How stress affects your health

Lesley Dobson

How do you take on an enemy like stress? Lesley Dobson looks at the symptoms of stress, and what you can do about them.

Stress is bad for you. We know it and tell ourselves that we'll deal with it, later. But we've got some very good reasons for dealing with it now (apart from improving your health and reducing your risk of a range of diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes). Stress makes you fat, flatulent and flattens your sex drive. Still want to deal with it later?

We just weren’t designed to cope with stress long-term. The human body’s response to danger works well when we spot something big and scary coming our way. The alarm bells go off and the ‘fight or flight’ system kicks in, releasing stress hormones, among them adrenaline and cortisol. Between them they increase the heart rate, raise the blood pressure, boost energy supplies to our bloodstream and increase the substances that repair tissues.


Cortisol has some other interesting effects on the human body. It reduces the functions not necessary in that situation, changes our immune system responses and dampens down the systems we don’t need when we’re running for our lives – our immune, digestive and reproductive systems and growth processes.

Once the danger has passed, the stress hormone levels decrease, and everything gets back to normal. Which is fine, as long as the danger passes.

When we’re under pressure all the time – at work, at home, financially and in our relationships – those stress hormones stay raised, causing long-term damage to our health, and some unpleasant symptoms.

‘You can see that the body’s behaving logically,’ explains nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville. ‘In a stressful situation, it’s doing everything it can to save our lives. In a real life or death situation it’s a brilliant mechanism. But these hormones are only supposed to be used for a few minutes. If we’re living like that day in and day out, it’s not healthy. And we live with the consequences.’ One of which, is getting fatter without eating more.

The problem - Fat

‘The stress hormone cortisol layers fat around your middle of your body. It’s almost like a protective cushion. The body stores fat here because it’s near the liver and the major arteries, and close at hand if you need that extra energy supply quickly. It’s your safety net’ says Dr Glenville. ‘But if you’re constantly stressed this goes on and on, with your body getting the message to store fat because there’s a crisis. So you can be eating the same amount, but putting on weight. Stress also affects your thyroid function, and slows your metabolism down, adding to your weight problem.’

Unfortunately, if you respond to stress in this way, you’ll be putting on weight where you least want it. Weight stored around your middle puts you at increased risk of breast cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

(Not everyone reacts like this. Some people lose their appetite and lose weight, even becoming underweight, which also has consequences for your long-term health.)

The problem - Gas

‘Stress hormones can create an inflammatory response, that can affect anywhere in the body, from pains in your joints or muscles, to your gut itself, causing Irritable Bowel Syndrome,’ says Dr Glenville. ‘The irritation can make it feel as though you want to go to the toilet, especially if you’re nervous before an event. It’s why, when people are really scared, they open their bowels.’

Add to that the body’s instant reaction to stress, which is to shut down the digestive system. The result is that your food isn’t digested properly. And the result of that can be bloating, flatulence and IBS. Less obvious, but every bit as important, are the effects on our health from not absorbing nutrients properly.

‘Sitting calmly and eating slowly, even if it’s only for ten minutes in the middle of the day, is really important,’ says Marilyn Glenville. ‘Rushing around, fast food and eating on the go isn’t good for your digestion or for your health. If you aren’t getting the goodness from your food that you need, it has a knock-on effect on your health.’

The problem - Low sex drive

To add insult to injury, high levels of stress knock your sex drive for six, in the process probably adding to your reasons for feeling stressed. ‘Stress affects your hormones, reducing your levels of testosterone, and your sex drive,’ explains Marilyn Glenville. ‘It even affects the quantity and quality of your sperm. This happens anyway as we get older, but stress compounds the effect.’

Men aren’t the only ones affected. Women produce testosterone too, from the ovaries, and also male hormones from the adrenal glands. And just like men, women lose their sexual get up and go when the pressure is on.

These aren’t the only obvious signs that your body is reacting to an overload of pressure. Strange aches and pains, trouble sleeping, a daisy-chain of infections one after the other, hair loss and rashes are all signs that it’s time to face up to your stress.

Take control - be less stressed

‘When you have too many balls in the air at one time, stress is the outcome,’ says Ann McCracken, Vice Chair of the International Stress Management Association. ‘It often shows in a change of behaviour, someone who is normally outgoing becoming withdrawn, for instance, or an easy-going person becoming irritable.’

‘It’s often the things you have no control over that can make you stressed. When a family member has to go into hospital, for instance. Control is a big issue.’ And if stress is long-running, it can take its toll.

'The important thing is to recognise your own symptoms,' says Ann McCracken. 'Self-awareness is important. Some people know that if they come out in a rash, or their psoriasis flares up, it's because they're stressed. Too often we ignore the symptoms, and work through them. You need to step back, take stock of your lifestyle, and the number of balls you have up in the air. 'What's happening in my life?' is the question you need to ask yourself, rather than 'Why is my body out of balance?'

Regaining some control of your situation goes a long way towards reducing your stress levels. If you’ve got too much on your plate, don’t let embarrassment stop you asking for help. Talk to your family and friends and see if anyone can take on some of your load. Say no, nicely, to people who ask you to take on more tasks. And see your GP, sooner rather than later.

Self-help tips for stress

  • Eat well, and make sure you have a healthy, balanced diet with at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, wholegrains, low-fat protein, and not too much salt, sugar and stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol.
  • Get enough sleep. Most of us need about seven hours a night. Make your bedroom a restful place (no work or TV), and keep to the same bedtime and waking hours, seven days a week.
  • Exercise every day. It's important for your physical health, and exercise is also recognised as being good for relieving stress and depression. Aim for at least 30 minutes moderate exercise on at least five days a week. You can break this up into two lots of 15 minutes or three lots of 10 minutes. Go with a friend and build in some social life too.
  • Relax. Yoga, pilates, meditation and deep-breathing exercises all help to relieve stress and help you feel relaxed and peaceful. Find a relaxation technique that works for you and do it regularly.
  • Smile. When you smile you release feelgood hormones that make you feel happier. Laughing works too.
  • See your friends, and talk to them about how you're feeling. Just having a sympathetic ear can make a huge difference to how you feel.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.