Liam Rodgers

What Does Stress Do To Your Body

Do you experience stress often? Learn how it affects your body and how you can fight this dangerous feeling.

what does stress do to your body

You’re not you when you’re stressed.

You’re literally a different version of yourself, as your body and brain change in response to stress.

In this article, we’re answering the question, ‘What does stress do to your body?’, and explaining what you can do to fight back.

Let’s start with the most important question: what is stress and how does it work?

What is stress?

Stress is the set of changes that happen to you when you’re placed into a situation you’re not adapted to. It’s outside of your expectations and your normal life, whether that’s a stressful set of demands or a new type of exercise or activity.

Stress is often just too much of something. It pushes our mind and body to adapt, but it can easily exceed your capacity, which will leave you suffering the toxic effects of stress.

This isn’t just in your head, as a psychological experience, either.

Deep in your nervous system, stress flicks the switch in your brain between your ‘parasympathetic’ and ‘sympathetic’ nervous systems. The parasympathetic system is where you are at rest – relaxed and recovering – allowing your body to heal and rejuvenate, while the sympathetic nervous system is activated during situations that require survival instincts, such as fleeing from danger, defending against predators, or remaining hyper-vigilant to potential threats.

Your body isn’t designed to run in a ‘survival mode’ all the time, and this is why chronic stress can seriously harm your body – not to mention how it makes you feel! Even worse, it makes you more vulnerable to future stress and illness, which can easily lead to a downward spiral and plays a role in some of the most common and damaging conditions.

Hormones and stress: chronic stress vs acute stress


When you undergo too much stress, either all at once or cumulatively, your hormones change profoundly.

Because hormones are your body’s ‘slow’ control system, this can persist even after the stressor is gone. This can leave you cortisol overloaded (or ‘hypercortisolism’) even when you think you should feel better.

Cortisol is the most important and common stress hormone. It tells your body that you’re in danger – something is wrong – and promotes energy-spending behaviours like breaking down tissues, increasing cravings, raising heart rate, and increasing blood pressure. These obviously contribute to major health risks like heart disease and stroke.

Excessive stress will also suppress important hormones like testosterone, as well as those regulating hunger, sleep, energy, and more. Your hormonal system maintains a delicate balance, and excessive or prolonged stress can easily upset that balance!

How does stress impact metabolism?

Stress disrupts your metabolic health, causing your body to signal for energy needs, breaking down muscle and spiking cravings. When your body thinks it’s in danger, it wants to spend resources like calories – especially from carbohydrates – to help out.

The problem is that prolonged stress leads to reliance on this metabolic setup. You’re not designed to ‘run hot’ at all times, and you’ll feel exhausted as your nervous system is constantly over-exerting itself to keep you ‘safe’.

A higher resting insulin level, poorer metabolic responses, and changes in lifestyle that promote unhealthy habits, including poor food choices and less exercise, all contribute. This can easily lead to metabolic change, worsening the condition of the whole body, and making future stress more impactful.

Sleep complications: latency, fragmentation, and ‘shallow’ sleep


Stress is toxic when it interrupts your recovery processes. Think about it: how are you supposed to de-stress if your sleep quality is ruined by the stress and anxiety you’re trying to recover from?

Chronic stress and anxiety, which stress can lead to, will interrupt sleep. It will take you longer to get to sleep (latency), you’ll wake up more often (fragmentation), and you’ll be sleeping ‘lighter.’ These all contribute to worse sleep quality, worse hormonal health, and sensitivity to future stressors.

Stress makes you fragile when it’s excessive or persistent. It is crucial to stop stress before it gets out of control.

Immune suppression: risk of illness, risk of symptoms

Running your body in survival mode is only possible for so long because you’re scavenging resources. Nothing is free, and your body can only be ‘in danger’ for so long before it starts to impact your immune system.

Stress suppresses immune function, leading to an increased risk of infection, illness, and disease. A stressed body and mind deal poorly with almost any challenge. That also extends to recovery after exercise or activity – being stressed will only stretch out your soreness and fatigue.

It’s like trying to pay bills while you’re in a huge debt: your resources are running low before you even get to the ‘normal’ stuff. Immune system suppression is a problem because it opens you up to infection, illness, and other problems that also damage the body.

Stress causes illness, which causes more stress. That’s a bad cycle to fall into.

Lifestyle risks caused by stress

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Your body also experiences other risks, which we call ‘downstream’ from these immediate changes to hormones. They’re interactions with how you live, as well as the way your body works, that put you in further, indirect danger.

These start early on, and they can get worse over time if you’re not able to find time to recover from stress.

Loss of energy

Fatigue and exhaustion are inseparable parts of the stress process. When you’re expending energy just to live, it’s hard to build reserves or keep going. You’re constantly ‘borrowing against your future self.’

Chronic stress is one of the main contributors to fatigue, exhaustion, burnout, and loss of mental and physical performance. You’re only able to withstand so much and, when you’re over-burdened with stress, everything suffers.

One of the worst parts of stress-induced fatigue is that it creeps in. Often, you’ll not notice yourself losing your edge until it’s too late. By then, it’s normal, and you won’t realise how much more productive, effective, and impactful you can be until it abates again.

Weight management

One of the main complaints of stressed people is weight gain or just poor weight management. We all fluctuate, but stress can lead to ballooning weight and loss of control over factors like cravings, dietary choices, and the ‘insatiable hunger’ that drives weight gain.

Stress is an energy-spending state and signals things like energy and carbohydrate cravings. These can run away when combined with ‘comfort eating,’ and it’s easy to lose track or control.

Crucially, these are contributors to disordered eating. Eating as a crutch during stressful times is dangerous because:

  • You can’t go ‘cold turkey’ on eating, you always need to manage your relationship with food.

  • Stress is slow to dissipate, and these habits may persist after the situation calms down.

  • Most people can’t just take time off of their obligations to prioritise stress management (we have to do it ‘on the fly’!)

This makes patterns of irregular stress-eating a particularly dangerous target. Plus, if you’re eating because you’re stressed, there’s a good chance you’re going to increase your stress levels if you gain excess weight.

A lot of stories about obesity begin with something like ‘I just gained a few pounds while I was going through a difficult time’ and then they spiral out. That’s because stress causes weight gain, which has direct and indirect routes to make you more susceptible to stress and its other risks.

Ways to reduce stress and stay healthy

You can reduce stress and make yourself more stress-resilient with exercise, diet, good sleep hygiene, and proactive recovery habits.

This sounds like a lot, but it usually comes down to doing things you’re already doing in a way that helps your body. You can make some simple tweaks to daily life that protect your body from stress and give your body and mind a better chance of recovery and resilience.

1Exercise: it doesn’t need to be dull


Regular exercise refreshes the body and mind. It’s what your body has evolved to do, so it is your ‘regular maintenance.’

Active living and regular exercise regulate stress levels in the body while relieving mental stress. Exercise can be energising when it’s regular, in a healthy dose, and something you find meaningful.

Whatever way you choose to move, it should be regular and progressive. Just make sure you get plenty of rest between tough sessions and don’t overdo it.

2 Diet: make small changes often

You are what you eat and diet is one of the key factors in controlling your stress levels. Proper nutrient intake (protein, vitamins, and minerals) protect the body and mind from stress.

These are like your protective layer against stress. They regulate the hormones that we mentioned before, making you more resilient to cortisol ‘overload’ and its toxic effects.

High protein diets help, but so do those rich in vitamins and minerals from varied plant whole foods. These are your top priorities, and even incorporating a few more good choices changes everything.

3Sleep: improve quality and quantity

Sleeping more – and better – is your main weapon against stress. It’s the time your body takes to push back the effects of stress. It signals full recovery and is the most powerful resting time you can possibly take.

People who sleep even 1-2 hours more per night have lower rates of depression, illness, joint injury, obesity, and more. Everything you do is regulated by sleep, so improving your sleep can improve just about every aspect of your life.

Sleep should be 8+ hours in a dark, cool, silent room. Take some downtime before bed to get relaxed, which helps you sleep sooner and deeper.

4Take time to recover

If stress is caused by over-exertion, then what’s the opposite? A recuperative time that is restful and relaxed. The most effective forms are time with loved ones and time in nature, which combine rest with positive, healthful habits.

These are both proven to be neurologically important. Your brain and body know what they are and they need these types of activity. They release hormones that counter cortisol’s negative effect (endorphins like oxytocin) and rebalance your resting state.

These systems are so powerful and ‘primal’ that your body knows the difference between the outskirts of a forest and a deep forest. Wild!


Final thoughts

Beating stress isn’t easy, but it’s part of building a happy and healthy life. Whenever possible, reduce stress and manage it wherever it is unavoidable.

Your life won’t always be smooth sailing, but mitigating stress can help. Healthy amounts of exercise, a good diet, and plentiful sleep all reduce the risks we’ve talked about. Other habits that de-stress you – whether that’s reading, bathing, stretching, yoga, and time with friends or in nature – all help.

Find meaningful ways to reduce stress in your own life. Incorporate more anti-stress habits, and try to use healthy living as a barrier to life’s stressors. It’ll not only keep you healthy in the long term, but also make you happier, keep your mental health safe, and improve your self-confidence!

Not enough? Here is more

Dr. Tracey Marks is a psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience. On her channel, she teaches you about mental health issues and self-improvement.

The video below discusses the signs of stress your body may exhibit. Watch this video if you are willing to examine whether your body is under pressure and you think your symptoms are related to something else.

Healthypedia FAQ

Stress disrupts your metabolic health by signalling energy needs, breaking down muscles, and increasing cravings. Prolonged stress can result in higher resting insulin levels, poorer metabolic responses, and unhealthy lifestyle choices, which contribute to metabolic changes and worsen overall body condition.

During sleep, chronic stress and anxiety can disrupt the recovery processes, resulting in poorer sleep quality, hormonal imbalances, and increased sensitivity to future stress.

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