We all deal with stress from time to time. And in many ways, a little stress can be healthy.
In fact, acute bouts of stress—that is, stress that lasts anywhere from a few minutes to several hours—can promote stronger immune functioning, according to research from Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
But when stress is prolonged or chronic—meaning it sticks around for weeks, months, or even years—it can lead to a “dysregulation” or negative changes to your immune system and other biological functions, Dhabhar says.
What kinds of changes? Chronic stress suppresses your protective immunity— your body’s ability to defend itself against diseases and pathogens. It also negatively impacts cell function and contributes to low-grade inflammation, says Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kentucky.
As a result, “it could make one susceptible to illness,” Dhabhar adds. So in a very literal way, stress can make you sick.
But there are other signs—both obvious and subtle—that chronic stress is messing with your health. Here are 8 of them.
Your teeth are fractured or damaged
Yes, psychological stress really can cause you to grind your teeth—both during the day and at night while you sleep. That’s the conclusion of a 2011 study in Biomedical Research. The Japanese research team found people who clenched and ground their teeth had elevated levels of stress hormones in their saliva, while the non-grinders had normal levels of salivary stress hormones. Teeth grinding can lead to tooth fractures, cavities, and other dental issues.
You’re putting on weight
Long-term stress can cause a prolonged uptick in your body’s levels of hunger-producing hormones called glucocorticoids, according to a 2014 study in Frontiers in Psychology. When those hormones are elevated, so is your desire to eat, and out-of-control weight gain and obesity are sometimes the result. Stress also seems to promote cravings for high-calorie foods—fries and desserts, not salads—which makes matters worse, the study authors say.
Your blood pressure is too high
As you’ve probably heard, stress is closely tied to your body’s fight-or-flight instincts, which developed to help humans avoid or fend off predators. To help you survive a life-and-death situation, stress fires up your sympathetic nervous system, which in turn cranks up your blood pressure so that your limbs and muscles are ready for action. None of that is an issue in the short term. But over time, chronically elevated BP can overwork your heart, leading to damaged arteries and blockages, finds a review study from the University of Miami.
Your joints ache
Autoimmune diseases are conditions in which your body’s natural defenses mistakenly attack healthy or harmless cells. The result of that attack is often inflammation, which can lead to joint pain for those with rheumatoid arthritis. Because stress promotes low-grade inflammation, it can heighten symptoms of autoimmune disorders—including RA, but also gut-related conditions like celiac disease and lupus. Research has even found that stress may cause autoimmune disorders.
Your gut is out of sorts
More bad news for your gut. Even if you don’t suffer from an autoimmune disorder, stress hormones can trigger unhelpful changes in the way your digestive system transports, breaks down, and absorbs nutrients, finds a 2011 study in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. Even short-term stress can lead to temporary bouts of stomach pain, cramps, diarrhea, or other gut-related symptoms.
You’re breaking out
Whether your stress is short-term or chronic, either type could mess with your complexion. That’s because stress hormones—especially cortisol—can increase your skin’s oil production and cell turnover, says Adam Friedman, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at George Washington University. That could result in acne breakouts, as well as flushing or other skin reactions, he says.
You’re always tired
The links between stress and poor sleep are well-established. But even if you feel you’re sleeping well, there’s evidence that stress may trigger feelings of fatigue. A 2011 study in the journal BMC Research Notes found stress and fatigue often go hand in hand. The authors of that study speculate that a prolonged uptick in immune system activity and the general tension that accompanies stress could cause your anxious body to feel worn down.
Your head is throbbing
Tension-type headaches have long been associated with stress. A 2017 study found that these stress-triggered headaches aren’t the result of rising heart rates or cortisol, but instead seemed tied to “over extending” yourself when stressed out. What does that mean? Fixating on negative outcomes, and failing to adopt a more positive mindset, the researchers say. Basically, stress-induced worry and anxiety about bad outcomes seemed to be causing the headaches.
By Markham Heid