For most of us, stress is a normal part of working life.
A report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and healthcare company Simplyhealth recently found that stress has moved ahead of problems such as repetitive strain injury or acute medical conditions such as cancer to become the top reason for taking sick leave of four weeks or longer in the UK.
But how exactly does stress affect our bodies? Health experts explain everything you need to know about the scary things that happen when you feel tense for a long time:
1. Making you tired
Ever wondered why you feel tired because of stress? That’s because when your body detects stress, the hypothalamus – a small region in the base of the brain – reacts by stimulating the body to produce hormones that include adrenaline and cortisol.
Cortisol, which is also known as the stress hormone, triggers the release of glucose into the bloodstream to temporarily increase energy in order to help you fight or run away. But the process also puts a strain on your body.
“Stress has a physiological effect on your body by releasing hormones into your bloodstream which accelerate your heart rate and your breathing,” says Tim Hipgrave, emotional health lead at Nuffield Health. “This constant strain on your system can have an exhausting effect, leaving you feeling tired all the time.”
2. Depriving you of sleep
You may be tired as a result of stress but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to sleep.
“In a cruel twist, stress can also prevent you from sleeping,” adds Hipgrave.
“Stress has been found to activate the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis in the brain, which plays a part in sleep-wake regulation.
“You may experience sleep loss and find that you are constantly going over the same issue in your head again and again. This is your brain working overtime to try to find a solution.”
3. Causing damage to your teeth
“Bruxism, or teeth grinding, is much more likely to occur when we’re stressed – around 70% of cases are due to stress or anxiety,” says Dr Luke Thorley, dentist and ambassador for CB12. “Women are also more likely to be affected than men.
“Clenching of the jaw, nocturnal grinding and temporomandibular joint dysfunction (pain and dysfunction of the jaw muscles) are all physical side effects of stress, and all have a massive impact on our teeth.
“Patients have come to me with tooth sensitivity, worn enamel and facial muscle pain, all side effects of stress-induced grinding. In order to protect at-risk teeth, I would recommend a vigilant oral hygiene routine, including a high-quality fluoride mouthwash, to help alleviate the impact grinding has on your teeth.
“Those who suffer with extreme bruxism can also use mouth guards or bite guards worn at night.”
4. Causing headaches
Headaches are probably one of the most common symptoms of stress.
“When we are under stress our bodies create a surge of hormones to deal with it and this surge can lead to tension headaches and muscle pain,” says women’s health expert Dr Catherine Hood.
“Even a light or short episode of stress from simply overworking can result in headaches.”
5. Decreasing your libido
For your libido to function properly, your hormone balance and neurological pathways need to be in sync. When you are stressed, the hormones interfere with this balance and can lead to a loss of libido. For women, it can also affect their menstrual cycle.
“Stress can affect menstrual cycle and ovulation in a way that we do not understand well,” says Mr Narendra Pisal, consultant gynaecologist at London Gynaecology. “It can either delay or shorten the menstrual cycle but in an unpredictable way.”
6. Making you eat unhealthily
“It’s common for people who are stressed to have a poor diet or to overeat,” says Hipgrave. “One factor is that stressed people will often be short on time and resort to unhealthy fast foods.
“People who are in a stressed state in the short term may lose their appetite, this is because part of the brain called the hypothalamus produces a corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite.
“But people who are chronically stressed (for a long period of time) release cortisol, which increases your appetite, especially for sweet and starchy foods.”
7. Causing hair loss
“You’d be amazed by how your mind can control what goes on in your body,” says Sara Allison, trichologist and founder of Hair Today More Tomorrow. “Stress can cause so many health problems including hair loss.”
Allison says it is important to relax as much as possible, whether that’s through exercise, meditation, massages or anything that can help you de-stress.
“If you do have hair problems, please don’t stress about is as this will only make it worse. Hair loss and thinning is usually reversible if you get the right help and support.”
8. Shutting down certain body functions
Ever get the feeling you just can’t think straight because of stress? That’s because as the body releases cortisol to help regulate our stress, at the same time it shuts bodily functions which are not immediately needed, such as digestion.
“When we are in this mode the blood diversion subsequently ‘shuts down’ unnecessary functions – a crucial one of which is brainpower,” says NLP practitioner Tam Johnston from Fresh Insight Coaching.
“Fight mode is still useful if you need to get out of a dangerous situation. But, in the main, it kicks in at the most inappropriate times and creates that feeling of ‘I just can’t think straight’.
“This inability to think is a real hindrance in both our work and home lives.”
9. Weakening your immune system
Research suggests you could be more vulnerable to flu or cold if you are stressed. “In prolonged cases of stress, your body can trigger off inflammation in certain areas,” adds Johnson.
“This can be the cause of exacerbating many well-known inflammatory conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome as well as autoimmune conditions, where the body starts attacking itself.”
10. Causing ‘the cortisol effect’
“To add another level to the physiological effects of stress on the body, let’s come back to the cortisol effect,” says Shona Wilkinson of SuperfoodUK.
“Cortisol is made from cholesterol in the body but it’s not the only hormone that is. It’s also needed for progesterone, oestrogen, DHEA and testosterone.
“If our cortisol is in demand, and therefore constantly being manufactured, then it can affect the production and utilisation of all these other hormones, which then begins to impact on our overall health.
“Prolonged stress response can end up making our adrenals exhausted, leading to them not producing enough cortisol. This is similar to how people develop insulin resistance when their pancreas is expected to produce insulin at a high rate.”
11. Giving you bad posture
“The body is directly affected by the stress,” says yoga and meditation teacher Chris James, founder of Chris James Mind Body. “When you experience stress, your muscles tighten and breath flow decreases.
“Responses to stress are reflected corporally in a person’s posture, which will alter according to where and how tension is held in various parts of the body.”
James says stress can also affect the alignment of the neck, where most people tend to hold their tension, causing the head to come forward or the chin to jut out.
“Stress and tension can also be carried in the jaw and face and tension in the shoulders may cause them to round.”