The physical impact of stress

From tight deadlines at work to money worries at home, exam pressure to family issues, there are plenty of events in life which can cause us to feel stressed. And while stress is a natural response to these sorts of experiences, the physical and mental impact it can have on us can be particularly detrimental if it continues beyond the short-term.

In the immediate, our stress response can actually be useful, helping us cope with potentially serious situations. The body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase heart and breathing rates, getting your muscles ready to respond.

But if the stress response doesn’t stop and those levels stay high far longer than is necessary for survival, it can impact your health, causing a variety of symptoms, including:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • headaches
  • insomnia
  • irritability

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How stress affects the central nervous system

Your central nervous system controls your ‘fight or flight’ response.

In your brain, the hypothalamus starts the process by telling your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones speed up your heartbeat and send blood to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles and heart.

When the threat is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. But if it fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, the response will continue, putting the body under a lot of unnecessary strain.

How stress affects the digestive system

Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar to give you a boost of energy. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this increase of glucose, potentially increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The rush of hormones experienced during stress, combined with rapid breathing and increased heart rate can also upset your digestive system. Heartburn or acid reflux are more likely, thanks to an increase in stomach acid.

Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, leading to extremes such as diarrhoea or constipation, as well as stomach-aches, nausea, or vomiting.

How stress affects the respiratory and cardiovascular systems

Those stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster to quickly get oxygen-rich blood to your body. If you have a breathing problem like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it even more difficult to breathe.

Under stress, your heart pumps faster. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles, so you’ll have more strength to act. But this also raises your blood pressure.

Frequent or chronic stress makes your heart work too hard for too long, raising your risks of having a stroke or heart attack.

How stress affects the muscular system

When you’re under stress, your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury. When you begin to relax, they tend to release again, but if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may stay tight, causing tension headaches, back and shoulder pain and body aches. This can be particularly harmful over time if you start to have to use medication regularly to relieve the pain.

How stress affects the immune system

Stress triggers the immune system. In the short term, this can be helpful in healing wounds and fighting infections. Over time however, stress hormones weaken the immune system, reducing your body’s response to foreign invaders. Chronic stress can leave you more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu, as well as increasing the time it takes to recover from an illness or injury.

How stress affects sexuality and the reproductive system

Because stress puts such a burden on both the body and the mind, it’s not surprising that many of us lose our libido during stressful times. Short-term stress can cause men to produce more of the male hormone testosterone, but this doesn’t last.

If stress continues for a long time, testosterone levels can begin to drop, interfering with sperm production and causing erectile dysfunction. For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle, leading to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods.

Are you worried about your stress levels?

With so many knock-on effects around the body, stress is a big concern when it comes to health and wellbeing. Our busy and demanding lifestyles don’t help and the pressure to keep going through stressful times means we often ignore or overlook the warning signs that our bodies are struggling with the impact of stress.

It’s important to keep an eye on what your body is trying to tell you so you can take action to reduce the stressors in your life and prevent health problems from becoming chronic and long-term.

At Blood Tests London we offer a comprehensive range of blood testing options to check your cortisol levels, helping you understand how your body is responding to stress and whether this is having a wider impact on your health.   

Is there a way to check your stress markers in London?

At Blue Horizon, we know that it can be difficult to get a GP appointment. Our central London clinic makes getting a blood test quick, convenient and as painless as possible, at a location which is easy to get to by public transport.

Come and visit us

Our central London walk in clinic makes getting your private blood test quick and convenient. Simply purchase your test online and attend the clinic on the same day.

Find out more about our stress tests