“I’m not having any stress, so why do I feel so bad?” The Silent Signs of Stress and How it is Affecting your Health.
by Teresa Richter, ND

Stress.  Stress is everywhere, all the time.  Even if you don’t realize it, it is there.  Have you been having some new health issues coming up lately? Is your body not quite acting right? There is a really good change that it is due to stress. This past seven months have unprecedented, uncertain, and either fear inducing or anger inducing.  Even though we have been adjusting to our “new normal” for the time being, doesn’t mean that your body isn’t feeling the cumulative effect of the past 6 months, or past few years even.  You may be thinking, “I’m ok, I’m don’t really have any stress.” because there is nothing major happening. Stress can be produced from unpleasant situations as well as great situations like getting a new job, moving into a new home, or even falling in love.  Most people minimize and downplay the role of stress in their lives and only associate being “stressed out” with catastrophic or major life altering changes.  Certainly, that would do the trick, however, it’s often the small day to day things that add up over time to really cause adverse consequences for your health.

For short periods of time, large amounts of stress can be endured by the body. Long periods of chronic stress, even low level stress, can have seriously negative effects. When we experience stress our bodies produce stress hormones. These hormones are meant to help save our lives. This survival mode that allows us to survive situations like running from a bear is called “fight or flight” mode. When the body goes into fight or flight mode, it releases hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. These hormones change and regulate body functions to give the body energy to run from that bear or fight for your life. Adrenaline and norepinephrine have similar effects such as the heart pounding, tight muscles, fast breathing, and the heightened awareness you experience when you have a near miss changing lanes on the freeway. Minutes later cortisol is released helping to maintain blood pressure and fluid balance. Cortisol also down regulates some body functions such as digestion, reproduction, growth and repair.

When you have a near miss on the freeway, this stress response happens quickly, and your body returns to normal quickly and there are no long term effects. However, there are many things in our day to day lives that cause stress, even if it is not immediately noticeable, that cause our bodies to continuously produce cortisol. Having chronically evaluated cortisol levels have adverse effects on many systems of our bodies. Even if you don’t notice that little bit of stress when your boss asks you to take on extra work, or you see work emails filling up your inbox on the weekend, small daily things that we are used to dealing with do cause enough stress to build up over time.

Here are some signs that you are experiencing chronic levels of stress without even realizing it:

  •  1.  Weight Gain Around the Midsection
  • Stress causes cravings for carbohydrates and fat. This can lead to stress eating and weight gain. Even if you haven’t changed your diet you can still gain weight. Chronically elevated cortisol blocks insulin from working properly, essentially making cells insulin resistant. This leads to elevated levels of blood sugar. Since the sugar cannot get out of the blood and into your cells to give them energy, your cells are starving and crying out in the form of telling your brain to send out hunger signals the leads to more eating. In an effort to supply energy to the starving cell, even though blood sugar remains high, cortisol causes a break down of protein from muscle tissue so that the body can turn it into more sugar, called gluconeogenesis, This breakdown of muscle tissue not only jeopardizes muscle integrity, but also the decrease in muscle mass decreases the body’s calorie burning ability.

    2.  Awful Period Cramps

    ​When Cortisol levels are high and production is continuous, the body needs to keep up with the constant hormone production somehow. Progesterone is a pre-cursor to cortisol, so the body starts shutting progesterone toward cortisol production, creating a deficiency. This deficiency can cause intense menstrual cramping, heavier bleeding. spotting or irregular periods, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, infertility. Progesterone also helps to maintain cholesterol levels, protects the cardiovascular system, increases sensitivity to insulin, and supports thyroid function.

    3.  Achy Jaw

    ​During times of stress and elevated cortisol depletes the body of magnesium,which increase muscle tension. The high levels of stress and increased tension can lead to jaw clenching and grinding during sleep, causing you to wake up with a sore, or painful jaw. Sometimes, people are not  aware that they are clenching their jaw while they are awake also due  to stress.

    4.  Stomach Aches and Other Digestive Issues
    Higher levels of cortisol disrupt enzyme and stomach acid production. This leads to difficulty digesting foods causing gas, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation. Cortisol’s immune system suppressing effect can also make you more susceptible to bacterial and yeast overgrowth in the intestines that can lead to IBS. Long term stress depletes the body of magnesium that can increase likelihood of constipation as well as increased sugar intake from stress eating. Aside from that, it is also believed that the nervous system between the brain and digestive system are connected through the same nerve pathways and when one feels stress the other feels stress.
    5.  Difficulty Falling Asleep And Staying Asleep
    At night time when sleeping, cortisol levels usually slowly rise until they are highest in the morning to wake you up and get you going. However, if you are producing too much cortisol, it will make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Since cortisol and adrenaline increase alertness it can make for not restful sleep, not getting into deeper sleep levels. Often after long periods of high cortisol production, the adrenal glands will fatigue cortisol levels will drop off until they are too low. This can cause blood sugar to dip which will also result in night time waking.
    6.  Acne
    When levels of stress hormones increase such as cortisol, it is not uncommon for the increased cortisol to cause an increase in oil production and oil producing hormones such as androgens that can lead to more acne. We also often engage in behaviors when we are stressed out such as stress eating. Stress eating usually includes foods that are processed, high in sugar, fat, or carbs, all of which will also contribute to increased acne production.
    7. Low Libido
    When the body is under stress and cortisol and adrenaline(epinephrine) are being produced, high levels of these hormones can cause low libido. When stress is chronic, the body uses up it’s sex hormones to continue making stress hormones causing chronically low levels of libido and arousal. This can lead to erectile dysfunction in men.  Usually when we are under stress, there can be issues that cause our mind’s to be distracted, or can lead to anxiety and depression all of which may dampen libido.
    8.  Brain Fog

    Prolonged exposure to cortisol are associated with impaired memory and can even cause the brain to shrink. Even a small elevation in cortisol can have adverse effects on the brain. People who are under chronic stress have more difficulty with attention and with solving problems.

    9.  Sweet Tooth

    When we are stressed, our brains’ require up to twelve percent more energy to function properly. Our brain’s preferred fuel source is carbohydrates and sugar. These foods also happen to give the body quick energy. These reasons are usually why we tend to crave more sweets like chocolate and carbs during times of stress. Aside from the brain, due to the effects of cortisol on insulin and blood sugar, our cells are starving.  This causes the brain to send out hunger signals that are often answered with sugar and carbohydrates. If you remember, prolonged cortisol blocks insulin from allowing sugar to go from our blood into our cells and tissues like it should. The cells rely on that sugar to produce energy. When unable to do so, they ask the body to get more energy.

    10.  Tiredness/Exhaustion

    Whether it is high or low, cortisol can cause symptoms of fatigue or feeling tired. This can often been seen between 3-5om.  Cortisol also tends to disrupt sleep whether it is high or low, often causing night time awakenings every few hours, especially between 1-3am and making it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. When cortisol is low, getting out of bed in the morning can be especially more difficult as well as feeling fatigue throughout the entire day. Cortisol, as you already know, has effects on insulin, blocking it from doing it’s job, leading to elevated blood sugar, that causes the body to produce more insulin to try to deal with the body sugar on a vicious cycle. Elevated levels of insulin also cause fatigue and sluggishness. Cortisol can also disrupt thyroid function also leading to fatigue.

    As you can see, day to day issues, even things that happen that are good can cause some amount of stress. You may not recognize these things as causing any stress at the time, or may not recognize the signs. However, with constantly dealing with working, driving, paying bills, worrying, being insecure, moving, getting married, getting divorced, starting a new job, there are many, many things that cause stress. If you have been experiencing any of the above symptoms, it is best to be examined right away.

    References:

  • 15 Signs You May Be Suffering From Stress but Didn’t Realize it.  The Active Times. 12/24/2015.  https://www.theactivetimes.com/fitness/15-signs-you-may-be-suffering-stress-don-t-realize-it.  Accessed 9/24/2020
  • Editors of Prevention. 10 Silent Signals You’re Too Stressed Out. Prevention.  11/29/2017.  https://www.prevention.com/life/a20487779/silent-signals-youre-stressed-0/  Accessed 9/24/2020
  • Klein, Sara.  Adrenaline, Cortisol, and Epinephrine: The Three Major Stress Hormones Explained. Huffpost. 4/19/2013.  https://www.huffpost.com/entry/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.  Accessed 9/24/2020
  • Stress.  Cleveland Clinic.  https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress.  Accessed 9/24/2020
  • Aronson, Dina, MS, RD.  Cortisol — Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy.  Today’s Dietician.  Vol. 11 No. 11 P. 38.  11/2009.  https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml.  Access 9/24/2020
  • 6.  Ranabir, S., & Reetu, K. (2011). Stress and hormones. Indian journal of       endocrinology and metabolism, 15(1), 18–22. https://doi.org/10.4103/2230-8210.77573
  • Hormones 101. Women In Balance Institute. National University of Natural Medicine. https://womeninbalance.org/about-hormone-imbalance/hormones-101/  Accessed 9/24/2020
  • Charlotte.  Understanding Progesterone Deficiency Symptoms and Their Possible Causes.  Body Logic MD. 5/7/2019. https://www.bodylogicmd.com/blog/understanding-progesterone-deficiency-symptoms-and-their-possible-causes/#:~:text=The%20most%20common%20symptoms%20associated,Infertility%20and%2For%20miscarriage.  Accessed 9/24/2020
  • Bush, B, & Hudson, T.  The Role of Cortisol in Sleep.  Natural Medicine Journal.  June 2010 Vol. 2 Issue 6.  https://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2010-06/role-cortisol-sleep#:~:text=Interestingly%2C%20chronic%20insomnia%20without%20depression,of%20the%20nighttime%20sleep%20period.&text=This%20elevation%20in%20cortisol%20may,cause%20of%20the%20sleep%20disturbance.  Accessed 9/24/2020
  • Wilson, James L, Sleep Disruptions. AdrenalFatigue.org. https://adrenalfatigue.org/sleep-disruptions/Accessed 9/25/2020
  • Werner, Zoe. Yes, Stress Causes Acne, but it is Slightly More Complicated than That. Well+Good.  January 31st, 2019. https://www.wellandgood.com/does-cortisol-cause-acne/  Accessed 9/27/2020
  • Scott, Elizabeth, MS.Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD How Stress Can Cause a Low Libido. VeryWellmind.  March 1st, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-stress-can-lead-to-low-libido-3145029 accessed 9/27/2020
  • 13. Hamilton, Lisa Dawn et al. “Cortisol, sexual arousal, and affect in response to    sexual stimuli.” The journal of sexual medicine vol. 5,9 (2008): 2111-8. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.00922.x  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2703719/  Accessed 9/27/2020
  • Pawlowski, A.  Feeling Stressed? It could affect your memory, study finds. October 24th, 2018.  Today.  https://www.today.com/health/how-lower-stress-high-cortisol-levels-affect-memory-brain-t140593.  accessed 9/27/2020
  • Peters, Achim.  Why do we crave sweets when we’re stressed? Scientific American.  February 27th 2019.  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-we-crave-sweets-when-were-stressed/  accessed 9/27/2020
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