In part one of this series, I discussed the prevalence of depression and anxiety and gave you five ways to self-diagnose them. In part two, I’m focusing on chronic stress, a topic I also tackle here. Linked to conditions like anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, heart disease, and more, chronic stress is a serious threat to your best asset—your health. According to some studies, long the overeating of “comfort foods” in an attempt to manage chronic stress may even be partially responsible for the current obesity epidemic. Other research suggests a link between stress and vulnerability to addiction. Concerned you may be suffering from chronic stress? Here are five warning signs:
1. Frequent Colds and Infections
If you get sick a lot, your stress levels could be to blame. As LiveStrong explains, cortisol released by your body as part of its fight-or-flight stress response causes your immune system to slow down in order to focus on fighting off immediate danger. When this response is sustained, as with chronic stress, your immune system stays in low gear and is less capable of fighting off illness. A meta-analysis of over 300 empirical articles found chronic stressors had negative effects on almost all functional measures of the immune system.
2. Stomach Aches and Other Digestive Problems
Since your brain and your gut are connected, it’s perhaps unsurprising that stress can impact your digestive system. According to EatingWell, stress causes the release of cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones slow digestion while affecting levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin—80% of which is found in the gut—potentially leading to either diarrhea or constipation. A study highlighted by Prevention of 1,953 men and women found those dealing with the most stress were more than three times as likely to have abdominal pain compared to participants who were less stressed. Another study found a link between high levels of perceived stress and peptic ulcers.
3. Low Libido or Inability to Get an Erection
Sex can be a great way to blow off steam, but chronic stress can cause you to lose interest. Not only do factors like exhaustion after a long work day and distraction caused by worries keep you from getting in the mood, hormonal changes can also contribute. Cortisol squelches sexual desire for the same reason it slows digestion and lowers your immune system—to focus your body’s resources on imminent danger. According to Everyday Health, the narrowed arteries and restricted blood flow associated with stress may also lead to erectile dysfunction.
4. Back Pain
According to the American Chiropractic Association, back pain is the second-most common reason people visit the doctor, and it frequently causes people to miss work. If you’re one of the many Americans dealing with this problem, you may want to look at your stress levels. WebMD says stress can cause people to tense their lower back muscles, leading to perpetual backaches that only get worse as your stress levels rise. So what you think is a physical problem caused by an uncomfortable chair, too much heavy lifting, or old age could actually be a psychological issue. The good news about stress-induced chronic back pain is that it can often be treated with techniques like mindfulness. As reported by Harvard Health, a 2016 study found mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can help reduce back pain and improve emotional control. For more on the benefits of mindfulness, see my post here. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and hypnosis may be useful, too.
5. Memory Loss
Not only does stress make it difficult to focus, it may also affect your memory. As Psychology Today explains, stress causes our old friend cortisol to bind to cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for making new experiences into memories, and disrupts that process. Over time, chronic stress can cause synapses to deteriorate, permanently damaging your memory. One animal study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that cortisol reduced synapses in the part of the brain where short-term memories are stored. And if you’re one of those people who can’t ever seem to remember where you put your keys, stress may again be to blame. A 2010 study found chronic stress impairs spatial memory as well.
Now that you know how to self-diagnose stress, what can you do about it? At Tack180, we provide you with the tools you need to change your lifestyle and lower your stress levels. Contact us to set up a consultation here or check out my Simple 10-Day Meditation Course here. And don’t forget about part one of this series, Depression/Stress/Anxiety Test: 5 Ways to Self-Diagnose.
Wondering what areas of your health could use your attention? Consider taking my Optimal Men’s Health quiz. It’s designed to help you determine your next best step to getting healthier and closer to winning.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.