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28th March, 20215 min read

The effects of stress on the body

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Libby Williams
Last reviewed: 25/03/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

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Stress can be caused by a number of different things, like being under a lot of pressure, facing times of uncertainty and having too many responsibilities. These could be related to your work, studies, family life, health, housing or finances.

It’s important to remember that feeling stressed from time to time is normal. We all experience and react to stress differently, both emotionally and physically. Read on to learn about the effects of stress on the body and when to seek help.

The physical effects of stress

When you feel stressed, 2 hormones called cortisol and adrenaline are released. This is when the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Adrenaline causes your heart rate, blood pressure and energy levels to rise. Cortisol increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, reduces immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes.

Stress over long periods of time can cause unpleasant physical side effects, including:

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Digestive problems

The sudden increase in cortisol and adrenaline can upset your digestive system. This may result in bloating, nausea, vomiting, tummy ache, diarrhoea or constipation.

You’re also more likely to get heartburn due to an increase in stomach acid, which can increase your risk of developing stomach ulcers and cause existing ulcers to flare up.

Diabetes

Although stress isn’t a direct cause of diabetes, there's some evidence to suggest stress may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Researchers think this is because high levels of cortisol may stop insulin from being produced properly.

Aches and pains

When you’re stressed for a long time, muscles don’t relax as they normally would, which causes tension to build up.

This can result in aches and pains all over the body, especially in the back and shoulders, and may even cause headaches and migraines.

A weakened immune system

The rise in cortisol as a result of stress can weaken the immune system. This means you’re more likely to pick up infections and illnesses if you're chronically stressed. A weakened immune system also means it will take longer for you to get over any illnesses.

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High blood pressure

The adrenaline released when you’re stressed causes your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to rise. Over time, this can cause damage to your heart, major organs and arteries, increasing your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases.

Fatigue

For some people, stress can make it very difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Over time, this can lead to insomnia and overwhelming fatigue that makes simple daily tasks seem impossible.

Changes in the reproductive system

Constant stress can cause male testosterone levels to drop. This may cause problems with sperm production and could even cause erectile dysfunction.

Stress can also affect the menstrual cycle – periods can become irregular, heavier and more painful.

Stress may make menopause symptoms worse too.

How to manage stress

Practising self-care can help reduce stress levels and the long-term effects of stress. If you’re feeling stressed, try:

When should you seek help for stress?

A little bit of stress here and there is normal, but being stressed for a long time can lead to mental, physical and emotional health problems.

Most symptoms and effects of stress should improve with time if your stress levels decrease.

You should always speak to a doctor if:

  • you can’t reduce your stress levels yourself
  • self-care techniques haven’t been effective
  • you’re developing more serious health problems, such as high blood pressure
  • stress is having a negative impact on your mental health

Did you know, you can use the Healthily app to track your mood? Once you've downloaded the app, go to ‘My Account’ then 'My trackers' and choose 'Mood’.

Key points

  • when you’re stressed your body releases hormones called cortisol and adrenaline
  • stress can have negative effects on your digestive, immune and reproductive systems
  • self-care can help you reduce stress and the effects of stress
  • see your doctor if you’re worried about your stress levels or how stress is affecting you
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