With the effects of the pandemic and stressors surrounding Covid-19, stress-related absence is up 64% from 2019, and there has been a 39% increase in leave due to stress year on year.
Short term stress can be good in small doses, as it can focus the mind, provide motivation and energise the body, which helps achieve goals, solve problems and perform difficult tasks well. However, continued stress can lead to many health problems as the brain releases hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which raise blood pressure and impact bodily functions.
Experts at Livi, the digital healthcare platform, have listed five of the harmful effects stress can have on the body:
Lowering your immune system
Ongoing stress can increase inflammation and the likelihood of developing disease, as well as worsening pre-existing conditions. This can lead to infections such as the flu and cold sores amongst other things.
Interrupting your digestion
When stressed continuously, the liver produces extra glucose, which, if the body can’t keep up with processing, can result in type 2 diabetes. The gut contains millions of neurons that are in communication with the brain, which is interrupted by stress and can trigger symptoms like bloating, pain and acid reflux.
Flaring up your skin
As the brain is connected to the skins surface through nerves, when pro-inflammatory chemicals from the brain are released due to stress, this can lead to flare ups of certain conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis. Stress can also delay the healing of wounds as well as leading to excess oil production in the skin, which can result in acne and pimples.
Increasing tension in your head
Cortisol and adrenaline can cause blood vessels to change and bring on tension headaches and migraines. Feelings of anxiety, worry and fatigue can also increase muscle tension and widened blood vessels, which make headaches a lot worse.
Creating an imbalance in hormones
Over a period of time, stress can cause hormonal imbalance, leading to premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and moodiness through the reproductive cycle. Oestrogen and progesterone, which are vital for ovulation, can also be disrupted, which is especially relevant for those who are trying for children. Sex drives can also be rapidly decreased through testosterone production being negatively impacted.
With such damaging effects on the body, stress management is vital for good health, and therefore Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi, has shared her top tips on how to get stress under control…
Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress, as it gives you a chance to blow off steam and clear your head. Regular exercise can improve your mood and reduce anxiety, as well as helping to increase self-confidence. This is because exercise increases the body’s production of endorphins, which can boost your mental health. It also gives you a goal and a purpose, which can help to distract you from your worries.
Get enough sleep
Try to aim for eight hours of sleep if you can. Reduce stimulants like screen time, news reports, coffee, alcohol, nicotine and big meals a couple of hours before bed. This will enable your brain to shut off and your digestive system to relax well before bedtime, enabling you to drift off more easily.
Try meditation, yoga or mindfulness
Start by doing a guided meditation for just five minutes. This can be done using apps or videos on YouTube. Research shows that it is a great way to process stress and can also lead to long term changes in the brain, including reducing age-related brain deterioration.4
A diet high in fruit and vegetables can positively impact moods, and there are many foods that will help stress. Sweet potato is a nutrient-rich carb source that may help lower levels of cortisol, and it contains vitamin C and potassium which help the body’s stress responses.
Vegetables like artichokes, which are good sources of vitamin K and magnesium, help the body respond positively to stress. Shellfish like mussels and oysters contain taurine which has anti-depressant effects and is needed to produce dopamine. Omega-3 and vitamin D are also important for good mental health, so consume foods rich in these such as fatty fish and avocado. Blueberries are also high in antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory benefits to protect against the physical affects stress has on the body.
As well as eating healthy foods, it’s important to avoid those which are particularly high in sugar and fat, such as fast food.
Talk about your problems
Connecting socially by speaking to loved ones and friends can help to relieve stress and talking about your problems will mean you are less likely to use coping mechanisms, such as drinking and smoking. Connecting with yourself is also important, so make sure you have plenty of ‘me time’ by doing things you enjoy, treating yourself and making time to relax and switch off. If needed, consider speaking to a doctor or psychologist for professional support.
Dr McClymont said: “Chronic long-term stress can affect your physical health, causing symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension and digestive problems. Particularly given the pandemic and the extra stress this has caused us, it is more important than ever to address this stress in a healthy manner. Taking time out of busy days and schedules to reconnect with yourself and recharge your body and mind is vital to leading a happier and healthier lifestyle. Remember that you can always talk to your GP about stress if you need further support.”
For more information about stress management and effects of stress, visit: https://www.livi.co.uk/your-health/7-ways-stress-affects-the-body/