If you think stress is an overhyped topic, consider this: In 2019 (before the pandemic), a Gallup poll identified the United States as one of the most stressed-out countries in the world. Today, the stress level of the average American is 20 percentage points higher than the global average, according to The American Institute of Stress.
While stress serves a very real purpose in the short term (like alerting us to danger), it becomes a serious problem for our health and well-being when chronic. According to internal medicine doctor Marcie Claybon, M.D., of BIAN Chicago, the physical manifestations of stress impact just about every organ in the body. And, truthfully, the way of the modern world all but sets us up to get stuck in a stressed-out state. “The psyche only knows what we tell it, so we can be sitting in a lounge chair and have all of our alarms triggered by something in the news,” explains board-certified internist Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. Everything from email notifications to our ex’s social media posts to traffic jams can catapult us into fight-or-flight frenzy, even if we’re perfectly safe.
The physical signs of stress
Of the many downstream effects of stress on our system, there are a few physical signs we should consider flashing red lights warning us that we’re in the danger zone. Here are the big ones to look out for.
1. You’re breaking out
Ever notice that your skin acts out during times of high stress, as if bubbling your angst up in the form of acne and blemishes? It’s no coincidence. In fact, stress can worsen all sorts of skin conditions, including acne, eczema, and psoriasis, per the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD). One study published in the journal Clinical, Cosmetic Investigational Dermatology even found that the higher your stress levels, the more likely you are to suffer from acne.
2. You get frequent headaches
Headaches really know how to ruin a moment, and are quite debilitating when they happen on a consistent and frequent basis. Research has established a strong link between increased stress intensity and headache frequency, which may have something to do with the tensing of certain muscles that can lead to tension headaches or, worse, migraines, says naturopathic doctor and clinical nutritionist, David Friedman, N.D.
3. Your back and shoulders ache
In addition to causing headaches, stress-related muscle tension can lead to pain in the neck, shoulders, and back. “I see a lot of patients with neck pain and discomfort as a sequela of stress because of the tension it causes along the cervical muscles,” Friedman says. (The cervical muscles are those in your neck and upper back.) Research supports this, with one study published in the journal Brain noting higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in individuals with chronic back pain.
4. Your Gut is a Mess
The mind-gut connection, which refers to the direct relationship between the brain and the digestive system and the microbiome within it, is an ever-growing area of scientific study. The more we understand the connections between gut and mental health, the clearer it becomes that stress is a fast track to all sorts of stomach issues.
“Stress hormone elevation can trigger intestinal spasms and reduce the diversity of the gut microbiome, thus contributing to symptoms like abdominal cramping, bloating, and even IBS,” explains Claybon. “Changes in nutritional habits related to stress, such as appetite suppression or overeating as a coping mechanism, can further exacerbate gastrointestinal issues.”
5. You Get sick often
Feel like you’re succumbing to whatever cold or other illness you come within five miles of lately? Consider it a sign that stress is taking a toll on your inner defenses. “Stress can make us more vulnerable to infections and illnesses,” notes Friedman. There are a few reasons for this. One big one is that the stress hormone cortisol suppresses immune activity, including the activity of important T-cells and the production of antibodies. Stress’s impact on the gut microbiome can also take a toll on immunity, breaking down the barrier of the gut that typically protects the bloodstream from harmful substances, Dr. Maya Shetreat, M.D., member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council, previously told What’s Good.
6. Your weight keeps creeping up
Chronic stress is a recipe for weight gain—and not just because feeling strung-out drives many of us to turn to food for comfort, notes Claybon. While, yes, stress eating is a very real (and biologically normal) thing, the chronically high cortisol and adrenaline that occur with nonstop stress can cause your glucose (a.k.a. blood sugar) levels to rise, which can lead to weight gain, especially in the abdominal area, she explains.
How to reduce the physical burden of stress
We’re not here to pretend you can snap your fingers and zap stress right out of your life. However, if you’re experiencing any of the physical fallout that comes with spending too much time in fight-or-flight mode, there are a few simple steps you can take to help your body move back toward balance.
1. Bump up your bedtime
A third of Americans don’t get enough sleep each night—and shut-eye is among the most important lifestyle factors for minimizing physical stress. “Not only does sleep help the body rid itself of toxins, promote mental alertness, and possibly enable some form of emotional processing, but lack of sleep is perceived by the body as yet another form of distress, further triggering cortisol elevation and the systemic stress response,” says Claybon. In order to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night, take an honest look at your bedtime and bump it up as needed in order to log enough hours between the sheets.
2. Choose whole foods as often as possible
Nutrition is a powerful tool for supporting mental health and helping the body manage stress—and failing to get adequate vitamins and minerals could undermine other efforts to find peace, according to Claybon. “We can stabilize or destabilize our cortisol levels, sleep patterns, and emotional responses with what we choose to consume on a regular basis,” she explains. In general, she recommends avoiding sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and gluten and instead reaching for leafy greens, olive oil, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids when stress runs high.
3. Make Epsom salt soaks part of your routine
Sure, the ritual of taking a warm bath in itself can help you feel more at ease—and doing so has tangible benefits for your body, too. In fact, a warm soak can help ease feelings of stress and anxiety and encourage sleep, notes Friedman. “Hot water dilates the blood vessels, which improves circulation and reduces muscle tension, reduces cortisol levels, and increases feel-good chemicals in our body known as endorphins,” he explains.
While the steamy water alone works some magic, adding Epsom salts, which contain naturally occurring mineral compounds made of magnesium and sulfate, can help relax tight muscles and alleviate aches and pains, Friedman adds. Add a cup of Epsom salt to your tub before hopping in to level up your soak’s stress-busting benefits.
4. Do breathing exercises daily
Research has found that simple breathing exercises can be helpful in calming down an overactive nervous system. So, if you struggle with meditation, adding a few minutes of breathing exercises to your daily routine is a good move. “A deep inhalation through the nose, followed by a four-to-five-second breath-hold, then a long, slow exhalation through the mouth can be performed anywhere, anytime,” says Claybon. “Repeating this, even for just a minute or two, has real-time benefits with respect to reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety.”
5. Consider a magnesium supplement
Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals in the body and can be incredibly effective at helping us relax. Claybon recommends taking 300 to 400 milligrams around bedtime to help ease the mind and encourage sound sleep.
Of the various types of magnesium supplements out there, Claybon recommends magnesium glycinate, which is easier on the stomach and well-absorbed. Magnesium citrate can also be helpful, especially if you find that stress backs you up, since it can have a mild laxative effect.
6. Take ashwagandha
A go-to amongst holistic health experts, the adaptogenic herb ashwagandha helps the body manage stress by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and supporting balanced thyroid hormones, explains Friedman. “Ashwagandha has also been shown to help people reach deep, restorative sleep, which is crucial for keeping your hormones in check, and may be useful in supporting adrenal function, which can help increase your energy levels during the day,” he adds.
Friedman recommends looking for a root powder or a root extract supplement that contains at least five percent withanolides, which are the key compounds that may play a role in the herb’s beneficial activity. He suggests taking up to 1,200 milligrams per day, with or without food.