9 Ways Stress Affects Your Health
Never underestimate the role of stress and its impact on your health, not just your hormones.
You will be familiar with the common signs – the ‘fight or flight response’ so that your muscles tense, your heart races, and you start breathing more rapidly.
That is your body preparing to deal with a potential threat, whether physical or psychological doesn’t matter because the response is the same.
If you experience this often, then you will be suffering chronic stress and that can seriously damage your health.
Hormones are the means by which your body is alerted: the adrenal glands get ready to run or fight with the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
When those stay at a high level for a long time, they can weaken your bones and your immune system, interfere with sleep, and make you lose muscle.
These are all the ways stress can affect your health.
1. Hormone balance
Women usually seriously underestimate the effect stress has on their hormonal health. It affects your menstrual cycle causing irregular or missed or painful periods. PMS gets worse, and you deplete your body’s progesterone levels, the hormone that helps keep you calm, so hormonal symptoms get more severe.
2. Digestive issues
Do you feel sick, or jittery when you are stressed? That is a natural response because your body switches focus from digestion to what may be needed. For instance it focuses on your muscles in case you have to run or fight so whether you have a low mood or hot flush is not as important to your body as the immediate perceived danger.
3. Diarrhoea, constipation and IBS
If stress closes down your digestive system too often it will affect your body’s ability to take in nutrients. The result can be diarrhoea and constipation and there also seems to be a link between stress and irritable bowel syndrome. Common symptoms of this are stomach pain and cramping and often triggered by stress and anxiety.
4. Heartburn and Acid Reflux
Unfortunately when we are stressed we don’t eat healthily, we reach for alcohol, sweets and ‘comfort’ food. The result is heartburn and acid reflux and if not treated may lead to ulcers. It can also lead to increased weight gain and that just can add to your stress load.
Heard of a tension headache? That’s because when you’re stressed, the muscles in your head, neck, and shoulders tighten up. Anything to reduce the stress will help, as will seeing a chiropractor or having a massage to relieve those tense muscles.
Women may feel less interested in sex, but chronic stress can cause real trouble for men and can lead to erectile dysfunction. Progesterone is the hormone that helps women, but it is testosterone that may be needed for men who are stressed.
7. Breathing issues
When you’re stressed, your breath changes. It becomes harder and faster, which can be a problem if you have a condition like asthma or a lung disease, like emphysema, which makes it difficult to get enough oxygen into your lungs.
A simple exercise is to practice slow inhalation and exhalation, in for 5 – hold for 5 – out for five. This will also help you calm down.
8. Heart Problems
Being stressed raises your blood pressure, which if constant and untreated can lead to a heart attack or stroke. It also may cause inflammation of the blood vessels that supply blood to your heart muscle, and that also can lead to a heart attack.
When you’re stressed, your liver releases glucose into your blood to fuel your fight-or-flight response. This can lead to diabetes if you already have a predisposition through family history or you are overweight and have other risk factors. Learning to manage your stress can help control your blood sugar.
How to help yourself
Try to find the root of what is stressing you and take some action towards reducing it. It is helpful to have some enjoyable, moderate exercise every day such as walking, gardening or swimming as they have all been shown to reduce stress.
You can become very caught up in your own stress levels, but try to see it as something that can sometimes be helpful. You don’t want an airline pilot to be too relaxed, but stress at low levels keeps us alert, and that is a good thing to alert us to potential problems.
Think of something other than your own stress as, in one study, people who did nice things for friends and family during stressful times had fewer health issues than those who didn’t.