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7 ways stress affects the body

23:00 28 Apr 2020

Stress is a healthy process that’s motivating and energising. But too much for too long can affect your body in some unexpected ways

Stress, in small doses, can help focus your mind on achieving a goal and energise your body toward action.

If you’re feeling more worried and stressed than usual this is perfectly normal, so remember to be kind to yourself.

Should stress become ongoing and continual – as it may have done for many people - health problems can arise.

How your body responds to stress

When you are under stress, your brain releases a ‘stress response’.

This sends signals, via the pituitary gland, to the adrenal glands (two tiny, hat-shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys) to release stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.

These raise blood pressure and give your body a dose of glucose that goes straight to your muscles.

This is a primal response that gave our ancestors the energy to ‘fight, flight or freeze’ when threatened. Such stressors were usually short-lived, so they could rest and recover afterwards.

Stress is good for you – in small doses

Stress hormones are energising; they provide motivation and focus to complete difficult tasks, solve problems and reach your goals.

If you get time to rest and recover once stressful tasks have passed, your body can return to a balanced state.

But stress that is ongoing – called ‘chronic stress’ – can lead to health problems, as elevated stress hormones over time can impact many bodily functions.

Immune system

Stress initially inhibits the immune system which, in the short term, can be helpful. But long-term stress can not only increase inflammation and the likelihood of developing disease, it may also exacerbate pre-existing conditions.

Chronic stress leads to persistently high cortisol levels, which can mean the body’s natural capacities to deal with inflammation are out of balance. It can also leave your immune system further impaired by your body not producing enough lymphocytes – white blood cells crucial to immunity.

As a result, long-term stress can increase susceptibility to chronic infections, including flu, cold sores and other diseases.

Digestive system

When you’re stressed, your liver produces extra glucose. Constant stress can mean your body may not be able to keep up with processing all this glucose, which could increase risk of developing type-2 diabetes.

The gut contains millions of neurons that are in constant communication with the brain. Stress can affect this brain-gut communication, and may trigger pain, bloating, acid reflux and other digestive discomfort.

The gut is also inhabited by bacteria which can influence health - including the immune system - and stress could lead to changes in this gut bacteria.

Appetite and weight

Chronic stress levels affect the transmission of dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter linked to the brain’s reward system. That makes you more inclined to seek rewards such as sugary, fatty or salty foods.

Conversely, in many people this can have the opposite effect and lead to appetite loss, as the body literally ‘runs on adrenaline’.

Increased cortisol levels also inhibit the breaking down of fat as storing it would have been essential from an evolutionary perspective - so you may find yourself unable to shift weight. This can even affect where excess fat goes, with research suggesting it can lead to more abdominal fat.

Skin

The brain is connected to the skin through nerves on the skin’s surface. When you get stressed, brain chemicals are released and these can be pro-inflammatory and lead to flare ups of conditions such as eczema and psoriasis as well as flaky or itchy skin and scalp.

Stress not only delays wounds healing, it can also lead to the production of more oil in the skin. This can block hair follicles and lead to increased acne and pimples.

Headaches

The release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can cause vascular (blood vessel) changes that can bring about tension headaches and in some, migraines.

Likewise, stressful emotions such as anxiety, worry, excitement, and fatigue can increase muscle tension, and dilated (widened) blood vessels, all of which can make these headaches worse.

Hormonal imbalance

Long term stress can impact hormonal balance and reproductive cycles and - especially for women - can lead to increased Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), and moodiness throughout the cycle.

The balance of the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone - important for ovulation and every other aspect of the menstrual cycle - can also be disrupted by long-term stress.

For both men and women chronic stress can impact sexual drive by affecting the production of sex hormones such as testosterone.

Mental health

Over time, chronic stress can make you more susceptible to mental and emotional illness. Many people may find they develop depression after a difficult life event or a prolonged period of high stress in their lives.

Stress can also lead you to do things that make you feel better quickly, but over time can negatively impact your mood, such as drinking too much.

8 ways to lower your stress levels

Sometimes, you can’t control the amount of chronic stress you are under - but you can control how you respond to it. These practical measures may help

  1. Sleep – try and get your 8 hours, preferably a couple of those before midnight. That means if you can, being in bed by 10pm.
  2. Connect - with loved ones, friends and with yourself. Me-time is essential to dealing with stressful times.
  3. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet – aim for a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, minimizing sugar and processed foods. This can have a direct impact on your mood and lead to fewer of the blood sugar fluctuations that could lead to emotional ups and downs.
  4. Meditate - preferably daily. You can start by doing a short 5 minute mindfulness meditation. Research shows it’s a great way to process stress and can lead to long term favorable changes in the brain.
  5. Reduce stimulants (especially at night) – this includes screen time, news reports, coffee, alcohol, big meals and nicotine a couple of hours before bed.
  6. Get out into nature – this can help reduce stress and soothe the nervous system in as little as 20 minutes.
  7. Exercise and yoga practice - this reduces the effects of stress and can help your body process excess stress hormones such as adrenaline - both short- and long-term. It can also strengthen and support the body and mind.
  8. Therapy can help - you may have habitual thought patterns that keep you stuck in ways of thinking that increase stress. Or, unprocessed emotions may be impacting how you respond to the pressure in your daily life. Talking therapies - for example Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which assists you in unlearning habitual thinking patterns - can help.

Reviewed by: Hemal Shah, Lead GP, Livi

Last updated:
23:00 28 Apr 2020