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9 Surprising ways stress affects your body

May 7, 2024 By Devin Collins
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Clinical Editors: Drew Bertagnolli, PhD, Megan Dodson, PA

We all know what it’s like to feel stressed. It can make us want to cry, bite all our nails off, overindulge in our favorite comfort foods, and get snappy with our loved ones. While you’re probably familiar with the most common symptoms of stress, like headaches or trouble sleeping, you may be missing important signs that your body is overwhelmed or worn out. Though typically associated with mental health, stress can also manifest itself in a variety of physical symptoms that vary from person to person. Here are some unexpected and lesser-known symptoms of stress you should keep an eye out for.

1. Hair loss


After a period of high stress, you may notice more hair on your brush or in the shower than usual. This may be due to a type of temporary hair loss, known as telogen effluvium, in which stress disrupts the natural hair growth cycle, pushing multiple hair follicles into a resting phase and then to fall out. This type of hair loss is not permanent and typically only lasts a few months. Other types of hair loss that may be triggered by stress include alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the hair follicles, and trichotillomania or hair pulling disorder, which is an irresistible urge to pull hair from the scalp or other parts of the body.

2. Digestive issues


Ever had a “nervous stomach” or a “gut feeling”, or had to make a “gut-wrenching decision”? Then you know already that there is a strong connection between the brain and gut. This is because the gut is partially controlled by the central nervous system and also has its own nervous system, known as the enteric nervous system. Both are in constant communication, so when stress triggers a fight-or-flight response in the central nervous system, it also affects the gastrointestinal systems. As a result, stress can cause a host of digestive issues such as acid reflux, nausea, cramping, vomiting, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. It can also exacerbate conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

3. Menstrual cycle changes


If you’re under significant stress, you may also experience an irregular period. This is because cortisol, the primary stress hormone, interferes with the functioning of the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls the pituitary, which in turn controls the ovaries, which produce the hormones responsible for your period. Cortisol can disrupt the interaction between all three body parts and interrupt your regular cycle. This may mean having a late period, missing it altogether, or having spotting between periods. The good news is that your period should return to normal as your stress subsides. It’s especially important to practice safe sex while experiencing an irregular period, as it can be unclear when you are ovulating and could get pregnant at a point that doesn’t track with your regular cycle.

4. Low libido


If you’re overwhelmed with work or feeling anxious, sex is likely one of the last things on your mind. During times of stress, our bodies enter fight-or-flight mode and boost necessary functioning for survival, like blood flow and heart rate. The increase in cortisol reduces nonessential functioning, including the reproductive system, and lowers our sex drive. However, biology isn’t the only factor at play here. On top of the body’s physiological response to stress, your mental state can also significantly impact your libido. If your mind feels scattered and consumed with other thoughts, it can be difficult to get aroused or be present during sex. Men may also have trouble getting and maintaining an erection if stressed.

5. Frequent sickness


In addition to suppressing the reproductive system, stress can also weaken the immune system. Researchers and public health experts think stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes, the white blood cells that help fight off infection, which makes our bodies more vulnerable to viruses and more susceptible to sickness like the common cold or flu. Likewise, when stress becomes chronic, the body gets used to high levels of cortisol in its system, altering its ability to regulate the inflammatory system, further making us more prone to sickness.

6. Muscle aches and pains


The pain you’ve been attributing to a bad night’s sleep or hours at the desk may actually be due to stress. This is because when your body senses a threat, your muscles tense up in preparation to outrun or defend yourself against a predator. While this may be useful in the event of a physical attack, for most of us who aren’t regularly fighting for our lives, it just means pain or soreness throughout the body, most commonly in the back, shoulders, and neck. Fortunately, frequent movement and stretching can do the trick.

7. Jaw pain


Many people unconsciously grind or clench their jaws when dealing with stress, which can lead to headaches, jaw soreness, tooth pain, and even ear pain. If not caught and treated, grinding your teeth can eventually wear on the teeth, increasing your risk of cavities, tooth decay, and tooth loss. It can also lead to jaw problems like temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. Reducing stress, wearing a nightguard, or regular trips to the dentist can help you stay on top of this issue.

8. Skin problems


You may also find yourself breaking out more than usual or developing hives or rashes when you’re stressed. During times of stress, the body releases more cortisol, which increases oil production. Higher oil levels can block the pores and cause acne breakouts. Additionally, by weakening the immune system and triggering an inflammatory response, stress can worsen skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis and cause hives or other rashes. That’s why it’s important to take care of your skin and continue with your regular skincare routine even if you’re stressed or anxious.

9. Fatigue


Stress takes a lot out of you and can leave you feeling both mentally and physically exhausted. When your body is constantly gearing up for a threat and producing high levels of adrenaline, it can be difficult to find the energy to get out of bed and morning and carry on with normal activities. Stress can also disrupt your sleep. You may have trouble keeping your eyes open or find yourself taking more naps than usual. You should be mindful of your diet, exercise, and sleep during times of stress to prevent overexerting your body and burnout. Exercise in particular can reduce cortisol levels, boost endorphins, and help you feel more energized.

As many of these changes can be related to other health problems, it’s important to talk with your primary care provider if you experience any of these symptoms. Your provider can help rule out other causes, as well as help you with stress management. For some, this may include lifestyle changes, medication, or a referral to a behavioral health specialist.

Originally published May 2, 2021

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Devin Collins

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

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