Chronic Stress Wreaks Havoc on Your Entire Body: Here’s How

Here's what you can do about it

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Stress is any change that causes physical, emotional, or physical strain.

By nature, the stress response is adaptive. It’s productive and beneficial for survival. The problem arises when stress becomes chronic.

Symptoms of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is constantly feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period. There are many symptoms associated with chronic stress, including the following:

  • Insomnia
  • Weakness
  • Less socialization/emotional withdrawal
  • Trouble focusing
  • Aches and pains
  • Low energy
  • Brain fog
  • Change in appetite
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Change in emotional response to others

Bodily Systems Affected by Stress

Stress affects every system throughout your body, including the cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, musculoskeletal, and reproductive systems.

Cardiovascular System

Acute stress can cause increased heart rate, stronger heart muscle contractions, and elevated blood pressure. Once the short-term stressor passes, the cardiovascular system returns to normal.

On the other hand, stress that persists for an extended period can contribute to long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels, potentially increasing the risk of hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.

Respiratory System

Stress causes the airways between the nose and lungs to constrict, which is generally not a problem for people. However, it can present problems for people with pre-existing respiratory diseases like asthma.

Endocrine System

Stress ultimately results in an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids. One of these steroid hormones is cortisol, also referred to as the “stress hormone.”

While glucocorticoids like cortisol are essential for regulating the immune system and reducing inflammation, chronic stress can impair communication between the immune system and the HPA axis.

Impaired communication is linked to the future development of many physical and mental health conditions.

Gastrointestinal System

Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria, which can affect your mood. Stress can also affect many parts of the gastrointestinal system, including the esophagus, stomach, and bowel.

Nervous System

The nervous system consists of two main divisions: the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which includes the automatic and somatic nervous systems.

The automatic nervous system, which includes the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), directly affects the physical response to stress. Stress activates the SNS, which contributes to the “fight or flight” state your body shifts to under stress. When your body is in this state, its energy resources prioritize responding to the threat. Once the perceived threat is gone, the body returns to normal.

Continuous activation of the nervous system adversely affects various bodily systems.

Musculoskeletal System

When stressed, your muscles tense up to protect you against injury and pain. Persistent stress means that your muscles are under tension for a long time, which can trigger other bodily reactions and promote stress-related disorders.

Reproductive System

Stress affects men and women slightly differently. 

In men, ongoing stress can affect testosterone production, resulting in a decreased sex drive. It can also negatively impact sperm production and maturation. 

Women can also experience a reduced sex drive due to chronic stress. High stress can even affect menstruation and the ability to become pregnant. 

The increased risk of reproductive diseases is also associated with high stress across all sexes.

How Do You Know If You Have Chronic Stress

If you think you may be struggling with chronic stress, it may be helpful to test your cortisol levels. 

Laboratory testing is a great tool to screen for imbalances. There are a few ways you can get started.

One way is to go to a lab to get your sample taken. This route often requires you to obtain a lab order from your doctor first.

Another option is to take an at-home lab test. This option allows you to order a test, collect a sample, return it to a CLIA-certified lab, and view your results from home.

Home Test Box offers an at-home Sleep and Stress Test that allows you to test your cortisol (and melatonin) levels from the comfort and privacy of your home. This route can be more convenient, especially if time and transportation are limited.

Learn more about our Sleep and Stress Test here.

What to Do if Your Cortisol Levels are High

You should consult your healthcare provider if your test results indicate that your cortisol levels are out of the normal range. If necessary, your healthcare provider may refer you to an endocrinologist. 

An endocrinologist is a doctor who specializes in hormone-related conditions. They can review your lab results, order more tests if necessary, and review your symptoms and any other signs of hormonal imbalance.

Helpful Tips for Managing Chronic Stress

  • Prioritize sleep
  • Eat healthily
  • Exercise regularly
  • Connect with others
  • Time management
  • Setting realistic goals
  • Make time for leisure activities
  • Build stress reduction skills
  • Learn and practice mindfulness
home test box at-home sleep and stress test

Struggling with Chronic Stress

This at-home lab test measures cortisol and melatonin. When balanced, melatonin and cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day. This test measures your cortisol and melatonin levels four times throughout the day for a possible understanding of your stress levels and why you aren’t getting the sleep you need.

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