You wouldn’t eat a food that shrinks your brain. You wouldn’t drive a car that makes you sweat. You wouldn’t buy a purse that worsens PMS. So why are we all so cool with stress being just “a part of life”? It doesn’t have to be. And if you reduce stress, you will be better for it. Because the impact stress has on your body is remarkable—and hazardous. Read on to discover 30 more things stress is doing to your body—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had Coronavirus.
Your head is more likely to throb when you’re stressed, according to the Mayo Clinic, with a tension-type headache or even a migraine. And feeling under pressure is also likely to make your headaches worse.
Stress kicks your body into its fight or flight mode, ramping up the release of certain hormones and preparing you to deal with danger. The result can sometimes be hands that shake like maracas.
We’re not kidding. When we’re stressed, our body releases the hormone cortisol, and in limited doses, it can actually be beneficial. But studies—including one at the University of California at Berkeley—have shown that chronic stress actually decreases the weight and volume of the brain.
Stress can increase the production of stomach acid, leading to that annoying reflux, as acid irritates the esophagus. And if you already suffer from chronic heartburn, stress can make it worse. A study of nearly 13,000 sufferers published in Internal Medicine discovered that nearly half reported stress as the biggest factor that worsened symptoms.
Stress gets us all riled up and causes hyper-arousal, making it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep and making the quality of our sleep worse.
Recommendation: The National Sleep Foundation suggests a cooling off period before bed time, which allows the brain to wind down. Two hours should do it. Put your work away, turn off the TV and grab a book or listen to music.
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When you’re stressed, the muscles responsible for breathing tense up, making it more difficult to catch your breath.
Recommendation: If you begin to feel panicky and short of breath, start by exhaling deeply, emptying your lungs. You can also try breathing through your nose, which automatically slows your breathing.
If it seems like you’re more likely to be sick when you’re stressed, you may not be imagining it. Studies have shed light on the link between stress and sickness, finding that those living with chronic stress (such as unemployment or caregiving to a dementia patient) had a suppressed immune system that left them more vulnerable to the flu and a host of other illnesses.
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When we’re under stress, our hearts beat faster to help blood reach our vital organs. Often it’s harmless, but it may not be for those suffering chronic stress. One study from the European Society of Cardiology found that people with stressful jobs—nurses or bus drivers, for example—had a 48% higher risk of atrial fibrillation, a condition marked by an irregular, often rapid heart beat.
Stress has been shown to cause reproductive problems in both men and women. In one study published in Fertility and Sterility, researchers tested 274 women who were trying to get pregnant and found that those with higher levels of a particular enzyme in their saliva correlated to stress had a 12% more difficult time getting knocked up.
Erectile dysfunction is complicated and can have physical as well as psychological causes. Science, however, has shown over and over that stress tends to make the condition worse by releasing more adrenaline and causing exaggerated contractions of the muscles in the penis, keeping it from filling with blood.
Research has shown that various kinds of stress can wreak havoc on a woman’s period, making it irregular or disappear altogether. And to make matters worse, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development studied 259 women and found that stress can also make PMS pain worse.
And it’s true in both men and women. The causes, a study shows, can be both physical and psychological. Stress causes hormonal changes in the body, which aren’t particularly conducive for getting it on. It also makes someone distracted, and when their mind is on something else, sex can take a back seat.
Recommendation: One way to break the no-sex cycle is to get more physical with your partner, according to the Gottman Institute. “It simply forces the body to go from stress to relaxation, if you allow this. Kiss your stressed out partner a little bit more and hug them for 20 seconds longer.”
Stress gets your heart pumping faster and spikes your blood pressure. Not good. Usually, the response in temporary, a reaction to a particular stressful event. But chronic stress over long periods of time can cause inflammation in the arteries, which could lead to a heart attack down the road.
Recommendation: Try some good ol’ fashioned exercise. Working out three to five times a week can reduce your stress and will make a difference long-term in lowering your blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic.
When you’re stressed, your body behaves as if it’s under attack, and your liver reacts by releasing more glucose into your bloodstream. Ongoing stress can lead to long-term sugar spikes, putting you at risk of type 2 diabetes, say experts.
Your gut has the most nerves in your body, this side of your brain, and stress can adversely affect your entire digestive system. The hormones released when you’re stressed can interfere with digestion and harm the microorganisms living in your digestive tract. Cue indigestion, cramps, nausea and a whole host of other GI issues.
That tightening can cause back aches and other ailments.
Recommendation: Next time you’re feeling stressed, reach for the walnuts. Researchers have shown that foods containing polyunsaturated fats, like the nuts, may help us deal better with stress.
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Stress can lead to a dry mouth in several ways, say experts. Anxious people tend to breathe through their mouths, drying out the inside. The acid reflux associated with stress can also have an affect on the salivary glands and keep them from producing as much.
Chronic stress can leave your feeling zapped of energy. It could be the accompanying insomnia, or some theorize that it might have something to do with exhausting your adrenal gland—though a 2016 review of the research debunked that diagnosis.
We sweat more when we’re stressed and we sweat differently, studies show. Anxiety causes sweat to be produced from the apocrine glands, which secrete a thicker, milkier sweat than our eccrine glands. The downside: sweat from the apocrine glands tends to stink more.
Getting headaches is one thing, but actually altering your genetic code? Yep. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have found that stress can switch on genes that weren’t supposed to be switched on. “The consequence is that genes that should be turned off are now active and this may disturb cellular development, identity and growth,” the researcher said.
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A study at Johns Hopkins concluded that long-term stress may affect the way that the genes controlling mood and behavior are expressed, leading a stressed-out person to be at a higher risk of depression. Tests on mice found that stress led to an increase in a protein produced by a gene called Fkbp5, which in humans has been linked to depression and bipolar disease.
“Are the strains and demands of modern society commonly exceeding human ability?” That’s the question asked by the authors of this study of more than 17,000 working adults in Stockholm, Sweden. The scientists found that even mild stress can lead to long-term disability or an inability to work. Those who experienced mild stress were 70% more likely to collect disability benefits.
Watch out. Men who are moderately or highly stressed for a number of years were found to have a 50 percent higher mortality rate, according to the Journal of Aging Research. The good news is that two very stressful situations a year might actually be beneficial, teaching us to cope with adversity. Anything beyond that, however, and it might be an early grave.
There may be something to that cliche about stress eating. Researchers at University College London found that feeling stressed changes what we eat. Those under pressure didn’t necessarily eat more, but they did reach for more sweet, fatty foods than usual.
Recommendation: If you’re feeling stressed, be more aware of what you’re eating and try to curb your consumption of junk food—no matter how much your brain is screaming that you need it. For food solutions, visit eatthis.com.
One of those areas of the brain that gets shrunken by stress is the hippocampus, which plays a big part in learning and memory. A 2018 study found that those with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol did worse on memory tests, especially women.
Research has shown that periods of mild to moderate stress may actually help the brain to better encode memories and improve learning. For example, a college student freaked out about an upcoming midterm may actually retain the material better and ace the test.
RELATED: 38 Ways You’re Treating Your Heart Wrong
In addition to generally suppressing the immune system, stress can lead to the growth of malignant cells, making a cancerous tumor bigger, says one study.
Children of parents with drinking problems face a greater risk of turning to booze after experiencing stressful situations, a University of Gothenburg study found.
Recommendation: “If alcohol relaxes you when you’re stressed, then you should try to find other ways of calming yourself down—relaxation exercises, for example,” the researcher suggests.
Tinnitus, that same kind of annoying ringing you get after, say, sitting through a Metallica concert, might just be induced by stress. One study by the Egypt’s Minia University found that those suffering from chronic ringing tended to be more stressed. In short, “There is a direct correlation between duration of tinnitus and severity of stress.”
It doesn’t get more serious than that. Severe mental stress can bring on “sudden cardiac death,” as medical professionals colorfully call it. In particular, suffering through a traumatic event, such as an earthquake or a war strike, can be so stressful that people literally keel over.
Recommendation: Don’t worry. No one’s ever died of a panic attack. If you’re experiencing anxiety, don’t miss these tips.
As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.