How Stress Affects the Body
- By: Jamie Emerson
- Brain Health
- April 8, 2021
- 6 Min read
There’s a lot of different things in life that can cause one stress. While the body is designed to handle a certain amount of stress, constant stress can put your health at serious risk and lead to complications. This article explores what stress does to your body and the long-term effects of chronic stress that can lead to serious health problems.
How Does Stress Affect Your Body?
Your body responds to stress through a process called allostasis. This allostasis process responds to either short-term stress (acute stress), or long-term stress (chronic stress). Short-term stress is your “fight or flight” response that most likely goes away once the situation resolves. Chronic stress is more likely to affect your health than one stressful instance. According to the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, “Chronic or long-term stress poses a problem. If you repeatedly face challenges and your body is constantly producing higher levels of hormones, it doesn’t have time to recover. Stress hormones build up in the blood and, over time, can cause serious health problems.”
What Kind of Effect Does Chronic Stress Have?
Chronic stress has severe repercussions in the following areas:
- Obesity. Stress can lead to an increase in appetite leading to weight gain. This is because your body has three hormones that come into play while you’re under stress. First, serotonin is the chemical in your body that makes you feel good, which your body releases when you eat all of those unhealthy carbs. Second is cortisol, which manages fat storage in your body. An excess of cortisol is released when you’re under stress, leading you to want to eat more. The third is Neuropeptide Y, which is released when under stress or when fat and sugar are ingested and encourages fat accumulation. With chronic stress, your body has more of these hormones than normal, which can lead to obesity, and an increased risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
- Digestive system. Your body produces glucose under stress. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this glucose production, increasing your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. Also, stress hormones slow the digestive process. This can contribute to heartburn or acid reflux or constipation. While stress is not a direct cause, these changes increase susceptibility to stomach ulcers.
- Immune System. Short-term stress has been shown to have benefits to your immune system by stimulating it, which can help with healing wounds and avoiding infections. However, it’s chronic stress that can take its toll on your immune system. Long-term stress wears down your immune system and leaves it prone to infection. People with chronic stress are more susceptible to things like a cold or the flu, and increase the time required to recover from an injury or illness.
- Nervous system. Your nervous system is the reason you have a “fight-or-flight” response to begin with. When a stressor goes away, your hypothalamus should tell your systems to stand down and go back to normal. However, if your central nervous system doesn’t go back to normal or the source of your stress doesn’t go away, your “fight-or-flight” response won’t go away either, leading to chronic stress. This can eventually lead to behaviors such as dietary issues, substance abuse, or social withdrawal. (See also How Stress Affects the Mind.)
- Cardiovascular system. Under stress, your body sends out hormones that cause you to breathe faster and raise your blood pressure so it can pump out more blood to your muscles. While this may be fine in a short-term stress situation, long-term stress with these things can lead to serious issues. The increased breathing can exacerbate existing issues like asthma and emphysema. Frequent stress can make your heart work too hard for too long. Constantly increased blood pressure increases your chances for a heart attack or stroke.
- Sexuality and the reproductive system. Stress takes its toll on the body and mind. It’s pretty common for someone to lose their sex drive when they’re under a lot of stress. There is some evidence men create more testosterone when under stress, but this is a short-term gain that doesn’t last. Long-term stress can lead to testosterone levels dropping, leading to low sperm count and erectile dysfunction or impotence. It can even lead to infection of the prostate or testes. In women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle leading to heavy, irregular, or more painful periods. Chronic stress has also been shown to increase the symptoms of menopause.
What Are The Symptoms of Chronic Stress?
You may have chronic stress if you experience these symptoms:
- Chest pain/pressure or rapid heartbeat
What Can You Do to Lower Your Stress?
If you experience these symptoms, the best thing you can do is find strategies to relax and remove what’s stressing you to the best of your ability. There are several practical things you can do such as getting a good night’s sleep, meditating, seeking emotional support from friends and family, maintaining a good diet, and cutting out smoking and excessive drinking. If your symptoms are severe and don’t seem to go away, seek help from a physician. They can help you identify the source of your stress and help you put a game plan together to help manage it. For other tips on reducing stress and anxiety, check out Mindfulness? What's That? and 10 Practices For Reducing Anxiety.
It’s important to keep yourself as stress free as you can. Long-term stress can have adverse effects on your body and lead to serious health issues down the line. This is easier said than done. If you think you are experiencing chronic stress, not only should you find ways to destress, but seek the help of a physician and or other healthcare professionals to find strategies to help you get better.