The Impact of Stress On The Body

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I’ve found the last few weeks (the past year, in fact) to be more than a little overwhelming, emotional – and stressful.

Many of us have started 2021 in high-stress situations, pushed to our limits by lockdown, missing friends and family, job and financial uncertainties, home schooling and grief. Add into this the already difficult months of winter, with their never-ending dark nights and grey skies, and it’s easy to see why many of us are feeling like we are at breaking point.

If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, or like you’re drowning in grief or sorrow or any other emotion, then I’d like you to know that you are not alone. This is a normal response to what is an incredibly emotional and traumatic time. If you do need someone to talk to, then please always feel free to DM me on Instagram or email me.

And, while I’m not suggesting that there is a magic wand, ready to wave away your troubles, there are small steps you can take to limit your stress response and the impact it has on the body (this will be the focus of my next post!).

However, to address stress, I also think that it’s important to understand the impact it can have on your body. Read on for all that you need to know about stress…

STRESS: THE SCIENTIFIC BIT

Feel free to skip over this part if you like – I understand that not everyone wants to dive in deep and read the more scientific parts, and that’s OK! However, sometimes it can be helpful (and releasing in itself) to open the door as to what is going on inside the body.

Stress, in its simplest definition, is our body’s way of coping with a perceived threat. When we’re feeling stressed (and what we see as a stressful situation can differ for all of us!), our nervous system takes action by releasing hormones such as Adrenaline and Cortisol (AKA The Stress Hormone) which are designed to help out body take action.

When you’re feeling stressed, you might notice your pulse and your breath quicken, your senses become sharper. Your reaction times, strength and even your stamina may see a sharp rise – all of these are designed to help us to cope with stressful situations, to survive and stay alert.

So, as you can see, stress is a crucial part of our design. In fact, in some cases, it’s stress that actually keeps us alive. You see, high-stress situations cause the “fight-or-flight” response to kick in, helping our hunter-gatherer selves to flee from danger or find inner strength to protect ourselves in emergencies. It also helps us to focus and stay motivated during big meetings or exam situations.

Once this perceived threat is over, we then ideally return to homeostasis, or our “natural” state.

However, the problem comes when¬† we experience chronic, long-term stress. When our stress hormones are constantly high, or when we’re permanently in Fight or Flight mode, stress starts to take its toll on the body.

WHAT CAN CHRONIC STRESS DO TO THE BODY?

So, while short-term stress can be incredibly helpful for the body, chronic stress can cause serious issues within. In fact, constant stress can affect almost every part of the body!

You see, when we are stressed, our body focuses all its attention and energy on removing us from what it sees as danger. This means that many other essential bodily functions will be pushed down the VIP Queue as we cope with the inner turmoil we feel as we get another urgent email / a bill that needs to be paid / a lost shoe when we’re running late already / a break-up.

While we will all experience different responses to chronic stress, here are some signs that you may need support. (It’s worth noting that stress isn’t the only cause of these issues – there may be different underlying factors involved, so always seek medical advice if needed!)

Depression, anxiety or feeling constantly overwhelmed

Sleep issues such as insomnia

Chronic fatigue

Digestive issues (such as IBS, diarrhoea or bloating)

Hormonal issues (for women, this could be painful periods / PMS / absent periods and even infertility)

Weight gain – especially around the middle (the so-called “Muffin Top”)

Autoimmune conditions

Frequent colds or illnesses 

Irritability 

Inflammatory conditions

Skin complaints, such as acne or eczema

Memory issues or brain fog

Pain in the body

Blood sugar issues (chronic stress can cause insulin resistance)

Adrenal fatigue

Procrastination

Appetite changes (wanting to eat more or less)

It sounds a lot, right? And trust me when I say – that is by no means an exhaustive list!

We are all individuals and, as such, stress affects us all differently. However, if you are unsure of your symptoms, always speak to a medical professional for support and advice.

WHAT ABOUT OUR HORMONES?

For many of us, the true impact of stress goes unnoticed until we get sick or experience symptoms such as migraines or digestive complaints. Yet as you’ve now seen, stress can affect almost every aspect of our health.

Added to this load is the fact that it wreaks havoc with our hormones (AKA our body’s clever chemical messengers), which is why women may experience issues with their monthly cycles during times of worry or anxiety.

Want to know a bit more? Here’s how a daily dose of chaos may be impacting a few, key hormones (there are many more, but I thought I’d narrow it down to three!):

Insulin

Unfortunately, one of the long-term impacts of chronic stress can be Insulin Resistance – and here’s why. As you know, when we find ourselves in a stressful situation, our body’s ‘Fight or Flight’ survival mode kicks in. To help save your life (even if your stressful event is back-to-back meetings!), your body prioritises your survival over everything else.

This means that important functions such as digestion will be kicked to the back of the queue while your body sends all its energy into raising your heart rate and powering your muscles, ready for you to flee. At the same time, Cortisol gets released, which then encourages the release of glucose into our bloodstream.

In our body’s eyes, this glucose is there to be used as quick energy to save our lives. Yet, as we know, it’s very rare that our day-to-day stresses involve legging it from a ferocious bear – and we therefore don’t need this excess glucose.

As a result of long-term stress, our blood sugars stay elevated and therefore Insulin (which helps to regulate blood sugar levels) is seriously affected. Long-term, this can lead to weight gain or even insulin resistance, so avoiding eating foods which are sugary (and exacerbate the problem) is crucial!

Progesterone

As I’ve mentioned, when your body is in Stress Mode, other functions – including the Reproductive System – will be made less of a priority. Because of this, chronic stress can have a chaotic effect on Progesterone, one of our key sex hormones.

Progesterone is often known as a female hormone, although men need it to produce testosterone. However, here we’re going to talk about it in relation to women.

In a female cycle, Progesterone is key for helping us to maintain a healthy pregnancy, as well as healthy menstruation. However, it’s also calming, anti-anxiety and encourages the body to burn fat for fuel. It helps women to keep the uterine lining in tact and its levels will rise if conception occurs. However, if a woman fails to get pregnant, levels will start to drop off as the lining is shed during a period.

Unfortunately, when we are stressed, the body signals to prioritise Cortisol over all else. This means that Progesterone falls even further down the list of priorities, which can ultimately lead to Oestrogen-dominance (which comes with all kinds of problems), an anxious or low mood and menstrual issues.

Oestrogen

Oestrogen is also mainly a female hormone (although men do make it in small amounts) and gives us our feminine curves! It’s crucial for reproduction (although it’s also needed for bone growth) and its main role is to lay down our uterine lining to prepare the body for a pregnancy.

In an ideal world, Oestrogen and Progesterone will live in perfect harmony during our cycles. Yet, as we just talked about, our Progesterone levels often drop off during times of stress, which can lead to excess Oestrogen or Oestrogen-Dominance.

What makes this even worse is that our livers need even more support in flushing out excess Oestrogen during times of stress (when we are stressed, blood flow to the liver can drop off, for example), leading to an even greater build-up in Oestrogen of many women.

This can lead to anxiety, mood swings, painful periods, breast tenderness, bloating and fluid retention – all those classic signs of PMS that none of us want!

Chronic stress may also affect your Thyroid (affecting your metabolism and making you more prone to weight gain or fatigue) and also Testosterone, leading to fatigue and a low libido.

WHAT CAN I DO?

While it may seem overwhelming and fairly scary, there is plenty you can do to support your body during periods of stress! I’ve shared some of my favourite simple techniques in this blog post – Ten Simple Tips to Ease Stress – which you can read here.

Author: Sam

I'm a freelance health, food and fitness journalist, busy mama and recipe creator!

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