The impact stress can have on our bodies

General Health

Find out more about why and how high stress levels can have a negative effect on your health.

05/11/2019


Emily Condon
BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences

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This week is International Stress Awareness Week!

We all know what it’s like to be stressed – being under pressure is a part of everyday life, especially with our hectic lifestyles, but being under constant stress can lead to not only a strain on our mental health, but also our physical health.

In this blog we explain more about the impact stress can have on our bodies and how easy it is to check and monitor your cortisol levels with Medichecks.

Let’s get started with what happens to the body during times of stress.

You’ve missed your train and you’re going to be late for an important meeting at work! Whilst you sit watching the minutes tick away until the next train arrives, a tiny control tower in your brain called the hypothalamus sends out a call for the stress hormones, also known as cortisol, to be released. These hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s “flight or fight” response, making your heart and breathing rates increase. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly.  

Cortisol is a steroid hormone and it plays an important role in many bodily processes including regulating blood sugar levels, metabolism, blood pressure and inflammation. Cortisol also suppresses functions that could be detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation, such as the immune and digestive systems, in order to save the bodies energy for more important functions such as blood flow to the muscles.

Is stress ever a good thing?

For short-term situations, stress can be good for our health as it allows us to cope with potentially serious situations. Research suggests that some stress exposure is crucial for developing resilience, allowing us to cope with challenging and unexpected future situations (1). In the same way vaccines induce immunity against disease, stress is almost like a form of immunity against future situations.

Too much cortisol in the body

When stressors are always present, the body’s fight-or-flight response becomes chronic and cortisol is constantly suppressing important functions such as the immune system. Prolonged stress can cause health problems including heart disease, digestive problems, headaches and insomnia. Cushing’s syndrome develops if the body makes too much cortisol. Symptoms include rapid weight gain, fatigue, muscle weakness, irritability, excessive body hair (in women) and loss of libido and erectile dysfunction (in men). High levels of cortisol can also cause fat to be stored around the organs in the abdomen (visceral fat) which can lead to increased risk for developing diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The body also produces cortisol during exercise, as exercise is perceived by the body as a form of stress and stimulates the release of cortisol. Whilst exercise is certainly beneficial for health, over-exercising, exercising at a very high intensity or not giving yourself adequate recovery time can cause chronically high levels of cortisol. This then has similar effects on the body as chronic stress and can not only cause health risks but also hinder the results of exercise by breaking down muscle and causing the body to hold onto fat.

Test your cortisol levels

If you are worried about your stress levels and are concerned that you may have elevated cortisol levels, a simple test can check whether your levels are within the normal range.

In aid of International Stress Awareness Week, we have £30 off our Stress Cortisol Saliva Test (6) until November 9th 2019. This test measures your cortisol at six different times throughout the day, allowing you to get an in-depth look at your stress levels and pinpoint any triggers for you in your day.


References

[1] Devlin, H. (2019). Heart racing, palms sweaty – what does stress do to the body?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/feb/04/stress-anxiety-knees-weak-palms-sweaty [Accessed 13 Feb. 2019].


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