Stress is a normal part of life, but how you deal with it can make or break you. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the difference between a normal stressful period—when it’s a busy week or month at work or when you’re going through a life change like moving apartments—and chronic stress that seemingly never goes away. “When you’re stressed, your body releases a surge of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline,” explains Damon Raskin, M.D., an internist in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and affiliate of Concierge Choice Physicians. “But it’s designed to return to normal once a stressful situation has passed.”
When the stressors are constant, however, and the “fight or flight” reaction persists, the body is at serious risk for several health problems. Here are some of the seriously scary side effects that you might experience when you’re stressed out to the max.
Stress and anxiety can cause you to lose more hair than normal, but the good news is that this type of hair loss is usually temporary, as long as whatever’s causing your stress disappears. “This type of hair loss isn’t caused by small things like being late for a meeting or missing a flight,” Joel Schlessinger, board certified dermatologist and RealSelf contributor, explains. “It’s the same kind of stress that keeps you up at night on a regular basis.” Occasionally, a condition called alopecia areata can result in round patches of hair loss, and it is often caused or worsened by stress.
If your hair is looking and feeling lackluster, dietary supplements that contain AminoMar Marine Complex, apple extract, biotin, vitamin C and a blend of essential amino acids can help rehabilitate hair in four stages, Dr. Schlessinger says. “These supplements work wonderfully for both men and women suffering from hair loss due to everyday stress, medication, hormonal changes and more.”
Digestive problems and weight gain
Stress and the cortisol it releases in the body cause the liver to produce extra sugar to boost the energy that’s required to respond to the stressful situation. And remember, this sugar is in addition to any sugar you’re digesting from your diet, meaning the extra sugar will naturally will lead to weight gain if the stress is chronic. The rush of hormones during stress can also lead to stomach upset, nausea, vomiting and may even affect how food moves through the digestive system. That’s why diarrhea or constipation are not uncommon side effects of chronic stress.
You know those nights when you toss and turn in bed and what seems like hours go by before you’re able to settle into a relaxing sleep—if you’re actually able to at all? More often than not, this inability to unwind after a long day happens when you’ve got a lot on your mind, and when you’re stressed out as can be. “A hyperactive brain that’s overstimulated with a to-do list of sorts will make insomnia much more likely,” Dr. Raskin explains. “And, of course, lack of sleep is another factor in weight gain.”
But sleep helps reduce cortisol levels, the primary stress hormone, so ideally adults should be getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Regular exercise, especially yoga, meditation and mindfulness helps with sleeping difficulties caused by stress, so remember to load up on these types of classes during those stressful weeks.
While the last thing you need to worry about when you’re stressed is how you look in the mirror, stress can have a strong effect on your hormone levels, which can therefore cause you to break out. One of the most common ways stress can show on your skin is in hives. While they’re often caused by an allergic reaction, they can also appear as a result of stress, illness, exercise or infection. A mild case of hives can be treated with over-the-counter antihistamines, which will help relieve itching, but for chronic hives, your dermatologist may prescribe an antihistamine along with other medications that help with inflammation, redness and swelling. Psoriasis flare-ups can also be triggered or worsened by stress. This autoimmune disorder causes the skin to become inflamed, with red, thickened areas and silvery scales, most often on the scalp, elbows, knees and lower back.
If you’re prone to eczema, expect these symptoms to crop up when you’re under pressure, too. “Some people’s eczema symptoms worsen when they’re feeling stressed, while others become stressed because they have eczema, which can worsen their symptoms,” Dr. Schlessinger explains. “The best way to prevent stress-related flare-ups is to find ways to help you manage your stress levels, and exercise is a great place to start.” Regular physical activity also boosts your energy, improves your mood, combats stress and helps prevent health conditions and diseases.
Weakened immune system
Your immune system is your body’s first line of defense against illnesses of all kinds, working together with all of your body’s organs to fight harmful substances both in the environment and digested by you.
Stress can stimulate the immune system in the short term, but chronic stress with an increased release of cortisol will actually compromise your immune system. When cortisol is present in the body for long periods of time, the body starts developing a resistance to it. This can result in chronic inflammatory conditions and can put one at greater risk of viral illnesses, Dr. Raskin says.
Muscle tension and headaches
When we’re dealing with cumulative stress, one of our body’s responses is tensing the muscles. “This is done to protect the body from injury during the ‘fight or flight’ episode,” Dr. Raskin explains. “With chronic stress, the muscles are unable to relax and this, of course, can lead to body aches.” This tension in your muscles is also known to lead to headaches, more commonly known as “tension headaches.” Not only are they incredibly painful and associated with a profound pressure around the forehead or back of the head and neck, but they’re also episodic and can become chronic if stress is not properly managed.
While short-term stress might lead to arousal in men, chronic stress can cause testosterone levels to drop, which can interfere with sperm production and ultimately cause erectile dysfunction. In women, chronic stress can impact the menstrual cycle in different ways. “Some women may skip their cycle while others will have a heavier flow,” Dr. Raskin says. “In general, sexual desire can drop during a stressful episode, so if you’re trying to conceive it’s a good idea to limit stressors in your life.”
Depression and moodiness
With chronic stress leading to all of the side effects previously listed, it’s no wonder that depression is another result. “When you are losing sleep, gaining weight, suffering from headaches and hypertension, it’s tough to feel positive about anything—and certainly tough not to feel overwhelmed,” Dr. Raskin says. “Of course, the inability to cope with stressful situations can lead to irritability or a bad mood as well, and these issues can also lead to self-medication with drugs or alcohol.”