those tiny steps add up to big savings, and they can help make your financial and emotional future a little brighter.