How Does Stress Affect Your Body? The Latest Research Shows It Can Vary

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Stress is a hell of a state of mind. Not only can it make you feel frantic, overwhelmed and on the verge of tears, new science shows that it can wreak some serious havoc on the body. Stress can affect your body in many different areas, some of which might not be immediately obvious.

“It is well known that stress and stressors directly affect our health, whether we want to admit it or not," Dr. Sherry Ross M.D., a women's health expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center, tells Bustle. From your heart to your brain and immune system, stress can mess with your body, in both short-term and more permanent ways.

Stress may seem like a good motivator to power through your to-do list, but the stakes for reducing stress are high. Decades of research tell us that stressors and anxiety can impact our organs, our nervous system, our guts, and our brains. Carrying stress around can make you more vulnerable to illnesses and infections — or make your immune system overreact and hurt your cells. Recent research has shown how it can hurt your gut, whiten your hair, and even shrink your brain.

Here's what stress can do to your body; be ready to grab a stress ball.

1. You Experience A Hormonal Cascade

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The instant you begin to feel stressed, your body starts to react, Dr. Ross tells Bustle. "The first response to stress begins in the hypothalamus in the brain, which sends signals to the pituitary gland and the adrenal medulla. They start a hormonal cascade," she says. The cascade released hormones throughout the body, and includes the stress hormone cortisol. As it spreads, it causes increased heart and breathing rates, a heightened pulse, higher blood pressure and more sweat, all of which are designed to help us cope with threats and danger.

A study published in 2019 in Seminars In Cell & Developmental Biology found that this cascade even affects the microglia, a type of nerve cell in the brain and spinal cord. After danger passes, your body is meant to reduce these hormones to normal levels, but if you're under a lot of stress all the time, though, they stay at elevated levels constantly.

2. It Can Affect Your Immune System

Chronic stress can damage your body's defenses against viruses and infections. A review of the effects of stress on the body published in EXCLI Journal in 2017 found that studies have linked stress to poor immune system function, in part because when you're stressed, your body changes the way it secretes hormones that help the immune system. This can lead to something called chronic immune activation, in which your immune system overreacts and starts to attack healthy cells instead of threatening ones.

It can also mean your body becomes more vulnerable to illness and recovers more slowly from diseases and infections. A 2019 study published in Microbial Pathogenesis found that stress can actually help bacterial growth, making infections worse.

3. Your Sleep Is Affected

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Stress impairs sleep because it makes us alert and panicky, damaging our ability to relax and get refreshing rest. "Stress prevents the mind from relaxing, making sleep next to impossible," Dr. Ross tells Bustle. Heightened adrenaline and cortisol levels make it more difficult to calm down, which can stop you from falling asleep or from feeling refreshed when you wake up.

Sleep deprivation from stress can physically alter your brain, making neurons less capable of communication and impairing your thinking processes. And this relationship goes way back; a review of the science around stress and sleep published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews in 2019 found that being stressed just after birth can affect our sleep all the way to adulthood.

4. It Changes Your Brain

It's not just the consequences of sleep deprivation that change the brain when you're stressed. "For those suffering from constant and on-going stress, long term physical and mental medical complication can occur," Dr. Ross tells Bustle. Stress over long periods can change the brain, increasing the likelihood of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Research in 2018 found that stressed people showed slight brain shrinkage compared to relaxed people, and the review in 2017 showed that stress can physically rewire the brain, causing significant structural changes and alterations in activity.

5. It Changes Your Gut

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If you feel gurgles in your gut whenever you're anxious or upset, you're not alone; the digestive system can be very sensitive to stress and other emotions. Stress can also have a serious effect on your gut health. Research published in Frontiers in Microbiology in 2017 found that stress can damage the microbiome that helps the gut function, though the effects of stress can differ widely from person to person. Everybody from indigestion, nausea and vomiting to constipation can be traced to stress and its effect on the gut.

6. It Hurts Heart Health

Stress can put a lot of pressure on the heart; when you're stressed, your heart pumps harder to distribute blood to make sure you're prepared to deal with threats, and that can cause long-term damage over time. "Stress can cause high blood pressure and heartbeat irregularities," Dr. Ross tells Bustle. Being stressed is a risk factor for poorer heart health overall, with stressed people more likely to show symptoms of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and other heart issues over the course of their lifetimes. A study published in Circulation in 2019 also found that race plays a role in the relationship between stress and heart health in women over the course of their lives.

7. It Can Turn Your Hair White

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Old wive's tales (not to mention David Lynch's Twin Peaks) often cite people whose hair turned white overnight after a huge scare or shock — and while that might not be common, research published in Nature in 2020 found that there is some evidence that stress can directly cause hair-whitening in mice. According to the study, the body's fight-or-flight system negatively impacts melanocyte stem cells, which live in hair follicles and color our hair.

Melanocyte stem cells die as we age anyway, causing gradual whitening over time, but the 2020 study found that stress accelerated the process. Stress can potentially change your hair color, but it's hard to predict exactly how.

Busting stress is a good way to reduce its effects on your body and physical health. "Creating daily rituals will help reduce unwanted stress," Dr. Ross tells Bustle. She suggests trying yoga, meditation, mindfulness, massage, psychotherapy, or a combination of approaches; you'll probably have your own individual ways of relieving stress, whether it's doing a few laps in a pool or sitting in the lotus position for an hour. And the results will relieve your body as well as your mind.

Studies cited:

Frank, M. G., Fonken, L. K., Watkins, L. R., & Maier, S. F. (2019). Microglia: Neuroimmune-sensors of stress. Seminars in Cell & Developmental Biology, 94, 176–185. doi: 10.1016/j.semcdb.2019.01.001

Karl, J. P., Hatch, A. M., Arcidiacono, S. M., Pearce, S. C., Pantoja-Feliciano, I. G., Doherty, L. A., & Soares, J. W. (2018). Effects of Psychological, Environmental and Physical Stressors on the Gut Microbiota. Frontiers in microbiology, 9, 2013. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2018.02013

Martire, V. L., Caruso, D., Palagini, L., Zoccoli, G., & Bastianini, S. (2019). Stress & sleep: A relationship lasting a lifetime. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.08.024

Morey, J. N., Boggero, I. A., Scott, A. B., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2015). Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Current opinion in psychology, 5, 13–17. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007

Peña, M. S. B., Mbassa, R. S., Slopen, N. B., Williams, D. R., Buring, J. E., & Albert, M. A. (2019). Cumulative Psychosocial Stress and Ideal Cardiovascular Health in Older Women. Circulation, 139(17), 2012–2021. doi: 10.1161/circulationaha.118.033915

Sarkodie, E. K., Zhou, S., Baidoo, S. A., & Chu, W. (2019). Influences of stress hormones on microbial infections. Microbial Pathogenesis, 131, 270–276. doi: 10.1016/j.micpath.2019.04.013

Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal, 16, 1057–1072. doi:10.17179/excli2017-480

Zhang, B., Ma, S., Rachmin, I., He, M., Baral, P., Choi, S., … Hsu, Y.-C. (2020). Hyperactivation of sympathetic nerves drives depletion of melanocyte stem cells. Nature, 577(7792), 676–681. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-1935-3

Expert:

Dr. Sherry Ross M.D.