Mind & Spirit

11 ways stress affects your body

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Mind & Spirit

11 ways stress affects your body

Do you have sweaty hands? Or is your hair falling out? These are just some of the surprising ways stress affects your body.

According to a study by the American Psychological Association, 70 percent of the population suffers from symptoms of stress. Anxiety manifests itself in a variety of ways, so it's often difficult to diagnose. We talked to experts to help you determine if you're affected by stress so that you can tackle your symptoms before they get the best of you.

1. Jaw pain
Stress-induced jaw clenching and teeth grinding can lead to pain, permanent joint damage in the jaw and gum recession. It can also wear and fracture teeth. Most people with this problem will need a mouth guard, at least temporarily. "These are mostly worn at night. However, some patients should wear them when working, driving or during sports," says Dr. Tarra Elliott, dentist and owner of Eglinton Way Dentistry in Toronto.

2. Headaches
"Tension headaches are one of the most common signs of stress," says Amanda Guthrie, a Toronto-based naturopathic doctor who specializes in stress reduction. When your body is under stress, muscles in the upper back and neck tense up, which can cause the scalp muscles to contract, leading to headaches. Anxiety can also trigger serious migraines. Improving your posture (especially at your desk) is one of the most significant changes you can make to relieve headaches brought on by stress. "Anything that will ease muscle tension in the upper back and neck can help," says Guthrie. Massage and heat application can also provide relief.

3. Mental issues
Stress can cause brain fog, anger issues or even depression. "When things are stressful, we often feel like we can't cope. That can result in difficulty making decisions, constant worrying and burnout," says Guthrie. Try yoga or even a walk to help refocus.

4. Weight fluctuations
Strongly linked to changes in our eating patterns (usually overeating), stress can result in weight changes. Although sudden stress can cause some people to undereat, according to researchers at Warwick Medical School, chronic stress usually results in weight gain. That's because stress decreases our metabolism, making our bodies more likely to store fat. A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that binge eating is also strongly linked to stress, particularly in females. Having high levels of stress alters glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, changing our eating patterns and increasing our desire for indulgent foods.

5. Chest pain and high blood pressure
Chest pain and high blood pressure can be stress-related and warrant a trip to the doctor. "Stress hormones increase the pumping action of the heart and cause certain arteries to constrict, influencing blood flow and increasing overall pressure in the arteries," says Guthrie. Stress also increases the rate at which arterial cholesterol builds up. Chest pain and blood pressure spikes should be closely monitored.

6. Hair loss
Stress can literally cause your hair to fall out. Hormonal changes force hair follicles into a resting phase, preventing new growth. Stress can also exacerbate—or, in very extreme cases, cause—alopecia, a condition in which the body's immune system attacks follicles and causes hair to fall out. For those with a genetic propensity for hair loss, stress can trigger the process. "Stress usually makes a pre-existing condition come out or worsen," says Guthrie. Speak to your doctor or naturopath about treatments and lifestyle solutions.

7. Loss of libido
Research in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition confirms that stress can lower testosterone and other hormones that contribute to a healthy sex drive. Stress also reduces blood flow to the pelvic organs. "If you're overwhelmed, reproducing is not a priority for your body," says Guthrie. Yoga or daily meditation may give your love life a boost.

8. Sweaty hands and feet
When we're under pressure, blood flow diverts to the extremities. This is sometimes accompanied by sweat, produced by the body as a cooling mechanism. If your sweating is excessive, contact a doctor to see if you have a condition known as hyperhidrosis, which can be treated with Botox injections.

9. Stomach issues
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other gastrointestinal issues are often precipitated by stress. "When we're stressed, the brain signals the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones," says Guthrie. These  hormones divert blood away from the gastrointestinal tract and toward our legs, arms and heart, inhibiting digestion and resulting in abdominal discomfort or changes in bowel movements. "Our bodies haven't changed in the last 1,000 years and, physiologically, we still perceive stress in terms of fight or flight," says  Guthrie. If we're stressed, digestion is one of the first functions to be interrupted, causing stomach issues such as IBS to arise. "Diaphragmatic [deep abdominal] breathing can help turn off your stress and put your body in a better state to digest food," says  Guthrie. An IBS-targeted probiotic can help reduce gas, bloating and abdominal discomfort.

10. Sleeplessness
Feeling anxious can result in an overactive mind, which makes it difficult to get a good night's rest. "When you're stressed, the unconscious mind is working overtime," says Dr. Mel Borins, MD, a Toronto-based family physician and author of Go Away Just for the Health of It, who lectures on the effects of stress. Sleep disturbances can manifest in different ways. Some people are tired all the time, others can't get to sleep and some wake up early and can't fall back asleep. For short-term sleep disturbances, try a sleep aid. If the sleeplessness persists, see your doctor, who may refer you to a sleep specialist.

11. Cold and flu
Long-term stress makes you more susceptible to illness by suppressing your immune system on a cellular level. However, research by the American Psychological Association found that spending time with good friends can help boost your immunity by buffering the impacts of stress and thus improving your overall state of health. If you're hit by a nasty cold or flu, over-the-counter medicines can help relieve nasal congestion, fever, headaches and muscle pain.

For more stress-relieving tips, check out 5 ways to better manage your stress.
                                               

This story was originally titled "Disconnect From Stress" in the May 2014 issue.
           
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