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In the Eye of the Tiger: What Stress Does to Your Body

Need to Know:

  • Don’t stress every single pang of anxiety – some stress is a normal part of life. The problem starts when those moments turn into chronic stress.

  • Stress can affect everything from your skin (acne and eczema) to your gut (digestive issues) to your immune system (colds) to your sex life (low libido and infertility) to your sleep (hello, insomnia). 

  • The effects of prolonged stress may seem grim, but most are reversible once you are aware of the problem and take steps to bring self care and balance back into your life.

In August, Veracity is celebrating our inaugural Hormone Health Awareness Month. Join the conversation at one of our virtual panel discussions throughout the month and post on social using the hashtag #ItsYourHormones.

Picture a tiger gnashing its teeth in front of you. It’s a scenario that screams to your brain: danger! Drop everything and put all your energy into escaping.

This biological flight-or-fight response has helped humans survive for millennia. But today, many of us are facing a never-ending stream of tigers in the form of stress from work, day-to-day life, or an endless bad news cycle.

When your body encounters stress, it doesn’t distinguish between a true life-or-death scenario like a real tiger and the more psychological threats of our modern lives. In both cases, it immediately goes into survival mode “putting certain maintenance functions on hold while we focus on the ‘tiger’ in front of us,” explains Dr. Andrew Neville, a naturopathic doctor who specializes in adrenal fatigue. “It’s not so important to build bone, hair, nails, to detoxify, or to digest food when there’s an impending threat.”

“Do this once in a while, and it will keep you alive; if you do it too often, however, you then suffer the effects of chronically suppressing some important organ systems.”

The good news is awareness is the most important step. Once you know how constant stress is affecting your health, you do what you need to bring your body back into happy, healthy balance.

Back to Basics: How Your Body Reacts to Stress

When you’re in a stressful situation, your brain sends a message to the adrenal gland to increase production of cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.” This chemical response kicks your fight-or-flight response into gear, a process that happens whether you’re in a near-death situation or just feeling frazzled because your kid is having a meltdown at the grocery store.

Some amount of stress is unavoidable and good, as is a balanced amount of cortisol. The problem is when there is too much for too long.

“Stress is a normal part of life. It’s essentially our body’s attempt to adapt to changes in our environment. We can have good stressors (buying a new home, getting our dream job) and bad stressors (being overloaded at work, the death of a loved one),” says Dr. Marsha Brown, a licensed psychologist who specializes in stress management.

However, the overproduction of cortisol saps up your body’s resources, which causes a ripple effect in your ability to produce balanced levels of other hormones. Stress that is chronic, as it has been for many of us over the past few years, can throw the body into a tailspin, affecting your health in a myriad of ways.

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Check your cortisol levels at home with Veracity’s Skin + Health Test: The first step to fixing a hormone imbalance is knowing exactly what your hormones are up to. Veracity's Skin + Health Test can tell you whether your cortisol (as well as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA, and pH) is high, low, or just right.

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Stress and Your Skin Are Not Friends

Skin is like the marquee sign of the body: one quick glimpse can give you a good sense of what’s going on inside.

Your skin takes a substantial hit when you are stuck in a chronic stress response loop, as anyone who has ever broken out in hives before a big presentation or gotten a pimple before their wedding knows.

When you’re experiencing an overload of stress, “rashes like hives and eczema are incredibly common. Cuts and scrapes tend to take longer to heal. Bruising is also common,” Dr. Neville says. When that stress becomes chronic, “dehydration stemming from adrenal fatigue causes our skin to lose its turgor and elasticity; our skin will feel like it’s aging more quickly than it should.”

Skin thins over time during periods of chronic stress because your body is “ignoring the important job of replenishing dead skin cells, coupled with dehydration and the weakening of the connective tissue throughout the body.” You may also experience increased acne and unwanted facial hair due to imbalanced testosterone, and your collagen production may also takes a hit.

Stress Can Be a Real Pain in the Gut

“Digestive complaints are the norm for those suffering from adrenal fatigue,” Neville says.  “When the digestive system is turned off too often, we don’t digest and process our food efficiently.”

The gut is the foundation of wellness – happy gut, happy you. But stress can slow down digestion, causing constipation, burping, heartburn, IBS, food allergies, and more.

In addition, prolonged exposure to excess cortisol can thin the protective lining of your stomach, which Neville describes as the “teflon” of the digestive tract. When it’s weakened, it can’t protect the gut like it usually does, which can cause further issues.

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Think Stress Makes You Sick? You’re Right!

If you’ve ever gotten a cold sore or a plain old cold during an especially stressful time, you’ve seen firsthand how stress affects your immune health. But this interaction is a little more complicated than it at first seems. 

Stress weakens one side of the immune system while leaving the other side turbocharged, Neville says. This means that the weakened side will have trouble fighting infections and is more prone to illness like colds or sore throats, while the overactive side goes into action creating antibodies. Antibodies sound good in theory, but when they’re made in response to something that’s not a threat at all – which is what your body does when it’s stressed – it can cause allergies.

“My patients often present with environmental allergies, food allergies, histamine reactions (hives and allergic conditions like rashes, eczema), chronic sinus problems, and more,” Neville says. But the more serious problems happen if the stress makes itself at home.

“This overproduction of antibodies can also cause the body to create antibodies to its own tissue, leading to autoimmune conditions of all kinds,” Neville says, adding that he has never seen a patient with an autoimmune disease who did not have an underlying adrenal problem.

Nights Spent Counting Frazzled Sheep

When you’re facing a hungry tiger, the last thing you want to do is serve yourself up on a comfy platter by going to sleep. In fact, your body is smart enough to not allow let that happen.

“We’re least aware of our environment around us and most vulnerable to threat during sleep. This requires our rest-and-digest nervous system activity to increase, and our fight-or-flight, or sympathetic nervous system activity, to drastically decrease,” explains Dr. David Rabin, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and developer of Apollo Neuro.

While our logical selves know that a tough work deadline or a first date aren’t a threat to our survival, our brains are stuck in the past. “Our response to threat hasn’t changed much in the last ten thousand years,” Dr. Rabin says. “We’re internalizing all threats similarly and our reaction is the same — to stay alert and prepared.”

This issue is compounded because melatonin helps to process cortisol. If we’re not sleeping well, we don’t have enough melatonin to help filter out the excess cortisol. It’s a cruel Catch-22: stress disrupts sleep, and too little sleep creates more stress.

Stress Is Also a Major Mood Killer  

Do you feel like having sex when you’re trying to save your life? Probably not. “Your menstrual period is not a concern; your sex life is not a concern; this is not a time to procreate either,” Dr. Neville says.

There’s a lot more to infertility than stress (and anyone who tells you to “just relax” about getting pregnant can see themselves right out the door). However, some studies do indicate that when higher levels of a stress enzyme are present in saliva, it may take longer to get pregnant.

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Dr. Neville sees patients with low libido, menstrual irregularity, bad PMS, heavy periods, or sometimes a period that has stopped. Men will often have erectile dysfunction.

Beyond affecting your sex life, this can also cause problems for women during menopause. While your ovaries are the main place where sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) are produced, your adrenal glands also produce some amount, and their role ramps up during menopause. “When we test a woman’s ‘ovarian’ hormones post-menopausal, a large portion of them are actually being produced by the adrenals, not the ovaries,” Dr. Neville says. This means addressing signs of stress and adrenal fatigue could make menopause more pleasant.

The Good News: This Can All Be Fixed

First things first, stress is a natural response that exists for a reason. You don’t need to sweat the occasional stressor, even though it may be a real bummer while it’s happening.

The bigger issue from a health standpoint is chronic stress, which can be caused by anything from sitting in rush hour traffic day after day to feeling stuck in a toxic relationship or having a sick loved one. Unfortunately, these are also the situations that are harder to resolve, but there are a few things you can do to lower your stress even if you can’t immediately get a new job or learn to teleport to the office.

Dr. Brown’s three guidelines for lowering stress:

  1. Identify what’s causing your stress: “It’s important to identify sources of stress,” she says, noting that it can be more challenging than it seems. Start by noticing which activities or people drain your energy. This can help you uncover “both obvious and hidden sources of stress.”

  2. Set boundaries: “Boundaries protect us from being spread too thin and pulled in too many directions. Take some time to examine your workload, emotional, and time boundaries at work and home,” she says. If someone isn’t respectful of your boundaries, it may mean on some level they aren’t interested in your well-being. With that information, you can decide what action to take next.

  3. Take time to disconnect: “Being overstimulated adds to our stress and stops our brains and bodies from being able to reset,” Dr. Brown says. While you may not be able to set off on an off-the-grid vacation whenever you’re feeling overloaded, most people can find time each week for a little self-care. Take a walk without your phone, settle into the couch with a good book, or find time to meet up with a friend who fills your energy up.

Dealing with stress in our modern world is a marathon, not a sprint. There is no need to create more stress by doing the impossible and trying to banish all stress from your life. Instead, find ways to cultivate calm and positivity in whatever moments you can.

As Dr. Brown says, “When we disconnect from electronics and excess noise and focus on replenishing our own mental, emotional, and physical stores, we decrease our stress levels and give ourselves a much-needed break.”

Our Experts

Dr. Andrew Neville

Naturopathic doctor specializing in adrenal fatigue

Dr. David Rabin

Psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and developer of Apollo Neuro

Dr. Marsha Brown

Licensed psychologist who specializes in stress management

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