Get this: Back in the days when humans relied on instincts and bodily responses to stay out of harm’s way, stress was actually useful. However, the body can’t distinguish between real threats (being chased by a hungry wild beast) and false alarms (getting chastised for a slip-up at work). So, in today’s world, many people suffer from chronic stress that does more harm than good. You probably already know what stress feels like, but if you’re curious as to what’s actually happening inside your body when you’re under the gun, then keep reading to get the low-down.
You lose sleep.
Excessive secretion of the hormone cortisol due to stress affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, one of the neuroendocrine stress systems responsible for controlling the body’s sleep/wake cycle. With too much cortisol in the body, along with other stress hormones like corticotropin-releasing hormone and noradrenaline, you become unable to fall asleep—and you may even develop insomnia if the source of your anxiety does not go away.
Your blood sugar rises.
When the body is under stress, it assumes that a life-threatening situation is underway. To prepare for a potential attack, glucose stores are released into the bloodstream, but a rise in cortisol makes it harder for insulin to do its job and convert that glucose into energy. As a result, blood sugar levels rise, and they can take up to six times longer than usual to return back to normal, which is especially problematic for people with diabetes.
Your libido plummets.
Your hormone levels have everything to do with your sex drive. This means that when, your body is producing too much cortisol, it is unable to focus on the other hormones in the body, including sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen that control your libido.
Your menstrual cycle becomes irregular.
Cortisol has a direct impact on how much estrogen and progesterone, two sex hormones that control your cycle, are produced. “Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense—if a woman is under a great deal of stress, either physical or emotional, it is likely not an ideal time for a pregnancy, so the system shuts down,” Dr. Carolyn C. Thompson, MD, FACOG, explained to SheKnows.
You lose your breath.
Anxiety causes the muscles that help you breathe to become tense, which can leave you gasping for air. If you feel yourself becoming short of breath in a stressful situation, doctors recommend taking deep, paced breaths to regain your composure.
Your immune system weakens.
Numerous studies have found a shocking correlation between a person’s stress levels and their physical health. In one study conducted by psychologists at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, it was found that medical students had weaker immune systems whenever their exams rolled around. Evidently, these students had a reduced number of natural killer cells, which fight off tumors and viral infections, and nearly stopped producing infection-fighting interferon gamma altogether.
You get a migraine.
When your body senses stress, your muscles immediately tense up as a defense mechanism against any potential threats. Unfortunately, what this means for you is that, thanks to the stress-related tension in your shoulders and neck, you might experience a migraine that won’t dissipate until your mood does.
Your heart rate speeds up.
According to the American Psychological Association, hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are all released when the body is under stress, which causes the heart rate to speed up and the heart muscle to contract with more force. These palpitations will pass once the body is no longer experiencing distress, but people who suffer from chronic stress need to take care, as every time they are stressed they increase their risk for a heart attack and a stroke.
Your metabolism slows down.
On days when you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed, it’s best to keep the unhealthy snacks at bay. One study from Ohio State University found that when served a 930-calorie meal, women who reported being stressed the day before burned 104 fewer calories compared to their calm counterparts. This is because people who are stressed are more resistant to insulin—the hormone that “tells” cells to take in glucose for energy—and, without it, their metabolic process is slowed down so that they store fat instead of burning it.
Unfortunately, the foods that you crave when you’re feeling stressed tend to be of the fattening variety, and the combination of sugar and a slow metabolism can lead to obesity if the stress is chronic. So, if you want to counteract these habits, master the 30 Best Ways to Boost Your Metabolism After 30.
Your bowel movements become irregular.
The brain and the gut are closely connected, so, when the body experiences stress, it causes the gut to spasm. If these spasms are make the entire colon contract, then you will experience diarrhea, and if they’re are confined to just one area, then you’ll be backed up for as long as you’re overtaxed. In the meantime, over-the-counter medications can help put your bowels back in order, as can avoiding foods like coffee and chocolate.
You have more trouble reproducing.
Being stressed impacts fertility in many ways, one of which being that it makes it harder for the egg to implant in the uterus. And just how much can feeling overwhelmed impact your ability to reproduce? According to one study published in Human Reproduction, women whose saliva contained high amounts of alpha-amylase, a biomarker for stress, took 29 percent longer to become pregnant compared to those with insignificant levels.
Your memory becomes impaired.
If you have a tendency to misplace your car keys when you’re stressed, then you’re not alone. According to one study published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, chronic stress negatively impacts spatial memory, which helps you locate objects, recall events, and navigate a city. Not only that, but neuroscientists from the University of California, Berkeley, also concluded that long-term, low levels of stress can change the composition of the brain and make you more susceptible to developing a mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
It puts you on the path toward diabetes.
When the body experiences stress, it releases hormones epinephrine and cortisol. This, in turn, causes the liver to assume that there is an emergency and produce more glucose in order to fuel the “fight or flight” response it believes to be coming. When that extra glucose isn’t used, most people are able to reabsorb it—but in people with a predisposition to Type 2 diabetes, this extra blood sugar is a step in the wrong direction. If you know that you are prediabetic, then you should take extra precautions to avoid putting your body under stress.