Hidden health effects of stress

If feeling strung out is your chronic state, your HPA axis can become more easily triggered, causing a cycle of stress that is exhausting and difficult to break, says Stephanie Osfield.

You may not even be aware of the full domino of health effects, including:

Spotty skin
Stress can quickly compromise your complexion. “Studies show that stress can worsen skin conditions like psoriasis and make people more prone to experiencing acne flare-ups,” says Rosemary Nixon, spokesperson for the Australasian College of Dermatologists. “Itchy skin conditions like eczema are often much worse when people are stressed.”

Thinning hair
Ever noticed your hair falling out a few months after an intense period of pressure? The culprit? Androgen hormones, released by the adrenal glands, which can interrupt the growth cycle of your hair.

Fluid retention
Feeling wired? Then your adrenals may also be pumping out a hormone called aldosterone, which increases sodium levels in the kidneys. You may then notice swelling in your face, hands, legs, feet, belly and breasts because your body holds on to fluid thinking you’re under threat.

A widening waistline
Women of normal weight who report higher stress also suffer higher cortisol levels and more abdominal fat, shows research from Yale University. “Cortisol impacts on blood glucose levels and can cause insulin resistance and increase fat cells, particularly around the stomach causing central adiposity or a ‘muffin top,” says Mitchell. This in turn increases your risk of diabetes type 2.

More colds and flu
“The more stressed we are, the less effective our natural killer cells and the less primed our immune system is to do its job,” Associate Professor Deborah Hodgson, director of the Laboratory of Neuroimmunology at the University of Newcastle. “Longer term, stress has been linked to the development of diseases like cancer – most likely because it causes mutations in our DNA or compromises our ability to heal mutations.”

Memory mishaps
“Stress speeds up the death of cells in parts of the brain that govern memory, and executive functioning, which includes emotional regulation, judgment and higher reasoning,” says Hassed.

“The wiring of your brain also changes so that the parts that register stress and fear actually grow, which means you are then increasingly likely to react with higher stress to smaller triggers.”

Encouragingly, “Studies show that when the stress is alleviated through practices like mindfulness, within weeks to months the brain starts to change back to a healthier configuration,” Hassed says.

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