Let's face it; we all dislike stress, but it's something we all live with to some degree. The recipe for stress is certainly different for everyone – for some it could be from the joyous occasion of starting a new job or planning a wedding, while others might be going through a rough patch at work or may have just broken up with a significant other. However, the end result of stress can be quite similar regardless of how it manifests itself, presenting with about 15 to 20 varying symptoms that can include loss of appetite, sleep problems, irritability, trouble concentrating, and sadness, to name just a few.
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Let me preface this by saying that not all stress is bad for you. In fact, stress is what often allows us to grow into more productive and independent individuals. By challenging ourselves to overcome obstacles, stress helps instill pride of accomplishment in ourselves. In fact, most people who are confronted with stressful events won't develop a disease. But, for the unlucky few, too much at one time, or a constant battering of stressful activities at home or on the job can be very, very unhealthy.
Today, I propose we examine three of the top diseases caused by stress and see what solutions researchers and pharmaceutical companies currently have on the market to help those affected.
The biggest concern for someone living a stressful life is that they're often going to look for ways to make themselves feel better. This will involve a higher smoking rate among stressed individuals, more alcohol use, and a propensity to eat less nutritious foods (e.g., fast food), which can lead to high blood pressure and obesity. All of these factors put stressed-out individuals at a much higher risk of developing some form of cardiovascular disease.
What's even more concerning about this particular disease is that socioeconomic stress (having a lower income) can place long-term limitations on someone's food choice selections. With heart disease being the leading cause of death among men and women in the U.S., this is a serious concern.
Medical researchers and physicians understand this and have been trying to combat heart disease in a variety of ways. The primary way, though, has been through the use of LDL-cholesterol lowering drugs (the bad type of cholesterol). More specifically, doctors have turned primarily to statins like Pfizer's (NYSE: PFE ) now-generic medication Lipitor or AstraZeneca's (NYSE: AZN ) Crestor to provide long-term solution to chronically high cholesterol levels.
One particularly encouraging sign in LDL-reducing drugs has been the success of combination drugs that combine a statin with Merck's (NYSE: MRK ) cholesterol absorption inhibitor, Zetia. Liptruzet, for instance -- which is a combination of Lipitor and Zetia -- was approved in May of this year and helped lower LDL-cholesterol levels in patients by 53% to 61% in trials. Comparatively, Lipitor and Zetia alone only managed to reduce LDL-cholesterol levels by 37%-54% and 20% in trials. Presenting only minimal side effects over the long run, this new class of drug could hold the key to helping keep stressed individuals from literally having a heart attack!
It really should come as no surprise that high levels of stress are a primary culprit behind depression. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that was based on a paper from the Institute of Medicine, stress is a major factor that causes the onset of depression and is a contributing factor in recovering patients who relapse.
JAMA's article points out two primary stress factors most commonly linked to depression -- including social stresses such as those caused by a relationship breakup, and the type of depression caused by finding out one has a serious illness. Unfortunately, depression and disease can build upon themselves in a vicious cycle whereby a serious disease can cause depression, and the depression can worsen the disease.
We may not consider depression a serious concern, but it's a growing problem that physicians and researchers are finally beginning to tackle. There are numerous drugs approved to treat depression, but none have racked up larger worldwide sales than Bristol-Myers Squibb's (NYSE: BMY ) Abilify,which doubles as an antipsychotic and brought in $5.2 billion in 2011 – good enough to be the fourth-best selling drug in the world. But Bristol's Abilify will only be under patent protection until 2015, so researchers must continue looking for newer and more effective options. AstraZeneca's experimental AZD6765 may offer just that.
In trials conducted by the National Institutes of Health, AstraZeneca's AZD6765 provided incredibly quick relief for patients with depression symptoms who had tried previous medications but had no response. The effect lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to as long as two days in some patients. Unfortunately, only 32% of patients responded to the treatment, and its effects were much shorter-lasting than ketamine, which it was compared against. Still, these are the novel therapies with significant results that are currently under development and could help change the landscape of treating depression.
The third subset of diseases that stress puts people at risk of developing, according to the National Institutes of Health, are anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In OCD cases, people have unwanted thoughts, feelings, or sensations that drive them to take action. Once that action is taken it provides temporary relief, but any deviation from that routine can cause even more stress. The two most common treatments here -- known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs -- have long since gone to generic form. These would include Eli Lilly's (NYSE: LLY ) Prozac and Pfizer's Zoloft. At its peak, Eli Lilly's Prozac generated $2.6 billion in sales (a monstrous figure at the time) before going off patent in 2001.
Patients with panic disorder are crippled by panic attacks that begin suddenly and last for upwards of 20 minutes. Panic disorder is usually diagnosed in adulthood, and it's diagnosed twice as much in women as in men. Most people who suffer from panic attacks will develop some mixture of dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, or trembling. Similar to OCD medications, generics of Pfizer's Zoloft, Lilly's Prozac, and GlaxoSmithKline's Paxil are commonly prescribed to treat panic disorder.
In cases of PTSD, the patient has trouble managing stress, which is often caused by being exposed to a traumatic event such as being in a war or being assaulted. The symptoms of PTSD can vary dramatically, from avoidance of the event altogether to agitation and excitability. For PTSD, psychological therapy known as desensitization -- whereby a patient is encouraged to remember the event in the hope of getting them to express their emotions -- is often effective, although SSRIs are sometimes still prescribed.
Ultimately, some form of stress is inevitable. The key is how we react to that stress and whether we have a support group around us to help us manage our stress levels.
For those cases where talking simply isn't enough, big pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and AstraZeneca have a stranglehold on the medications most often associated with stress-induced disorders. Perhaps the best way of reducing your stress could be by investing in stress symptom-relieving drug manufacturers like these, which are certain to benefit from a stressed-out society? But, that of course is up to you to decide.
With the prevalence of chronic illness and drive within the industry to combat these issues, you can certainly make huge gains in biotech and pharmaceuticals. The best investing approach is to choose great companies and stick with them for the long term. The Motley Fool's free report "3 Stocks That Will Help You Retire Rich" names stocks that could help you build long-term wealth and retire well, along with some winning wealth-building strategies that every investor should be aware of. Click here now to keep reading.
Editor’'s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Merckk' drug Liptruzet was approved in March. The Fool regrets the error.