10 Surprising Ways Stress is Harming Your Health

Why Stress Matters? Ever feel like stress is just a part of life? You’re not alone. But here’s the twist: Stress harms your health more than you think.  Stress can sneak up on you in many ways, from making your heart race to messing with your sleep.

Let’s dive into how stress affects your body and what you can do about it.

1. Stress and the Brain

Your brain is like a supercomputer. It decides what matters, especially when you’re stressed. The amygdala, a part of the brain, acts like a stress alarm. It tells your body to either fight or take flight. This sets off a series of reactions involving the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis (HPA axis) – a link between your brain and adrenal glands. The result? A rush of hormones that keep you on your toes.

2. The HPA Axis and Stress

When stressed, your brain’s HPA axis kicks into high gear. It’s like pressing the gas pedal on hormone production, leading to cortisol. How is this done?

The hypothalamus makes a substance called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) that tells the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol and other chemicals.

These chemicals help turn off the HPA axis. But too much of it can also lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

3. Stress and Your Nerves

Stress makes the nervous system more active. Think of it like putting your body in high-alert mode.

When the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) starts to fire, it causes constriction of blood vessels, leading to higher blood pressure, rapid heart rate and tense muscles.  These resulted in sweat and feeling hot. It’s your body’s way of preparing for action. This is called a fight or flight reaction. 

The SNS releases adrenaline-like chemicals that make the body more alert.

4. Stress Weakens the Immune System

The danger of chronic stress is that it can weaken your immune system.

Stress alters how immune system genes work, leads to inflammation, and weakens the ability to fight infection. As a result, the body is more prone to inflammation and sickness when stressed.

Stress also changes levels of certain chemicals, including cortisol, making it more difficult for white blood cells to mature and function properly. This can increase the risk of infections. So, You might find yourself catching colds more easily when you’re stressed.

5. How Stress Affects Blood Vessels

Over time, stress can damage blood vessels.

It affects their function, changes their reactions, and increases blood clotting.

Also, stress can increase inflammation in blood vessels, raising the chances of heart disease.

What are the Health Conditions Linked to Stress

As described earlier, the health risks of stress affect all of our bodily systems and manifest in various ways. 

  1. Mental Health – Prolonged stress alters chemicals in the brain, like serotonin and dopamine, which regulate mood and emotions. This can worsen anxiety and depression.
  2. Impact Heart Health – Stress hormones cause inflammation, constrict blood vessels, and raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
  3. Digestive Health – Stress can cause stomach upset, diarrhoea, constipation, and other digestion issues. Stress hormones slow digestion, leading to problems.
  4. Weaken the Immune System – Chronic stress exposes our body to high-stress hormone cortisol levels, suppressing immune function and making us more susceptible to colds and infections.
  5. Accelerates ageing – Chronic stress shortens telomeres, the protective caps on DNA strands, causing rapid ageing on a cellular level.
  6. Contributes to infertility – Studies show people have reduced fertility under periods of high stress, which impacts reproductive hormones.
  7. Worsens skin conditions – Stress leads to inflammation, which can worsen skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and acne breakouts.
  8. Promotes weight gain – Cortisol increases appetite, drives fat storage, and makes it harder to lose weight.
  9. Triggers digestive issues – Stress alters gut bacteria balance and impairs digestion, potentially causing diarrhoea, constipation, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome.
  10. Disrupts sleep – Stress and worrying at night activate the nervous system, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. Poor sleep comes with health issues.
  11. Lowers sex drive – High cortisol reduces libido in people by altering testosterone and estrogen levels.
  12. Headaches – Stress can result in tension headaches and migraines. When stressed, muscles tense up, causing head pain.
  13. Chronic Pain – Stress exacerbates chronic arthritis and back pain. Tense muscles make the pain worse.

What You Can Do Prevent Stress or minimise its effects

Finding healthy ways to manage stress is key if you feel stressed. Some helpful tips include:

  1. Practice relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, and yoga help lower stress hormones and activate the relaxation response. Doing them daily is ideal.
  2. Get regular exercise: Aim for 30-60 minutes per day. Exercising helps burn cortisol, boost feel-good endorphins, and alleviate tension. Find activities you enjoy.
  3. Improve time management: Prioritize important tasks, limit distractions, plan, and maintain a schedule. Reducing overwhelm and disorganization helps minimize stress.
  4. Maintain social connections: Interact regularly with supportive friends and family who uplift you. Social bonds are powerful stress buffers.
  5. Laugh and use humour: Finding reasons to laugh daily produces feel-good hormones that counteract stress. Don’t take things too seriously.
  6. Get adequate, good-quality sleep: Being well-rested makes you more equipped to handle stressful situations. Follow good sleep hygiene habits.
  7. Eat a balanced, nutritious diet: Skip processed foods, include plenty of fruits and veggies and stay hydrated. A healthy diet fortifies the body against stressors.
  8. Avoid unhealthy habits like smoking, excessive drinking and drugs: They may seem calming initially but make stress worse long-term.
  9. Seek counselling or therapy if needed: For chronic, excessive or unmanageable stress, seek help from a mental health professional.

The Bottom Line

Remember, it’s normal to feel stressed sometimes. The key is to handle it in healthy ways.

Understanding how stress harms your health and managing it can protect your physical and mental well-being.

Stay mindful, stay healthy!

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