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8 Signs Stress Is Damaging Your Body—and What To Do About It

Experts reveal the telltale signs stress is taking its toll on your body and how to handle it.

In today's fast-paced, always-on-the-go society, being in a constant state of stress has become somewhat the norm. However, living in a high-stress zone can majorly impact your health—and not in a good way. In fact, according to research, chronic stress can bring about structural changes to the brain, mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and leading causes of death, such as cancer and coronary heart disease. Finding ways to effectively manage and channel stress is key, which is why we're here with eight telltale signs stress is damaging your body and eight essential fixes.

"Our nervous systems are designed to handle acute, in-the-moment stressors and then return to a relaxed state once the threat has passed," explains Dorsey Standish, MS, a neuroscientist, wellness expert, mechanical engineer, and the founder of Mastermind Meditate. "When high stress is not balanced with restorative parasympathetic nervous system activation, the body and mind can suffer."

Don't let stress get the best of you; pinpoint these red flags and implement necessary changes into your daily routine.

You're gaining weight.

woman weighing herself overweight on scale

If you notice you're gaining excess weight, stress may be getting the best of your body.

"There are many reasons stress can contribute to weight gain, including things such as not taking time to care for yourself and exercise; craving comfort food and sweets; stress contributing to high blood sugar levels and high cortisol levels; and lack of motivation," explain The Nutrition Twins®, Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD, CDN, CFT, and Lyssie Lakatos, RD, CDN, CFT, members of our Medical Expert Board. "People often stop focusing on their health and [grab] whatever is convenient. Sugar, as well as large, high-fat meals, stress the body even further and typically don't provide nutrients that your body quickly depletes during stress, including magnesium, B vitamins, and antioxidants."

The fix:

Update your shopping list to ensure you have a variety of snacks and recipes on hand that provide plenty of fiber and protein. This healthy combo can keep your blood sugar levels stable and help you avoid fatigue due to sugar crashes.

The Nutrition Twins recommend snacks like Greek yogurt with fresh berries, edamame, and single-serving packets of nuts. For meals, they suggest having easy options on deck, like eggs with whole-grain toast for a nutritious breakfast and frozen veggies, brown rice, and prepared chicken for a seamless stir-fry.

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Your hair is falling out.

woman noticing her hair falling out after shower

According to the Nutrition Twins, your hair may fall out for several reasons.

"First, when you're under a significant amount of stress, a large amount of your hair follicles go into a resting phase, which means only a small amount of your hair is actually in the growing phase; so all of the hairs in the resting phase fall out over the course of a just of couple months," The Nutrition Twins share. "Another reason stress can cause your hair to fall out is because it causes dysbiosis, an imbalance of the bacteria in the gut."

When your microbiome is out of whack, the digestive process and absorption of nutrients are impacted. You could become deficient in crucial hair growth nutrients like iron, zinc, and B vitamins.

The fix:

Consume a diet chock-full of probiotics—think fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles) and yogurt—to bring back your gut's "good bacteria." In addition, shop for foods that offer prebiotic fiber, like asparagus, onions, bananas, and garlic, along with whole grains, produce, and lean protein.

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You have heartburn.

Having heartburn

When you're feeling stressed, digestion slows as your body channels its "fight or flight" response.

"This means food doesn't get digested as it should, and it sits in the stomach longer and/or relaxes the esophageal sphincter, allowing for stomach acids to sit in the stomach longer as well, creating a higher chance of them flowing back up into the esophagus and causing reflux," The Nutrition Twins explain. "At the same time, stress disrupts the microbiome, which also may [impact] slowing digestion, increasing the risk of heartburn."

The fix:

To decrease your risk of heartburn, it's wise to avoid spicy and fried foods, citrus fruits, tomato products, fatty meats, cheese, caffeine, and carbonated beverages—all of which can trigger it.

"These foods cause the esophageal sphincter to relax and/or cause food to sit in the stomach longer and allow food and acid to go back up the esophagus," The Nutrition Twins say. "It doesn't mean you can never eat them, but eat them in moderation, and especially avoid them at night before bed because when you lie down, with the esophageal sphincter relaxed, it's easy for the food to come up the esophagus."

You're getting headaches

man rubbing head with severe headache

"From a nutrition standpoint, stress headaches are typically due to dehydration or blood sugar dips that occur as someone is taking less time to care for themselves in a stressful situation—such as working through a lunch break and not remembering (or not stopping to drink water) or reaching for sugary foods to manage stress," The Nutrition Twins explain.

The fix:

You may find it helpful to do some deep breathing exercises, follow a guided meditation, or apply a magnesium lotion to tight muscles. (If you have a tension headache, for instance, your body could tense up your shoulder and neck muscles in response to stress.)

"Simply making sure to stay hydrated, setting a timer to remind someone to eat lunch, or having a healthy snack on hand to turn to rather than grabbing sugar from the vending machines (that ultimately results in blood sugar dips) can prevent dehydration or blood sugar dips from triggering headaches," The Nutrition Twins suggest."

In addition, consuming a fiber, protein, and antioxidant-rich diet, complete with fruits, veggies, and whole grains, can provide your body with fuel to conquer stress.

You're sick often.

woman blowing her nose, sick at home cold weather

When you're stressed, your health and wellness may get pushed to the back burner. Rather than preparing nourishing meals packed with vitamins, you may opt for quick, less-than-nutritious options like fast food and salty or sugary snacks.

"These foods give you a quick energy boost that you crave, but you'll soon come crashing down and need another pick-me-up," The Nutrition Twins note. "These foods add stress to the body and contribute to inflammation, and this weakens the body's resistance to illness."

If you don't fuel your body with the nutrients it requires to conquer stress, you may often get sick.

The fix:

Keep a list handy of foods that boost your health, especially during more stressful days.

"It can be something as simple as always keeping some frozen berries in the freezer so you can throw them in a morning oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothie during times of stress, or keeping a bag of frozen spinach or broccoli on hand so you can steam some extra vegetables alongside your dinner, even if you end up ordering in something that isn't as healthy," The Nutrition Twins suggest.

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Your sleep is usually disturbed.

woman insomnia, concept of things that destroy sleep quality

If you find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, and/or you struggle to wake up in the morning, stress may be the culprit.

The fix:

How can you address this vicious cycle head-on? Standish breaks it down.

"A great practice to manage stress and improve your sleep is Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR), a form of meditation that offers restorative benefits similar to deep sleep," she says. "You can practice NSDR in the evening to wind down, in the middle of the night to relax and get back to sleep, or in the mid-afternoon to reenergize instead of a cup of coffee or candy bar."

You find it difficult to concentrate.

mature woman standing outside work meeting, finding it difficult to concentrate

Getting distracted easily and finding it challenging to focus or keep your focus on a certain task is another sign stress may be taking its toll.

The fix:

"Reduce stress and improve mental acuity through the practice of mindfulness meditation," suggests Standish. "Even short meditations have been shown to lower stress levels and improve focus."

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Your muscles are tense.

muscle pain

Stress can lead to physical pain, including tense and tight muscles.

The fix:

Getting your body up and moving is a surefire way to help it feel better. The best part? You don't need to perform an extensive workout for results.

"One of my favorite phrases is, 'Motion is lotion,'" says Standish. "Something as simple as a few gentle yoga poses, foam rolling, or a leisurely walk outside can do wonders to reset the nervous system and stretch out the body."

Alexa Mellardo
Alexa is the Mind + Body Deputy Editor of Eat This, Not That!, overseeing the M+B channel and delivering compelling fitness, wellness, and self-care topics to readers. Read more about Alexa
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