Stress is like a glass of water — everyone holds it from time to time. However, hold on to it for too long and you’ll start experiencing distress.
Hold the glass for an hour and your arm will ache; hold it for a day and your hand might start to feel numb and paralyzed. The longer you hold the glass of water, the heavier it becomes — this is the same with stress.
If stress is chronic, it can begin quietly affecting your health. This will probably crop up as your body acting out in unusual, disruptive ways. We spoke to two doctors to flesh out the quiet signs stress is affecting your health and what to do about it.
1. You notice increased hair loss
“There are many reasons someone can experience hair loss,” Drea Burbank, an MD-technologist consulting for high-tech in medicine and the founder of Empulse tells Considerable. “But one type of hair loss is called telogen effluvium, which can be caused by chronic stress.”
Telogen effluvium occurs mostly on the top of the scalp and includes increased hair shedding, noticeable especially when washing and brushing the hair. Fortunately, says Burbank, this hair usually grows back when the stress is gone.
2. Your weight is fluctuating
Unexplained weight gain could be another quiet sign of stress impacting your health. “Stress changes the levels of cortisol in the body,” Burbank explains. “One sign of increased cortisol is weight gain around the belt line, and internal organs called central adiposity.”
The doctor notes that cortisol in blood and saliva has been correlated with heart disease and premature death. However, exercise, such as walking 30 minutes daily, is one of the best ways to combat this, reducing chronic stress.
3. Your sleep patterns are out of whack
“When the body is under strain, people can have difficulty falling or staying asleep,” says Burbank. “We see this pattern in people experiencing grief, or under intense work strain.”
The thing is, a good sleep is imperative in reducing stress. Burbank recommends sleep hygiene — such as a cool temperature in the bedroom and limiting stimulants like caffeine before bed — as an important treatment to reduce stress.
4. Your back is flaring up
While many instinctively assume that posture or improper exercise form is the culprit behind back trouble, often it relates to stress.
“If your back is in pain or causing you discomfort and you haven’t deliberately injured it, this may be a result of stress,” Jamie Bacharach, a Licensed Medical Acupuncturist and the Head of Practice at Acupuncture Jerusalem tells Considerable.
According to Bacharach, when stressed, you subconsciously alter your breathing pattern which can cause tension, resulting in strain in your back and spine. This sort of stress-related back pain can cause serious, debilitating injury, especially over an extended period of time.
“If your stress isn’t addressed, not only does the back pain linger, it will likely get worse and worse until serious medical intervention is required,” Bacharach says.
Here’s what she suggests: Aside from limiting your stress, you should be sure to make a conscious effort to breathe normally and without interruption. Stretching and even performing yoga on a regular basis can also go a long way towards limiting back trouble.
5. Your appetite is diminished
“If you find that you aren’t as hungry as you should be, or that you’re skipping meals, it may be a direct result of stress,” Bacharach says. “When stressed, we don’t necessarily feel up to eating. Our guard is up and our mind is taken with pressing concerns that distract from this basic biological need.”
However, the acupuncturist warns that a diminished appetite can threaten your health directly as your body needs calories in order to function properly. “In order to help yourself through this problem, set alarms to remind yourself to eat and drink on a regular basis,” suggests Bacharach.
While it may be difficult to stomach food when stressed, she says that even a simple meal can make a tremendous difference in your energy levels throughout the day, helping you remain strong and vital.
6. You’re getting sick more often
Does it seem like you constantly have a cold that’s nearly impossible to shake? Well, according to a review of 27 studies, you’re more likely to get frequent colds when you’re under stress.
The sneaky culprit, again, is cortisol: Excess cortisol makes your immune system more vulnerable to viruses, increasing susceptibility to common colds.
To avoid a constant case of the sniffles, consider implementing stress-relieving practices into your routine. These could include journaling, meditation, acupuncture, or really anything that allows you to slow down and take a deep breath.