Feeling stressed out? A little bit of stress is not so bad: It can help keep you alert, on task and ready to react in an emergency. It’s only when stress becomes chronic, however, that it wreak havoc on your health. Your body will feel the effects; it can impact your mood, change your behavior—and even lead to weight gain.
In one study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers found women who reported being stressed out within 24 hours of eating a high-fat, high-calorie meal burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women. Though that may not seem like much, that difference could amount to weight gain of almost 11 pounds in one year. The stressed women also had higher levels of insulin, which contributes to the storage of fat.
Also, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been shown to boost your appetite, drive sugar-and-fat-filled food cravings, and make you more likely to accumulate belly fat.
If you can recognize symptoms of stress, you can better manage them. Feeling particularly irritable or overwhelmed is a tell-tale sign of stress, so are splitting headaches and insomnia. But others signs may not be so obvious.
Here are some clues when feeling stressed out is reaching unhealthy levels:
1. Does your belly ache often?
Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting—these and other gastrointestinal issues are often seen in people who are too stressed out, according to a study published in the International Journal of Stress Management. Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation. You’re also more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux. And if you already have a digestive disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), research suggests stress may be associated with an uptick in symptoms.
2. Does your head feel fuzzy?
When you’re feeling stressed out, you may find yourself losing focus, having a tough time concentrating or making decisions, and even forgetting appointments. Research suggests certain hormones that are released following a stressful event may impair memory.
3. Are your back and shoulders stiff?
Your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury when you’re stressed out and then release once you relax. But if the stress is continuous, your muscles stay tense—which can lead to back and shoulder pain, body aches, even headache, say experts.
4. Do you have a constant case of the sniffles?
A little stress boosts your immune system, which is good when your body is trying to fight an infection and heal wounds. But over time, chronic stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s ability to invading germs. The result: You’re more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections, according to the American Institute on Stress. One research review of 27 studies showed that stress was linked to increased susceptibility of developing an upper respiratory infection. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.
5. Is your sex drive down?
Stress isn’t the only reason your libido is lagging, but it may play a role: A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found women who reported higher levels of daily stress were associated with lower levels of sexual activity and satisfaction. Plus, chronic stress can mess with a women’s menstrual cycle, say experts. It may lead to irregular, heavier or more painful periods, which may dampen your desire. For men, chronic stress may cause a man’s testosterone levels to drop, which could lead to erectile dysfunction or impotence.
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