How Stress Impacts Your Body: From the Brain to the Stomach

How Stress Impacts Your Body: From the Brain to the Stomach
14.01.2024

Stress happens when you’re introduced to a challenge or demand in life, resulting in physical or emotional tension. Even though everyone experiences stress, it can still be harmful to your health if it occurs over a long period. Here are the ways stress can affect your health—and what you can do about it.

What Is Stress?

Stress is your emotional and physical reaction to a challenge or demand. If you’re in danger, the brain sends triggers—both chemical and along the nerves—to the adrenals, which are glands that sit on top of each kidney. The adrenals then churn out hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can increase:

  • Alertness
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar
  • Breathing
  • Heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Sweating

Short-term, or acute, stress goes away quickly, such as when you argue with someone or are running from a house fire.

What Does Chronic Stress Do to Your Body?

Your stress is chronic if it’s constant and continues for weeks or even longer. When your stress lasts much longer, like when you’re having financial difficulties, your body continues to stay in an alert, reactive state, and this leads to psychological and physical symptoms.

Asthma Flare-Ups

Stress and strong emotions are known asthma triggers. If you have asthma, it is possible that these emotions and stress will worsen your symptoms. This is because stress affects your breathing—even if you don’t have asthma. Your muscles may tighten up, and your breathing rate can increase.

Mindful breathing can help reduce stress. If you want to try mindful breathing, here are the steps:

  1. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly.
  2. Inhale for seven seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then breathe out for seven seconds.
  3. Focus on your breathing, and let go of other thoughts.
  4. Repeat this three times.

Gastrointestinal Troubles

When you are stressed or anxious, the released hormones can interfere with digestion which can cause a number of gastrointestinal (GI) issues like:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Indigestion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Stomach cramping

In particular, irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, which is characterized by pain and bouts of constipation and diarrhea is thought to be fueled in part by stress.

Hair Loss

Hair loss can occur after a stressful time in your life. Whether it’s a divorce or the death of a loved one, your hair may fall out due to stress. When the stress has subsided, your hair will stop shedding. It may take anywhere from six to nine months for your hair to regrow to its normal volume.

Stress and anxiety can also contribute to a disorder called trichotillomania, in which people pull their hair out repeatedly. People who have this condition often report that they experience stress before pulling out their hair. Treatment for trichotillomania may include medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and habit reversal training—identifying habits and working to change them through awareness and social support.

Heart Problems

Your body’s initial cardiovascular response to stress is an increase in heart rate. Continued stress raises your blood pressure by increasing the constriction of the blood vessels. This raises your risk of cardiovascular problems like hypertension, high cholesterol, and heart attacks.

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For instance, many people are stressed because of work—10% to 40% of people who are employed experience work-related stress, and 33% of these people experience severe chronic stress. People who experience stress from work are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.

People with a high-stress job have a 22% higher risk of stroke than those with low-stress jobs. High-stress jobs are defined as jobs that are psychologically demanding—mental load, coordination burdens, and time pressure. Additionally, people experience stress when they have less control over their jobs and how hard they are expected to work.

Certain behaviors and factors can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Stress can lead a person to engage in these behaviors, such as:

  • Lack of physical activity
  • Not taking medications as prescribed
  • Overeating
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy diet

Chronic stress can have a negative impact on mental health and high blood pressure, both of which are factors that can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

To avoid heart problems related to stress, try a heart-healthy lifestyle that can include:

  • Eating less salt, saturated fat, and added sugar
  • Eating a plant-based diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week
  • Quitting smoking if you’re a smoker
  • Substituting water for sugary drinks

Try to reduce stress in your life by identifying the sources of stress and working on solutions to manage them, whether that means taking time off from work when needed or spending more time with your family or friends. You can also practice mindfulness and meditation.

Headaches

Stress can leave you with a tension headache or migraine, either during the stress or in the “let-down” period afterward.

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They typically feel like a “band is squeezing the head” and occur in the head, scalp, or neck area. Stress also makes your muscles tense, so it can make an already bad headache even worse.

While you can treat the headache with medication, you can also find ways to treat the stress causing it. This may include headache-proofing your home or modifying your diet and lifestyle. You can also use relaxation or stress-management techniques that may include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Biofeedback
  • Cognitive behavioral feedback
  • Ice or hot packs
  • Massage
  • Mindful meditation

Exercise can also help you deal with stress—it may help with relaxation, self-esteem, and anxiety. Try cardio, weight training, yoga, or recreational sports, like basketball or volleyball.

High Blood Sugar

Stress is known to raise blood sugar, and if you have type 2 diabetes, you may find that your blood sugar is higher when you are under stress.

Stress can result in elevated cortisol and glucose levels, as well as increased insulin resistance.

In one study, subjects who experienced high stress levels were less likely to stick to the lifestyle modifications, such as exercise and dietary changes, for diabetes treatment.

Increased Appetite

If you experience stress that only lasts for a short time, your appetite may be low. However, when you are stressed for a long time, your body produces cortisol, a hormone that increases your appetite and leads you to consume foods high in sugar and fat. Eating foods that are high in sugar and saturated fat can lead to weight gain.

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In addition, when you feel your stress is high and connect food to positive emotions, you may eat more than you would if you weren’t under stress or make unhealthy food choices—also called stress or emotional eating.

The key is to know your triggers and be ready when stress is likely to hit. This means stocking up on well-balanced snacks high in protein and healthy fats. Avoid snacks high in saturated fat and sugar. Additionally, exercise can help control stress and improve your overall health.

Insomnia

Stress can cause hyperarousal, a biological state in which people don’t feel sleepy. Insomnia—a sleep disorder in which a person has persistent problems falling and staying asleep—is commonly derived from stress.

While major stressful events can cause insomnia that passes once the stress is over, long-term exposure to chronic stress can disrupt sleep and contribute to sleep disorders.

Focus on healthy sleep and sleep hygiene—make your surroundings conducive to a good night’s rest. You can do this by:

  • Avoiding alcoholic drinks, large meals, and beverages before bed
  • Avoiding caffeine, especially later in the day
  • Getting rid of distractions—noises, bright lights, or TV
  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • Keeping the temperature in your bedroom cool

You can also try yoga or another stress-busting activity during the day or cognitive-behavioral therapy to relieve any anxiety along with your insomnia and stress.

Issues With Memory and Learning

The link between memory and stress is still not totally clear, but researchers believe stress impacts learning and memory, specifically in a classroom setting.

Stressful events are very common in an educational setting, for both students and teachers, due to exams, evaluations, and deadlines. Stress in relation to education does affect learning and memory. However, it’s unclear whether this is a positive or negative impact. Stress can enhance memory, while in other instances it impairs memory.

It’s unclear how long the effects of stress on memory last and when the memory becomes impaired. It’s also unknown whether these impairments depend on the types and intensities of the stressors.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough research to provide recommendations to students and teachers on limiting stress in their lives. However, anyone experiencing stress can benefit from regular exercise, getting enough sleep, meditation, and avoiding caffeine.

Job Performance Issues

Life presents many stresses, and work may be another place where you deal with stress. Workplace stress can compound any other stress you’re feeling.

Employees can experience reduced productivity as a result of stress, as well as less satisfaction at work or less motivation in the classroom.

There isn’t a universal solution to this kind of stress—each business, organization, or industry should have a stress management strategy unique to its environment. The goal should be to reduce workplace stress as much as possible.

One solution is to ask your employer to offer stress-management training, which can address company-wide stressors like weak communication channels as well as focusing on stress busters for individuals.

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Pregnancy Complications

During pregnancy, and even before conceiving, the stress and anxiety that a pregnant person experiences can impact the pregnancy. If the stress goes unmanaged, it may lead to an increased chance of:

  • Low birth weight
  • Premature labor
  • Postpartum depression

Therefore, it is important to reduce the stress levels that the parent-to-be experiences, which can benefit the health of both the parent and the child. You can do this with:

  • Eating healthily
  • Meditation
  • Prenatal yoga
  • Therapy

Talk to a healthcare provider if you’re pregnant and severely stressed.

Premature Aging

Traumatic events and chronic stress can both contribute to premature aging. This is because stress shortens the telomeres in the cells. Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of cell chromosomes. When the telomeres are shortened, they cause your cells to age faster.

Reduced Sex Drive

Your state of mind affects your sexual desire—this means stress, among other things, can actually reduce your sex drive. High-stress levels are associated with lower levels of sexual arousal. This is attributed to both psychological and hormonal factors seen in people who experience chronic stress.

Sexual dysfunction can have other causes like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, so it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider, but reducing and managing stress can often turn things around.

Skin Problems

Stress can worsen problems or disorders of the skin. Specifically, stress has an impact on acne. Stress itself cannot cause acne, but it can make acne symptoms worse. When your stress intensifies, the severity of the acne increases.

Stress can also worsen psoriasis. Many healthcare providers are starting to incorporate stress-management techniques such as biofeedback and meditation into their treatment programs for psoriasis.

How to Manage Your Stress

While there are many different ways that stress can impact your mind and your body, there are ways to reduce and manage your stress. You just have to figure out what is right for you. Here are a few tips for managing your stress in the long term:

  • Get regular exercise. Most adults should aim to get 150 minutes of physical activity every week.
  • Try a relaxing activity like meditation, yoga, or muscle relaxation exercises.
  • Make sure you are getting enough sleep every night. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep every night.
  • Avoid consuming drinks and food with caffeine.
  • Work on your time management skills. Decide what tasks need to be done and which tasks can wait.
  • Reach out to your friends and family for support.

A Quick Review

Life can be stressful. Most people experience periods of stress throughout their lives. If you experience chronic stress, your body and overall well-being are being affected, but this may not result in symptoms. Luckily, there are many ways to manage stress.

Try to understand your triggers and find ways to cut out or reduce those triggers. If you find it difficult to manage your stress on your own, reach out to a healthcare provider for support.

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