We have all probably experienced the feeling of being over-worked, under-slept and in desperate need of a holiday.
Your monkey mind just won't stop worrying, and you feel like one extra stressor could tip you over the edge!
Can you relate?
Although these are the most recognised stress related symptoms, there are many other indicators that your body can manifest physically, when cortisol is running high.
Cortisol is our main stress hormone, and it is released by our adrenal glands when we are under real or perceived threat.
Cortisol is beneficial (to a point), as it is anti-inflammatory and can help us to fight infections, heal wounds and get us through periods of famine. It is when cortisol is chronically released that it can start to become a problem.
Chronic cortisol output (caused by long term stress) has been linked to many health conditions including type 2 diabetes, allergies, digestive issues, hormonal disorders, thyroid imbalances and depression. It is believed that up to 90% of all doctors visits are in some way stress related.
Stress is any change in the environment that requires your body to react and adjust in response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. You can also say that stress is anything that moves your body out of equilibrium or 'balance'.
Not all stress is bad either.
Things like exercise, marriage and having kids (depending on how you think of these things) are positive stressors, known as 'eustress'. Negative stressors, or 'distress', includes losing a loved one, financial challenges and unemployment.
You have probably heard me say this 100 times already, but stress isn't just mental and emotional.
Dehydration, blood sugar swings, consuming food you are intolerant to, under-eating and chronic gut infections are all types of physiological stress that can also lead to chronic cortisol output, without you being aware.
Chances are, your body is trying to let you know!
These signals may be subtle to start with, but if you mask the symptoms, brush them off or simply don't pay attention, they are going to get louder and louder until they make you take action!
Here are some physical signs that your body is stressed the heck out!...
1. Teeth grinding.
When we are stressed our muscles become tense, especially our jaw muscles. Has your partner told you that you grind your teeth in the night? Or do you wake up with a headache and a sore jaw? Chances are you are dealing with high cortisol (and/or parasites!)
2. Skin breakouts
If you find yourself suffering with pimples, skin rashes or eczema flare ups, then that is a big sign that your body is stressed and inflamed. I can guarantee that you've had a big spot pop up before a job interview, business event or during exam time in the past. Cortisol also impacts gut health and the absorption of nutrients needed to create healthy looking skin.
3. Chronic pain
Back pain, joint pain, foot pain...they can all be related to stress. If you have recently injured yourself then this is pretty self explanatory, however if you are still suffering months down the line or for no known reason, then stress could be to blame. Stress can increases our sensitivity to pain (reducing our tolerance) and can suppress the immune system so we don't fully heal from past injuries.
4. Digestive issues
Our nervous system can only be in one of two states at any given time, the parasympathetic (rest, digest, heal) or sympathetic arm of the nervous system. (fight, flight, freeze) Evolutionarily, digestion would have been temporally shut down if we were under stress. Your body doesn't care about digesting lunch when you are running from a lion, or these days, your boss! Symptoms can include indigestion, reflux, cramps, pain, gas, constipation and diarrhoea.
If your heart skips a beat, flutters or feels like it's pounding out of your chest, this needs to be investigated. High cortisol can definitely cause these symptoms however you still need to rule out more serious, underlying conditions. Blood pressure and heart rate increase when we are in sympathetic dominance as a way for us to fight or run away from danger.
6. Low libido
Lost your sex drive? Stress negatively impacts hormones like testosterone and oxytocin and dopamine, that are responsible for getting us 'in the mood'. This is another evolutionary adaptation that prevented us from reproducing during times of famine, war or being chased by a wild animal, back in the day. Would you rather watch TV and have a bottle of wine, after a long day at work? Cortisol may be to blame.
7. Appetite changes
It usually goes one of two ways. A) You want to eat everything in sight (especially if it is sugar, salty, fatty and crunchy) or B) You completely lose your appetite and can't stomach anything. This is highly individual and based on your personal relationship with food, however they are both as harmful in my opinion. We need to consume the right nutrients to help us adapt and recover from stress.
8. Weight changes
This often goes along with the appetite changes, but not always! You could be eating the exact same diet and doing the same exercise, but after a stressful period you find yourself 10lbs heavier and struggling to fasten your jeans! Gaining weight around your midsection (you know that stubborn belly fat that just won't budge?) is especially indicative of the hormones cortisol and insulin. Our body holds onto weight because it believes our life is in danger. It believes that we need to protect our internal organs with a thick layer of fat, just incase we are attacked or go through a famine.
9. Hormonal imbalances
Debilitating bleeding, crazy PMS symptoms and even stopping your period completely, can all be stressed related. When the body senses danger in the environment it produces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. When it feels 'unsafe' the brain can also temporarily 'shut off' ovulation, therefore preventing the production of progesterone. We need a beautiful balance of oestrogen and progesterone throughout the month to have easy, pain-free and regular periods. Read more about this here.
Stress is known to deplete the body of crucial nutrients including vitamin C, B vitamins and especially magnesium. As I've already mentioned stress can create muscle tension which is exacerbated by a lack of the relaxation mineral magnesium. When the muscles of the jaw, neck or shoulders become tense, this can create headaches and migraines in some people. Another overlooked factor is that when we're busy or under a lot of pressure we forget to drink WATER, and instead reach for coffee to keep us awake or alcohol to wind down. This isn't great, as both as diuretics and can leave us dehydrated - a big headache trigger!
11. Frequent illness
Always getting food poisoning, tonsillitis or chest infections? Your immune system is likely compromised! Stress impacts immunity in several different ways. It can create imbalances with our gut bacteria, allowing the 'bad bugs' to thrive. Around 70% of our immune system is located in our gut, so this can make us less resilient to infections and pathogens. Secretory IGA (sIGA) is a protective mucus that lines our entire GI tract, and barrier is lowered by stress (especially mental/emotional stress)!
A common way clients describe their energy levels to me is 'wired but tired'. If you start the day feeling glued to your bed but then at 10pm feel like you have a second wind of energy, then this is a big indicator that your circadian rhythm is out of whack, likely due to adrenal stress! Waking up multiple times during the night is also a sign that your nervous system is on overdrive, meaning that you will be unable to get the deep, restorative sleep you need.
In order to overcome these symptoms, you first need to identify the stressors in your life. This means taking a good hard look at your mindset, boundaries, organisation skills, self care and nutrition.
The way you interpret stress is also very important.
If you are constantly telling yourself that there isn't enough time in the day or that you have to wash all the dishes, clean the house top to bottom, answer emails and prepare for a business meeting you are going to feel overwhelmed!
Looking for some ideas on how to manage stress and reduce cortisol levels? Click here to read about my top, effective recommendations.
Living in this modern, 21st century lifestyle can be tough (especially if your an old soul at heart, like myself!), however with conscious effort we have the ability to prevent many stress related conditions, using self care, stress management techniques and the right mindset.
Struggling with anxiety, hormone imbalances or digestive issues?
You don't have to suffer with these symptoms! Get help to identify and address the root causes by working with me 1-on-1. You can click here for more information or to book your first session.