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The physical toll of stress

By The Health News Team | December 15, 2023
Stress and your body

Busy schedules, family conflicts, health concerns, financial woes — these and other issues can lead to an overwhelming feeling of stress. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, close to 80% of American adults report they feel stressed. And at least one-third of those say their stress levels are on the rise.

However, Dr. Kathlyn Ignacio, a board-certified occupational medicine specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says that stress actually serves a very specific purpose.

“We need stress,” she says. “When we are in danger, we have an elevated level of stress for our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, which allows us to respond quickly and make decisions to enhance our survival.”

According to Dr. Ignacio, during stressful times, your stress hormones — such as cortisol and epinephrine — rise, revving up your system to be able to respond to stressful circumstances. Unfortunately, too much stress and the resulting release of stress hormones can have a detrimental effect not only on your emotional health but also on your physical health.

“The list is endless,” says Dr. Ignacio. “Too much stress can impact multiple systems and even lead to an early demise.”

According to Dr. Ignacio, stress can affect your body in a range of ways, from hair loss to impaired immune response and more, including:

  • Headaches

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Lack of energy

  • Increased or decreased nutrition, leading to weight gain or loss

  • Acne, hives and other skin problems

  • Muscle and joint aches

  • Tension, especially in the neck, shoulders and back

  • Reduced bone density

  • Rapid or labored breathing

  • Change in heart rate, rise in blood pressure, and increased risk of heart attack and heart disease

  • Nausea, stomach pain and heartburn

  • Increased risk of diabetes

  • Digestion problems, diarrhea and constipation

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Painful and irregular menstruation in women

  • Impotence in men

Each of these physical results of stress takes a toll on all of the body’s systems, including muscular, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems. While we’re often more focused on the emotional toll of stress, the greater danger might just lie in the physical toll.

Fortunately, Dr. Ignacio reports that there are ways to combat the effects of stress. These methods benefit both your mind and body:

  • Eat a balanced diet of mostly plant-based foods and avoid processed foods.

  • Get plenty of sleep — experts recommend adults get seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night.

  • Exercise on a daily basis. Yoga is an excellent option, as it incorporates stretching, flexibility, strengthening and breath work.

  • Practice mindfulness or meditation.

“Spending meaningful time with loved ones is important,” Dr. Ignacio says. “Fostering and nurturing relationships significantly helps to reduce stress.”

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of stress, including irritability, a feeling of being overwhelmed, a change in eating or sleep habits, memory or concentration problems, and troubles at work or in your personal life. There are techniques for managing your stress on your own and medical treatments are available as needed.

Learn more about mental health; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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