Are you stressed? Probably. Aren’t we all? The thing is, at this time of year, everything is heightened. We have to get all our work done, see all our friends and family, and navigate the trickiness of securing the right presents for all our loved ones. It should be a joyous time, and it is, but it’s also stressful. So how do you know that stress is affecting you? The thing is, you might think stress is all in the mind, but it can manifest itself in myriad ways.
“When we are stressed we are in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. Stress hormones flood the body and have a number of physiological effects, evolutionarily designed to increase energy and alertness, so that we can avoid danger,” explains nutritional therapist Hannah Braye. “Chronic stress can lead to long-term alterations in bodily processes, and this can have a number of knock-on effects to our health,” she adds. From bad skin to trouble sleeping, below Braye shares nine ways stress could be affecting you. Any sound familiar?
Stress has long been associated with many common skin conditions and can be both the cause of their onset or an aggravator. Stress hormones like cortisol are thought to trigger the release of inflammatory compounds by skin cells, contributing to conditions such as psoriasis, atopic eczema, alopecia, rosacea and acne, which can effect confidence and be a source of further stress in themselves.
Our brain and digestive system are connected via the vagus nerve, so when our brain is stressed, symptoms will often manifest in the gut (and vice versa). It’s no surprise that stress is one of the biggest triggers for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Stress can disturb the mixture of bacteria in our guts, reducing the number of beneficial strains, which in turn increases the risk of a pathogenic overgrowth. Taking a good quality live bacteria supplement such as Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formula (£10) with 14 different strains, can help replenish depleted beneficial gut flora keeping the microbiome in balance and potentially helping with a diverse range of stress-related gastrointestinal disorders.
Food intolerances can manifest when the cells lining our digestive tract become damaged, allowing larger food proteins to cross into circulation (known as “leaky gut”). This confuses the immune system, triggering an inflammatory response when certain foods are eaten. Stress not only disturbs our protective gut bacteria, but has also been shown to contribute to the development of leaky gut, increasing the risk of food intolerances.
Cortisol (our stress hormone) suppresses immune cells, meaning our ability to fight off germs, viruses, and other foreign invaders is reduced, leaving us more susceptible to infections when we are stressed. Studies have shown that individuals with the most stressful life events and highest levels of perceived stress have the greatest probability of developing cold symptoms.
Despite the suppressive effect of stress on the immune system, chronic stress can also be the trigger for, or exacerbate, autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, autoimmune thyroid disease, irritable bowel disease and MS, which involve an overactive inflammatory response by the immune system, leading to self-destruction of the body’s own tissues.
Despite often feeling tired throughout the day, many highly stressed people have difficulty getting off to sleep or staying asleep through the night. Getting a second wind of energy just as you should be going to bed is a classic sign that our adrenal glands (which control our stress response) are struggling. Stress hormones can cause hyperarousal, upsetting the balance between sleep and wakefulness. This creates a vicious cycle, as stressful situations are much more difficult to cope with when you are tired, leading to further stress.
Both anxiety and depression are positively correlated with high stress levels, and particularly stressful periods are often a trigger for panic attacks and low mood. Stress reduction and being gentle on yourself therefore play a key part in managing mood disorders. Chronic stress can also affect our memory and concentration, as cortisol reduces activity in the hippocampus part of our brain (responsible for memory) and increases activity in the amygdala, making us feel more panicked.
Stress can be a real passion killer for a number of reasons but not least because it can interfere with your sex hormones. The stress hormone cortisol is made from the same building blocks as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. If the cortisol pathway is up-regulated, our sex hormone pathway will be down-regulated in order to cope with the increased demand, and this can have a negative impact on libido.
Stress is thought to potentially play a role in up to 30% of infertility problems, and stress-reduction techniques are often found to positively correlate with increased chances of conception, due to associated reductions in cortisol levels, regulation of proteins within the uterine lining involved in implantation and increases in blood flow to the uterus.