Feeling tired and low on energy? Have a hard time falling asleep? Or perhaps you keep gaining weight despite staying active and eating healthy? Believe it or not, stress might be the culprit. In the long run, it affects every system in your body, including your metabolism, digestion, liver function, and mental health. If left uncontrolled, it can have major effects on your mood and behavior.
According to a recent study, the number of stressed Australians increased by a third over the past 10 years. Work pressure, lack of sleep, and multitasking are the primary stressors in their lives. A whopping 44 percent say that sleep deprivation is the main culprit. In a survey, 75 percent of respondents said that stress affected their physical health.
Even though stress is a normal part of life, too much of it can be harmful. It messes up your hormones, weakens immune function, and increases the risk of death from all causes. While you can’t completely eliminate stress, there are ways to keep it under control. Simple things, such as tweaking your diet, exercising more, and meditating for a few minutes every day, can make all the difference.
First, let’s see how stress affects your health and why it’s so harmful!
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
Under normal conditions, your body enters the fight-or-flight mode and releases cortisol in response to acute stress. This can happen when you’re stuck in traffic, getting ready for a job interview, or facing relationship issues. Basically, it’s a normal reaction to a traumatic event or daily worries. In this case, we’re talking about acute stress.
Due to its short duration, acute stress is unlikely to affect your health on the long term. You may experience headaches, muscle pain, indigestion, rapid heartbeat, and other symptoms that usually go away within days. This type of stress is sometimes beneficial as it keeps you alert and protects you from danger.
For example, when you’re crossing the street and a car approaches at lightning speed, you panic and get out of its way. Acute stress can also boost your mental performance and cognitive skills when you’re studying for an exam or presenting a project. That’s why most people tend to perform better when they are alert or facing tight deadlines.
The body’s fight-or-flight response is a fundamental survival mechanism. When this process kicks in, you become more aware of your surroundings and can make faster decisions. Additionally, acute stress helps your body recover and boosts immune function during injury rehab, surgery, and infection.
The problem arises when stress continues for an extended period or becomes a way of life. For example, if you’ve been working like crazy over the past three months, you may be facing chronic stress. The same can happen after a depressive episode or the death of a loved one.
Imagine you’ve just moved to a new city, hoping for the best. Yet, you run out of money or lose your job soon after taking this step. You keep struggling to find work and improve your finances for months or even years. This leads to chronic stress. Basically, you’re stuck in fight-or-flight mode, which can take a toll on your health.
Chronic stress affects both your mind and body. In its presence, your cortisol levels are up 24/7. This hormone affects insulin response, testosterone levels, metabolic rate, cardiovascular function, and immunity. Over time, it promotes the onset of psychosomatic disorders, such as IBS, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, eczema, and even cancer.
The Frightening Side Effects of Stress
Prolonged or excessive stress causes your body to release cortisol around the clock. This can trigger mental and physical symptoms – and make existing problems worse. If you’re ill, it can slow the healing process and affect your ability to recover.
Job stress, for instance, has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease. Furthermore, studies indicate that chronic stress may increase the risk of insulin resistance, type II diabetes, alcohol dependence, and musculoskeletal disorders. It also affects your productivity and work performance, interferes with your sleep, and causes fatigue.
According to a survey conducted on EU employees, 39 percent of those were stressed experienced back pain. Approximately 44 percent reported overall fatigue, while 28 percent complained about headaches. A whopping eight percent of employees developed heart disease because of stress. Financial struggles, long working hours, job insecurity, low support, and heavy workload were cited as the main stressors.
Recent evidence shows that chronic stress triggers macroscopic changes in certain brain areas. In the long run, it reduces the brain’s volume, causes inflammation and tissue damage, and leads to neuronal death. Depression and mental diseases are more likely to occur in those who are stressed for extended periods of time.
If you’re gaining weight for no obvious reason, blame stress for those extra pounds. Elevated cortisol levels slow your metabolism, causing your body to use less energy to sustain itself. In other words, you burn fewer calories despite eating clean and working out regularly.
Be aware also that if you are an endomorph body type (especially guardians, a body type used in my genetics health coaching) that cortisol levels will rise if you get up early and exercise. This means that your body will go into ‘protection mode’ and actually hold onto the excess weight rather than helping the body lose weight. Some of my clients actually lose weight by staying in bed longer and exercising in the afternoon !
Chronic stress affects food preferences and appetite too. You may feel hungry all the time, crave sugar and high-fat foods, or eat more than usual. Furthermore, cortisol affects your body’s ability to utilize insulin, which may lead to weight gain, especially in the abdominal area.
This hormone also lowers your testosterone levels, making it harder to lose fat and build muscle. Low testosterone levels equal decreased exercise performance, fatigue, poor libido, and slow post-workout recovery.
What Can You Do about It?
Now that you know how stress affects your health, take the steps needed to keep it under control. Squeeze more “me” time into your schedule, get more rest, and commit to an active lifestyle. Exercise, for instance, stimulates the release of endorphins, the so-called happiness or feel-good hormones. These brain chemicals will lift your mood and improve stress response.
Meditation, yoga, acupuncture, and dietary changes can help too. For example, certain foods, such as nuts, berries, asparagus, dark chocolate, oysters, and oats, contain B-complex vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and other nutrients that can offset the harmful effects of stress. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and junk food make things worse, so it’s better to avoid them.
Look out for the next blog in the stress series – coming soon.
If you require help with your stress levels, contact me today for an obligation free chat to see how my coaching can help.