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What happens to your body when you're stressed and how to beat it

Stress can trigger anxiety, low mood and sleepless nights. But it can also affect you physically. You may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking to excess, eating more sugary comfort foods, and smoking.

In the long term, the effects of stress hormones on your body can have a wide-ranging impact on your health and wellbeing.

What happens when you’re stressed?

Under stress, your adrenal glands release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline, which raises your heart rate and blood pressure, and cortisol, which pumps glucose into your bloodstream.

All this happens in order to prepare you for a fight-or-flight situation, as your brain interprets stress to mean you are in danger – even if your source of stress is a difficult work colleague, rather than a wild animal about to attack. Cortisol also suppresses non-essential body processes to conserve energy that might be needed if you have to run away or do battle.

Stress can affect your body in various ways:

Your digestive system

Prolonged stress is linked to IBS, causing symptoms such as pain, bloating and constipation.

Your heart

In the long term, exposure to cortisol reduces your body’s ability to regulate the inflammatory response, which may increase your risk of heart disease.

Your immune system

Studies have shown the actions of bug-busting T cells and killer cells are inhibited in people under stress, which could explain why you’re more susceptible to colds when you’re overworked. The connection may also be the reason people with chronic fatigue syndrome link the onset of the condition to stress.

Your skin

The mind and skin are connected, and stress can lead to a breakout of acne and cause skin dryness due to an increase of the hormone cortisol. Look for skin-soothing, hypoallergenic, fragrance-free products to prevent further dryness and inflammation.

The ageing process

Long-term stress prematurely shortens a part of the chromosomes called telomeres, and the shorter the telomeres, the more likely you are to develop age-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

3 stress management techniques

1. Eat to beat tension and reduce stress

Make sure you have a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and veg. It’s also good idea to take a multivitamin as certain vitamins can become depleted when you’re stressed.

Avoid stodgy, high GI foods like white bread and crisps, and soft drinks, as these can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which may exacerbate stress symptoms. You should also limit caffeine, which may aggravate anxiety.

2. Exercise regularly

Physical activity triggers the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, which helps reduce stress. It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do, what’s important is that you stick to it.

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3. Calm yourself with herbal stress relief

Try sipping soothing chamomile tea to help you relax. Lavender oil is known for its calming properties; add a few drops to your bath. Some research has shown that the herb Valerian could also help relieve stress, while another herb rhodiola may help ease anxiety.

This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies