5 Things You Didn't Know Stress Was Doing to Your Body
There are two common physical side effects to stress that most people know about: weight gain (especially in the mid-section) and insomnia. When you're stressed, you crave more, you consume more calories, and your body actually produces hormones that make you hold onto fat more. And when you're stressed, your sleep quality suffers, as your body pumps adrenaline and high-alert hormones through your system that make it difficult to unwind and relax. But there are some lesser-known—and pretty surprising—things stress does to your body that you should know about. Keep scrolling to see what they are.
Stress can not only contribute to difficulty retrieving short-term memory information (i.e. the location of your keys, what you were on the cusp of saying, or the name of someone you know), over time, it can actually inhibit your ability to form new memories (i.e. to process and store new information for you to recall later).
In a recent study conducted by the University of Iowa and funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that the brain's prolonged exposure to the stress hormone cortisol weakens and "weathers" the synapses in the brain's prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory). Synapses are the connections that help us to process, store, and recall information, and over time, high cortisol levels shrink them, making it more difficult to remember things. In the study, older rats with lower cortisol levels entered a maze that required them to use their short-term memory to receive a treat, and their success rate was almost on par with the group of much younger rats (80 percent); meanwhile, older rats with high levels of cortisol could only remember the correct way to turn in the maze 58 percent of the time.
You may have suspected that stress makes you sick, and there's science behind that connection. When you experience cold symptoms, what you're actually feeling is your body's immune response to the infection. Believe it or not, cortisol is the hormone that tells your body when to turn "off" inflammatory respone, so you feel better (or, more importantly, don't feel crappy in the first place). When your body is overproducing cortisol due to stress, your immune system becomes, well, immune to it, which means there's no off switch telling your system not to activate an inflammatory response every time you're exposed to a virus. This means that men and women who are chronically stressed and exposed to the cold virus manifest symptoms more often and feel the symptoms for longer than people whose immune systems haven't become resistant to cortisol.
The Mayo Clinic lists headache as the first of the most common effects that stress has on the body, and says that stress is the most common headache trigger. Relatedly, common physical responses to stress, such as tensing your muscles up or grinding your teeth, compound headaches. The clinic's recommended guidance to is practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing, and to embrace exercise, which is a proven way to prevent both stress and headaches.
Stress is one of the most common causes of a low libido for many reasons. As both a psychological and physical phenomenon, stress can be all-consuming and limit your interest in sex and the ability to become aroused. It can cause tension amongst partners, and prolonged high levels of cortisol can actually inhibit sex hormones.
Stress has been linked in a body of scientific studies to high blood pressure and significantly higher increases in risk of heart attack, but it's also a risk factor for stroke. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Pyschiatry found that people living with chronic stress are at a fourfold higher increased risk of stroke.
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