8 Physical Signs That Stress Is Seriously Hurting Your Body
By Kirsty Carpenter
Seventy-five to 90 percent of all doctor’s visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
Use our guide to see how stress is affecting you – and how to fix it.
1/ Your Scalp
Stress hormones can interfere with hair growth, causing balding, so if you don’t want to look like Harry on Sex and the City anytime soon, you’d better start looking after your health. Stress can also exacerbate dandruff and, if you’re a smoker, a Taiwanese study found that your smelly habit can actually damage the hair follicle, contributing to hair loss.
Heal Yourself: “Stress-related hair loss begins about two months after the trigger and continues for three months before getting better,” says trichologist Elma Titus. “And, unfortunately, hair loss in itself is stressful.” She recommends the following: eat protein-rich food to boost the amount of keratin in your hair; take a good multivitamin, including vitamin B complex, amino acids and omega-3; drink eight glasses of water a day; exercise and go for regular massages.
2/ Your Neck And Back
Stress really can be a pain in the neck – and back, and shoulders – for the same reason tension headaches arise. When stressed, your body produces hormones that increase tension and sensitivity to pain.
Heal Yourself: Go for a walk, says osteopath Dr Guy Ashburner. This gets your body working as it should and reduces the stress-induced chemical reactions that are occurring. If you can’t get away from your desk, Ashburner recommends you bend forward, push your butt as far back as possible, then sit up. “This provides a good curve in your lower back, allowing your upper back to relax. It also supports the tight muscles,” he says. Once this is done, the other curves will set correctly, releasing tension.
3/ Your Stomach
Irritable bowel syndrome is exactly that – irritating. It affects one in five adults, with stress being the main culprit. Symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and poor digestion.
Heal Yourself: Keep a food diary, suggests Professor Christo van Rensburg, head of gastroenterology at Stellenbosch University. “Try to work out how your diet relates to your symptoms by comparing what you’ve eaten with bad attacks.” To prevent spasms, he suggests eating smaller meals, consuming fibre and getting enough rest. In a study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers found soluble fibre, peppermint oil and antispasmodics to be most effective in relaxing the smooth muscle in the gut and relieving cramping.
4/ Your Mind
A US study from Rosalind University of Medicine and Science showed that stress kills nerve cells, leaving you more likely to fall prey to depression. Stress also acts on serotonin, your happy hormone, which can lead to a deficiency, in turn creating depressive symptoms.
Heal Yourself: In the event of depressive symptoms, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) recommends exercise, sharing your concerns with others, following a healthy diet, scheduling time for relaxation, checking off tasks to relieve pressure and getting involved in group activities or volunteer organisations. If you still feel like you can’t cope, see a psychologist, or call SADAG on 0800 753 379.
5/ Your Head
When you’re stressed, the chemical changes in your brain cause muscles to contract, resulting in pain. About 80 percent of adults experience tension headaches, which can include mild pressing or tightening pain in your forehead, temples and upper neck.
Heal Yourself: Tension headaches can sometimes be alleviated by drinking a few glasses of water or eating low-GI food to restore your blood sugar levels, says Dr Elliot Shevel, medical director of The Headache Clinic. “Anti-inflammatory drugs may help in the short term, but the best way to deal with this is to diagnose why the muscles are so tense in the first place and treat the underlying problem.”
6/ Your Lungs
About 300-million people worldwide suffer from asthma, and stress is one of the triggers. A study by the University of Athens’ allergy department found that because stress affects the immune system, it makes asthma sufferers more susceptible to upper respiratory infections – and asthma attacks. What’s more, stress and anxiety may cause you to feel short of breath, making symptoms worse.
Heal Yourself: Most doctors recognise that stress precipitates asthma attacks and try to remedy this, says Dr Harris Steinman, director of Food and Allergy Consulting and Testing Services. Treatment depends on your doctor and is designed to work for you. “If stress triggers an attack, the only remedy is to use your prescribed bronchodilator, which gives quick relief,” says Steinman. “The problem occurs when you’re having numerous attacks a month. In this case, you’ll likely be prescribed a steroid, which is a preventative measure and reduces the number of attacks.” Ultimately, he says, you need to identify the stressor and rectify it.
7/ Your Heart
According to the Yale University School of Medicine Heart Book, mental stress triggers the same hormones and fatty fuels as physical stress, but unlike physical stress, they aren’t used up. Unused circulating stress hormones can damage the lining of your arteries, and when the healing process begins, your artery walls start to thicken, which can cause future blockages – and heart disease. Stress also increases blood pressure, forcing your heart to work even harder.
Heal Yourself: Although stress isn’t a direct risk factor for cardiovascular disease, a person’s individual response to stress may be a contributing factor, says Erika Ketterer of the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA. “People tend to overeat, smoke more or drink too much alcohol in response to stress, all of which could increase the risk for heart disease and stroke.” And for individuals with existing coronary heart disease, feelings of anxiety or extreme stress may bring on symptoms of angina. “It’s important to change your lifestyle to help you cope with stress: learn how to relax, follow a balanced diet and partake in regular physical activity.”
8/ Your Skin
The adrenaline that rushes through your body when you’re tense also stimulates the release of sebum, an oil which can cause acne. One study also found that stress caused the outermost layer of skin to break up as skin cells shrank and the lipids between the cells evaporated. Tiny cracks made skin more permeable and open to bacteria, which cause eczema and psoriasis. And on top of all that, stress can also lead to premature ageing.
Heal Yourself: “Moisturisers and lotions free of fragrances, colourants and alcohol should be used to restore water and lipids lost during stressful events,” says dermatologist Dr Bernhard Clur. The reason? Well-hydrated skin looks and feels younger and healthier.