The Domino Effect of Stress on Your Body

Whether it’s behind the wheel of your car on the way to work or burning the dinner with no ‘Plan B,’ most of us are bound to feel stressed out during a typical day.

According to one study, 77 percent of people say that they’ve experienced the physical symptoms of stress and 48 percent believe their stress increased over the last five years. If stress is becoming a constant, nagging part of your everyday life, you might be doing a real number on your body from top to bottom.

Chronic stress (the type that lingers consistently and does not go away after three months) can suppress your thyroid, lower your insulin levels, interfere with cognition, and lessen your immunity, according to women’s health specialist Dr. Nancy Simpkins, a Board Certified Internist with a practice in Livingston, NJ.

Dr. Simpkins explains that the culprit for the body-wreaking havoc is one of the primary hormones released during stress — cortisol. “When you’re stressed your body secretes more cortisol than it normally would,” she explains. “This is okay if it happens intermittently but over time there are definite negative physiological responses to the surge of the hormone.”

When your body perceives a threat the stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) leap into action and start a cascading effect of symptoms from your head on down. Here’s how:

It messes with your brain.

Research shows that significant changes occur in the brain when under stress. Brain scans show that stress actually causes a person to react with feeling rather than function. One part of the brain (the amygdala) dominates another (the hippocampus) enhancing emotion and impairing cognition. This may be why smart people appear to do ‘dumb’ things. When chronically stressed we can’t respond effectively and our working memory fails us.

It spurs acne and hair loss.

The stress hormone causes a plethora of cosmetic nightmares. High levels of cortisol in the body increase oil production in the skin which can lead to acne.  Not only is ‘stress-related acne‘ an actual thing, but researchers found that chronic stress inhibits your skin’s ability to heal quickly from injury. The hormones caused by stress break down the outer, protective layer of skin and deplete the skin’s moisture well.

Unexplained hair loss is also associated with stress. Scientists say when someone is under extreme stress their hair can go into the telogen or “fall out” phase.

It makes you gain weight.

High stress and the resulting cortisol secretion cause blood sugar imbalances. Rather than allowing insulin in your body to move the sugar to cells for energy, the sugar hangs around and we store fat, especially around our middle. To top it off, during particularly high stress times a lot of people turn to food for that emotional comfort. This emotional or stress eating is also murder on the waistline.

It causes gastrointestinal issues.

You know that stomach ache you get when you feel burnt out? There’s a reason for that. Your stomach interacts with your nervous system (like the rest of your body) and that “flight or fight” stress response can interrupt digestion or stop it altogether, causing those pains. So-called ‘functional disorders‘ of the stomach can be very likely stress-induced. They include things like constipation and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

It contributes to heart disease.

Research has shown acute stress triggers reduce blood flow to the heart, causes heartbeat irregularity and increases blood clotting – factors contributing to cardiovascular disease. One study showed the connection between high levels of cortisol and cardiovascular deaths even in people with no preexisting cardiovascular disease.

How to Prevent the Stress Domino Effect

“The only way to control the cortisol release is through stress management,” advises Dr. Simpkins. Stress management may seem like an impossible task, but that’s probably your fried brain talking! Check out the following ways to manage your stress and your health:

  • Exercise 20-30 minutes daily. Physical activity, such as walking, running, yoga, etc. is a natural cortisol buster because it ramps up the production of your body’s ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters called endorphins. It also goes a long way in helping you sleep and reduces anxiety, both aggravated by stress.
  • Relax your mind and body. Deep breathing is a great way to achieve relaxation and in turn combat the effects of stress. Slow, deep breathing is a way to calm the body down and lessen, if not diminish, the release of cortisol.
  • Get some sleep. While stress may affect your sleep, not getting enough will take a toll on your body. Researchers say a good night’s sleep will help you deal with daily stressors better.

There’s no one right way to manage individual stress, so preventing the stress in the first place might be your best bet. Dr. Simpkins suggests seeking out counseling if your stress feels “unmanageable.” For more information about stress and how to better manage it you can check out the American Institute of Stress’s web site

Tara Weng is formerly a medical/features producer at the NBC television affiliate in Boston, MA, and National Editor of Health/Parenting channel at


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