How Stress Messes With Your Health: The Ugly Truth
We have all experienced some level of stress. How does stress affect you?
Does it make you feel a bit off?
Do you notice negative health effects when your stress levels run high?
Does it affect your sleep and keep nagging at you all night long?
Does it make you get sick more often?
Some people never seem to be bothered by it - at least not outwardly. Yet others seem to live in a constant state of anxiety.
Being under pressure definitely affects us. It may cause headaches, muscle tightness, or flutters in your chest. It may make you feel down in the dumps. It may leave you with an upset stomach, unable to keep anything down. Or it may leave you reaching for any and all chocolate in sight.
However stress affects you, these symptoms of stress are only signals that stress is having a deeper impact on your organs and body systems, including your nervous system, circulatory system, digestive tract, and immune system.
People tend to be working longer hours and have more responsibilities than ever before. It’s no wonder that many of us are struggling to address mental health issues and stress is becoming a national epidemic.
Can Stress be a Good Thing?
Not all stress is bad. In fact, stress can save our lives. Your natural fight-or-flight response is crucial to help you get out of a dangerous situation alive.
And even the hormones produced in response to stress, including cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine, aren’t always bad either. Their levels change throughout the course of the day in response to various challenges you face, including waking up in the morning (yes, that is a form of stress), dealing with traffic, managing an unruly child, or being showered with a birthday surprise.
During times when you feel stressed, various hormones (cortisol included) are released. And once the stressful event is over, levels should return back to normal.
This form of acute (or temporary) stress usually won’t mess with your health too much. It is your body’s natural reaction to circumstances, and, as discussed, can be a good thing.
When the “threat” (a.k.a. “stressor”) is gone, the reaction subsides, and all is well.
It's the chronic, or long-term stress that's a problem.
You see, your body has specific stress reactions. If these stress reactions are triggered every day or many times a day and cortisol levels are never allowed to subside, your health will pay the price.
This kind of stress (and the stress hormones that go along with it) can have a huge impact on every aspect of your health.
Let's dive into this "stress mess.”
How Stress Affects your Body
Stress can increase you risk of heart disease and diabetes
Why save the best for last? Anything that increases the risk for heart disease and diabetes (both serious, chronic conditions) needs to be discussed.
Stress increases the risk for heart disease and diabetes by promoting chronic inflammation.
Many studies have linked chronic stress to systemic inflammation - the underlying cause of many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and even pain.
Inflammation also affects the “thickness" of your blood as well as how well your cells respond to insulin. Moreover, when under stress, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure goes up, increasing the strain on your heart.
So imagine that if you are in a state of stress all day long, day after day, your blood becomes more sluggish and your heart and other organs have to work much harder, increasing the risk for disease.
Stress Weakens Immunity
Do you notice that you get sick more often when you're stressed?
Maybe you get colds, cold sores, or even the flu more frequently when you are stressed. Many people do.
That's because stress hormones affect the chemical messengers (cytokines) secreted by immune cells. Consequently, they are less able to do their jobs effectively.
For me, this is often the case. When I have a big project due or a major deadline coming up, I push myself hard until the end - longer days, extra hours of work, and less sleep. Then, as soon as I have completed the project and allow myself a much-needed break or give myself time to relax, I inevitably get sick.
Now that I know this of myself, I still work hard, but make sure I do take breaks and schedule in some me-time so this doesn’t happen.
After all, there’s nothing worse than working extra-hard in preparation for an upcoming break just to fall sick as your holiday rolls around!
Stress Contributes to a "Leaky Gut"
Stress can also contribute to a leaky gut - otherwise known as "intestinal permeability." These "leaks" can then allow partially digested food proteins, bacteria or other things to be absorbed into your body.
The stress hormone cortisol can open up tiny holes in your gut by loosening the grip your digestive cells have to each other.
Picture this: Have you ever played "red rover?" It's where a row of children hold hands while one runs at them to try to break through the tight line. Think of those hands as the tight junctions between cells. When they get loose, they allow things to get through that shouldn’t. Cortisol (produced in excess in chronic stress) is a strong player in red rover!
Stress Prevents Proper Digestion
In addition to contributing to a leaky gut, when we are under stress, our flight-or-fight response prevents proper digestion from taking place.
When our body perceives great stress and thinks it needs to prepare itself to run away from a life-threatening situation, it sends most of our blood to our main organs - heart, brain, and large muscles to keep us alert and ready to react or run away. In this process, blood is shunted away from our digestive tract - after all, why worry about digestion if we can’t get away from the threat? It’s all about priorities.
Our body must be in “rest and digest” mode before digestion can take place. And we cannot be both “resting” and “fighting” at the same time.
Think about this every time you eat - if you are in a stressed state or eat when distracted and rushed, your body is unable to digest the food you are eating. Even if it’s the healthiest, most nutrient-dense, quality food around, you are not reaping the rewards or allowing those nutrients to be absorbed. - LINK
Stress Causes Sleep Disruption
Stress and sleep go hand-in-hand, wouldn’t you agree? It’s often difficult to sleep when you have very important (and stressful) things on your mind. Especially when your brain can’t turn off long enough to forget about these things at night.
And when you don't get enough sleep, it affects your energy levels, memory, ability to think, and mood.
More and more research is showing just how important sleep is for your health. Not enough sleep, and too much stress, aren't doing you any favours.
Stress can cause weight gain
For many people, the compulsion to eat for comfort reigns heavily. Studies have shown that when people find themselves in stressful situations, they are likely to eat more. How much more? They often consume 40 percent more food than they normally would.
Now that’s a substantial amount of food - which can certainly pack on the pounds!
Additionally, people tend to eat more to comfort themselves, feel better or calm their nerves. And when continued stress gets us feeling down, reaching for carbohydrates is a good way to boost serotonin levels to give ourselves a lift.
Unfortunately, the carbs most people reach for in this case are refined and simple carbs - in the form of donuts, cookies, or fast food. They do give us a boost, there’s no doubt about that - but not without a price.
Slow-releasing, complex carbs that don’t spike blood sugar levels are the better choice. Unfortunately, when we are in throws of stress, often the last thing we stop to think about is our long-term health.
How can we better manage all this stress?
Reducing the stressors in your life is an obvious first step. But the problem becomes how?
Put less pressure on yourself?
Ask for help?
Delegate to someone else?
Finally, make that decision?
No matter how hard you try, you can’t eliminate stress altogether. So, here are a few things you can try to manage stress and help reduce its effect on you:
Walk in nature
Listen to a meditation app
Unplug (read a book, take a hot bath - preferably with magnesium bath salts)
Calming exercise (yoga, tai chi, etc.)
Connect with loved ones
All of these strategies may help short-circuit the body’s stress response and stop the flood of continued stress.
Stress is a huge and often under-appreciated factor in our health which can impact our physical body much more than we might realize.
Stress has been shown to increase the risk for heart disease and diabetes, affect your immune system, weight, digestion and sleep.
The good news is that there are things you can do to both reduce stressors and also to improve your response to it.
You can ditch that stress mess after all!
Of course, if you are still struggling and would like more help, I’m here for you.
I look forward to supporting you!