Stress affects everyone and is a normal, natural response to distressing life experiences and events. Stress can happen as a one-time occurrence or can continue for days, weeks, or months, in some cases. Stress isn’t always bad, and can be life-saving in some situations. But chronic, ongoing stress that is left unmanaged can have serious effects on your health and increase your risk of problems including weight gain, disease, and heart attack.
When left untreated, chronic stress can interfere with your ability to enjoy life and engage in normal everyday activities. Chronic stress can lead to irritability, insomnia, and the development of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. But understanding how stress affects your health may help you recognize signs that indicate it’s time to get help.
Here’s a closer look at the effects of stress on the body, and what you can do to better manage the stressful situations you encounter in your life.
High blood sugar
Stress causes your liver to produce extra blood sugar, or glucose, to provide you with a boost in energy as part of the body’s fight-or-flight response. But chronic stress overworks your liver and can cause your blood sugar levels to stay consistently high — putting you at risk of type 2 diabetes. If you’re experiencing high blood sugar due to chronic stress, eating a diet high in superfoods like leafy greens and seeds may help stabilize your blood sugar and naturally reduce stress.
Symptoms of stress such as an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and fluctuations in hormones can all upset your digestive system and cause problems such as nausea, vomiting, and stomach aches. Stress also increases the production of stomach acid, which can create or worsen acid reflux and heartburn. Diarrhea and constipation are other common digestive problems associated with stress.
Stress causes your muscles to tense up so you can protect yourself from injury at times of fight-or-flight. But experiencing chronic stress can cause your muscles to remain tense without any breaks for relaxation. Over time, muscle tightness and tension can lead to headaches, back pain, shoulder pain, and other body aches. If you exercise regularly without properly stretching, muscle tightness can increase your risk of athletic injuries involving muscle strains and ligament sprains.
Stress stimulates your immune system so you can get through and survive the toughest of physical challenges. But chronic stress can overwork your immune system to the point it becomes weak and leaves you more susceptible to illness, disease, and infection. Those who suffer from chronic stress often take longer to recover from illness and injury. Chronic stress also increases your risk of lung disease, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, mental health disorders, and suicide.
Poor oral health
Teeth grinding is common among those who suffer from stress and anxiety. Also known as bruxism, teeth grinding can happen while you sleep and cause lasting damage to your teeth, jaw, and gums. As a result, you face a heightened risk of gum disease and tooth loss. Those who experience chronic stress may lower their risk of tooth and gum problems by visiting their dentists regularly and practicing good nutrition.
Breakdown of central nervous system
At times of stress, your body produces increased amounts of adrenaline and cortisol to boost your energy as part of your fight-or-flight response. The spikes in these hormones increase your heart rate and respiration, dilate blood vessels in your arms and legs, and release more glucose into your bloodstream so you can deal with stressful situations.
When stress is experienced in the short term, your body naturally returns to its previously unstressed state. But with chronic stress, these bodily processes can wear down your central nervous system and lead to chronic low-grade inflammation. Over time, inflammation can lead to numerous health problems, including heart problems, autoimmune syndromes, mental illnesses, and cancer.
Heart and respiratory problems
Stress increases your respiration and heart rate to physically prepare your body for a stressful situation. Rapid breathing speeds up oxygen distribution throughout your body, while your blood pressure increases and blood vessels constrict.
Chronic stress can put undue strain on the heart and cause problems such as high blood pressure, which increases your risk of fatal events including stroke and heart attack. Those who already suffer from breathing problems like emphysema or asthma may experience worsened breathing problems due to chronic stress.
Sexual and reproductive problems
Chronic stress can cause hormonal disruptions that affect your sex hormones and reproductive system. Men who suffer from chronic stress can experience declines in testosterone, which can then cause low sperm count, erectile dysfunction, and infection of the prostate and/or testes. Women who suffer from chronic stress can experience heavy, painful, and/or irregular menstrual periods, along with worsened PMS and menopause symptoms.
Chronic stress can affect one’s ability to conceive, and cause you to suffer decline in sexual libido and performance. Women who experience chronic stress throughout their pregnancies are more prone to giving birth to children who go on to experience behavioral and developmental issues.
Loss of control over emotions
Chronic stress can cause chemical imbalances in the brain that affect your emotions, and that can lead to frequent mood swings and bouts of irritability. Chronic stress can also lead to negative thinking, make you feel more on edge, and cause you to lose your sense of humor.
Evidence suggests that even mild stress levels can impair your ability to control your emotions, and that individuals experiencing mild stress have more difficulty calming themselves down. Chronic stress can further impair your ability to handle your emotions, and significantly increases your risk of suicidal ideation and suicide.
Chronic stress causes your body to produce more cortisol on an ongoing basis, which can quickly lead to weight gain since increased levels of cortisol spur your body’s insulin production.
Many who suffer from chronic stress tend to crave and overeat fried foods, desserts, fast foods, and other foods high in sugar and fat. However, healthy foods like vegetables are packed with nutrients that can have a more positive effect on your overall health and may even help reduce stress. If you’re under stress and find yourself craving junk foods, make a conscious effort to keep making healthy food choices to avoid worsened health symptoms and weight gain.
Chronic stress accelerates the aging process and can make you look far older than your true age. Stress has the ability to shorten telomeres — caps on the ends of chromosomes that determine your true biological age. Shortened telomeres have been linked to physical signs of premature aging including fine lines, wrinkles, and poor eyesight. Evidence reveals that shortened telomeres are also associated with higher rates of chronic disease and early death.
To stop your body from aging prematurely, get help for chronic stress and combine regular exercise with quality sleep and good nutrition. These healthy lifestyle habits can help slow down your body’s aging process and may even lengthen your telomeres.
Anxiety, tension, back pain, and chronic pain are all common causes of insomnia. All of these symptoms can be triggered by chronic stress. Stress and insomnia are closely linked due to the way each health condition can lead to and worsen the other. Stress can make it difficult for you to fall asleep and stay asleep. At the same time, insomnia and lack of sleep put undue strain on the body and all major organs, and can also lead to mental and emotional stress.
Certain bedtime behaviors can naturally help reduce both insomnia and stress. Take a warm, relaxing bath before bedtime or spend an hour reading and listening to soothing music to help yourself wind down. Avoid drinking caffeine up to six hours before bedtime, since caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you awake and worsen symptoms of chronic stress such as high blood pressure.
Mental health disorders
Researchers have learned that chronic stress can cause long-term changes in brain structure that put people at higher risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders later in life. Chronic stress is also closely tied to schizophrenia and PTSD.
The high cortisol levels your body produces when experiencing chronic stress can interfere with your brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is a chemical responsible for feelings of reward and motivation, while serotonin is responsible for learning, appetite control, sleep, and mood. Chronic stress can lead to the depletion of these important chemicals and damage their receptor sites, leading to a higher risk of mental health disorders. Women with low serotonin levels are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and binge eating, while men with low serotonin levels are especially vulnerable to ADHD, impulse control issues, and alcohol use disorder.
Healthy ways to manage stress
Stress is normal and unavoidable, but knowing how to manage stress in healthy ways can help you avoid chronic stress and the many related health problems that can come with it. An important key to managing stress is being able to identify the root causes of your stress. After identifying your stressors, you can work on eliminating them from your life or devise ways to manage them more effectively. This helps you learn how to recover more quickly from future stressful events and situations and lower your risk of chronic stress.
The following are some healthy ways to manage and reduce stress:
- Familiarize yourself with signs of stress. Knowing common signs of stress such as mood swings, insomnia, and fatigue can clue you in to whether you may be suffering from stress. You may be experiencing chronic stress if these symptoms have been consistent and long-term.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise naturally reduces stress by improving blood flow and circulation, promoting good sleep, and increasing your body’s production of endorphins — feel-good hormones that reduce pain and stress. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise like walking or swimming on most days of the week.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, yoga, and meditation are just some relaxing activities that can naturally reduce stress. Start taking yoga or tai chi classes, or talk to your doctor about other healthy relaxation techniques that relieve stress.
- Practice good nutrition. Many whole foods contain antioxidants, nutrients, and healthy compounds that naturally reduce stress by lowering heart rate, improving blood flow, and boosting your energy level. Stop eating junk foods and foods high in sugar and fat that will only worsen stress, and stick to eating healthy whole foods like lean meats and vegetables to help stave off and regulate stress.
- Get plenty of quality sleep. Aim to get between seven and eight hours of sleep per night to maintain good overall health and prevent the onset of stress caused by sleep deprivation. Start going to bed earlier, invest in a comfortable mattress and bedding, and avoid all electronic devices with screens one hour before bedtime to promote a quality, good night’s sleep.
- Set realistic goals. If the source of your stress stems from being unable to reach certain goals or address certain priorities, reevaluate your goals and priorities to determine whether they’re realistic, or you’re setting the bar too high. Having unrealistic goals and expectations can drive your stress level and lead to chronic stress. For instance, if your goal is to lose weight, work with your doctor to set realistic, achievable milestones based on your current health status.
- Have a solid support team. Surround yourself with positive, loving friends and family members who can cheer you up and be supportive when you find yourself in stressful situations. Also, consider involving yourself in healthy social and community activities that can expose you to others who share your same interests and can indirectly help you relieve stress.
Talk to your doctor immediately if you’re unable to manage stress using any of these methods, or need help fighting chronic stress. Your doctor can help you better understand the negative effects of stress on the body, and work with you to treat chronic stress. Reducing stress can allow you to achieve better overall health and lower your risk of weight gain, cancer, and other serious stress-induced health conditions.
If you believe health issues related to chronic stress are interfering with your ability to lose weight, Quest Weight Loss can help. Our fully customized weight-loss plans are designed to target the underlying issues that can make weight loss difficult, including inflammation, hormone imbalances, and lifestyle issues that contribute to chronic stress. Contact us today for your free consultation.