Stress is so commonplace for many of us nowadays that it's become a way of life. So often we are completely unaware of just how much stress we are exposed to on a daily basis, that we fail to even recognise the signs and symptoms that can be directly induced by chronic stress. Stress in small doses is perfectly normal and can even help you to perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best, however when that stress becomes ongoing, the effects can be life threatening increasing your risk for chronic illness and disease. As strange as it may sound, many people are actually addicted to stress, constantly running around in emergency mode and unless they can feel their adrenalin pumping, they feel unsettled, even anxious. But eventually your mind and body will pay the price.
Here are some of the common signs and symptoms to help you identify if your health is being affected by chronic stress:
Bowel problems - your gut is directly connected to your brain via the vagus nerve, so when you are mentally or emotionally stressed it can have a negative impact on your bowel function - commonly triggering diarrhea.
Low Libido or sex drive - chronic stress can cause imbalances in your sex hormones so the more stressed we are, the more likely our sex drive can diminish over time.
Acid reflux / heartburn - when you’re stressed, you become more sensitive to slight rises in acid levels. Stress also depletes the production of substances called "prostaglandins," which normally protect the stomach from the effects of acid.
Frequent colds and flus - chronic stress weakens the immune system leaving you more susceptible to infections and chronic illness.
Physical aches and pains in your body - stress causes changes to the sensitivity of your pain receptors, making you more sensitive to pain, so any pre existing conditions such as arthritis or old injuries, may increase in severity when you are chronically stressed.
Mood Changes - feeling easily irritated or short tempered, or even depressed and anxious are all symptoms typically related to chronic stress, which impacts on neurotransmitter production - the hormones in our brain that influence our mood and cognitive function.
Changes to your appetite - stress has a direct impact on appetite regulating hormones so you may find yourself eating more of less than you would normally
Sleep disturbances - are you kept awake at night by racing thoughts or feeling over stimulated, despite feeling tired? Or are you waking during the night and find it difficult to get back to sleep? If so this is a classic symptom of chronic stress.
Cognitive changes - chronic stress can leave you lacking motivation or with feelings of negativity and difficulty concentrating and making decisions. Chronic stress can also cause anxious thoughts and worrying more about things than you would ordinarily.
Reliance on alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax - chronic stress may cause some people to rely too heavily on alcohol and crave nicotine as a crutch to help them cope with stress. Nicotine, sugar and caffeine in particular, stimulate serotonin levels - the hormone responsible for influencing our mood.
Chest pains, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure or cholesterol - chronic stress increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and chest pain, or irregular heartbeat, because of the inflammatory effects resulting from constant exposure to stress hormones. This can also increase the formation of plaque in the arteries, leading to heart attack and stroke.
If you feel as though you're showing any of these signs of chronic stress, there is little point in getting all 'stressed out' about it, instead use these indicators as a way to draw your attention to the fact that your body is trying to communicate with you that chronic stress is taking it's toll, and take appropriate steps to address the stress in your life and find ways to relieve the effects it is having on your body. The first place I recommend starting is with your diet, followed by exercise because when we're stressed, we tend to eat more of the wrong foods or even skip meals. But the food we eat will either be helping to relieve the effects of stress on our body, or contribute to it.
Avoiding inflammatory foods such as sugar, caffeine, cows dairy and gluten will really help to strengthen your immune system, boost your mood and energy and reduce inflammation systemically throughout your body. Make an effort to move every day, preferably outdoors in the sunshine if possible, because exercise has been scientifically proven to reduce the effects of chronic stress and increase endorphin levels - helping us to feel happier and more relaxed.
Remember, stress will always be part of our everyday life, sometimes more so than at other times, but just how much stress impacts on our physical and mental health, is largely determined by how we respond to it. I'll be following up with another post on the best ways to combat and reduce stress in your life shortly, but for now, consider starting with your diet and grab a copy of my book Love Your Gut and start to feel the difference eating healthy food can make to your life.