Stress is a natural function of the body that we all experience differently. Because of this, it can be difficult to understand the full extent of how it impacts our bodies, and what we can do to alleviate it. 

Many of us have turned to Doctor Google to try and get some answers on our symptoms, but it’s tough to know which advice to believe. That’s why Dr Natasha Fernando, MBBS, MRCGP has examined and answered the top questions we’re all Googling.

But first – why does stress affect people so differently?

We see an enormous range of symptoms resulting from stress. When a person experiences stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, triggering the ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ response. This response is designed to prepare the body to deal with a perceived threat. As a part of this response, blood is redirected away from non-essential functions, such as digestion, and toward muscles and vital organs.

These changes can disrupt the normal running of the nervous system, and the impacts of this can be felt all throughout the body. This is why your stress might give you symptoms that are so different from someone else’s. However, there are some symptoms that are more common than others.

Can stress cause diarrhoea?

Research suggests that digestion is one of the systems shut down by the stress response, to reserve energy for fending off danger. Preventing the digestive system from operating normally can give you a range of symptoms. The fight or flight response can lead to changes in bowel function, including increased bowel muscle contraction and secretion.

Furthermore, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline can directly affect the digestive system in various ways, including speeding up the transit time of food through the intestines. Rapid transit can result in less absorption of water from the stool, leading to loose or watery stools, which is characteristic of diarrhoea.

On the other hand, the stress-induced changes in the contractions of the bowel muscles could also lead to a slowing down of bowel movements, resulting in delayed transit of stool through the intestines. This can contribute to constipation and can be experienced in those having more chronic stress.

As stress can suppress your digestive system, it’s also common to lose your appetite. Cortisol, the stress hormone, specifically increases stomach acid production which can cause indigestion, and can also reduce your appetite. Stress has also been linked to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which causes symptoms including stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. IBS is a diagnosis which is made by doctors after excluding other significant medical causes, so it may be worthwhile consulting your doctor if you are concerned about a change in your bowels.

Can stress cause vertigo?

Vertigo, which is what we call it when it feels like your head is spinning, can be a symptom of a range of conditions; for example, issues with the systems which control your balance including the inner ear, nervous system issues, cardiovascular issues, iron deficiency, or changes in blood sugar. Similarly to digestive upsets, some of these conditions can be aggravated by stress.

Vertigo is also a condition which is commonly misunderstood and is often incorrectly defined by people. Vertigo refers specifically to that head-spinning sensation; this is separate from feeling faint or light-headedness, but these feelings, and their causes, can be confused for each other, which can sometimes make it harder to diagnose the cause. Therefore, it is recommended that you consult your doctor if you are affected by these symptoms.

Can stress cause high blood pressure?

Stress can certainly cause high blood pressure. Because adrenaline makes your heart beat faster, it’s normal for your blood pressure to increase for short periods when you feel stressed, and it should return to normal once the stress has passed. However, in some individuals, ongoing stress may make them more prone to unhealthy habits such as eating less healthily, being less motivated to exercise, or drinking more alcohol. These lifestyle changes alone can cause long-term high blood pressure.

High blood pressure can have a negative impact your health and damage major organs and arteries over time, so it’s important to try and stick to healthy habits, like regular exercise and eating plenty of vitamins and wholefoods in their natural forms such as fruit, veg and wholegrains to keep you blood pressure within your normal range.

Can stress cause hair loss?

Feeling like your hair is falling out can be a frightening experience, but you can be assured that hair shedding from stress is temporary. Long term stress may disrupt the normal balance of the hair growth cycle, leading to a shift in the number of hairs in the growth phase versus the resting phase. This imbalance can contribute to increased hair shedding. Controlling your stress levels can put a stop to this.

There are also habitual factors related to stress which can impact hair loss. Stress is one of the main factors which can contribute to the development of trichotillomania, a mental health disorder characterised by the recurrent urge to pull out one’s hair, leading to noticeable hair loss. Please do not hesitate to speak to your doctor if you think you may have this condition as there are treatment options available including psychological therapy.

Changes in sleep hygiene can also impact hair loss; the growth cycle for your skin and hair works at its best while you sleep, so if you’re sleeping less, then your hair growth and repair functions aren’t able to work at their best. Keeping a close eye on stress-related habits and maintaining a good sleep schedule can help you reduce hair loss.

While stress can present in the body in many different ways, what happens for one person won’t necessarily happen for another. Paying close attention to your feelings of stress, and how your body responds, will go a long way to helping you recognise and deal with your symptoms.

Dr Natasha Fernando
Head of Clinical Excellence at Medichecks | Website | + posts

Dr. Natasha Fernando, the head of clinical excellence at Medichecks, oversees maintaining high standards in customer-centred advice on results. As a qualified lifestyle medicine practitioner, Natasha emphasises a holistic approach, focusing on the root causes of medical issues. She also supports Medichecks' customer care and business development teams.