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Can Stress Make You Sick? 9 Symptoms to Watch Out For

Monica McCafferty, MS, CNS

Published in Stress

8 min read

October 5, 2022
A woman with long dark hair sitting on the floor, wrapped in a red blanket and using a tissue
A woman with long dark hair sitting on the floor, wrapped in a red blanket and using a tissue

Stress can have a negative connotation, and can be associated with a plethora of unpleasant emotions and effects on your health.

Most people go through stressful situations as a normal part of life, but too much stress can be harmful to your health and lead to serious health conditions over time. If you’re someone who regularly experiences high levels of stress, paying attention to your body’s signals and taking steps to regulate your stress can be important.

In this article, we dig into what the physical effects of stress can look like, and nine signs that chronic stress may be affecting your health.

The Role of Stress in The Body

Although stress can have a negative association, it’s important to note not all stress is bad. In fact, acute (or short-term) stress can actually be a good thing in some cases.

Acute stress is a healthy part of our fight or flight system, also known as the sympathetic nervous system. This type of stress is regulated by the HPA axis. When in danger, this axis sets off a chain reaction, prompting your body ready to react.

The issue is that in this day and age, this stress response is usually activated in the absence of true dangers. This can lead to chronic stress, which can be damaging to your metabolic and physical health.

Chronic stress creates inflammation in the body, increasing levels of harmful reactive oxygen species, or ROS, which trigger cell death. Elevated levels of ROS over time may lead to hypertension, asthma, and retinopathy. This type of stress may come in the form of certain life events, anxiety, depression, and even issues with gut health.

Luckily, your body will signal when it starts becoming majorly affected by chronic stress. If you tune in, you’ll catch these signs. Let’s dig into what symptoms you should be watching out for if you are currently dealing with stress.

Common Symptoms of Stress

a girl feeling stressed on the couch

Here are some of the most common physical symptoms of stress. When tuning into your body, these will be “red flags” you’ll want to pay attention to.

9 Signs Stress is Making You Sick

Do you have an inkling that chronic stress may be causing harm to your health or making you sick? Here are nine common signs that can indicate that stress is affecting your health.

1) You’re Gaining Weight

Chronic stress can affect your weight and may make it difficult for you to lose weight. This is because stress alters hormone levels especially cortisol, which is a stress hormone that can also lead to weight gain.

One study found that increased cortisol levels, as a result of stress, was strongly associated with increased abdominal obesity. The authors of this study also explained that people who are more susceptible to glucocorticoid sensitivity may also be more likely to gain weight as a result of increased stress.

2) You Have High Blood Pressure

someone checking their blood pressure

As we mentioned already, stress can impact your blood pressure levels by increasing inflammation within the body as well as altering how your vascular system operates. Research illustrates that chronic stress, whether it's in the form of psychological stress or occupational stress, can lead to hypertension.

Chronic stress can do this in a variety of ways (apart from increasing inflammation). Some of these ways include:

  • Modulating cardiovascular functions (such as cardiac output) and increasing cardiovascular reactivity.
  • Altering a genetic predisposition.
  • Creating persistent feelings of anxiety, which can sustain the fight or flight response and keep your blood pumping chronically. 

3) You Have Worsening Acne or Skin Rashes

Stress has been shown to be a common trigger for acne and other skin conditions. Skin rashes can be aggravated by stress, as some of them are related to hypersensitivity reactions. For example, individuals with rosacea may find “stress rashes” or an aggravation of their skin condition in times of high psychological stress.

Acne severity is also associated with stress. Research has shown that an increase in the severity of an individual’s stress is positively associated with their acne severity. This means that the more stressed a person with acne is, the more severe their acne may be.

4) You Feel Tired all The Time

a man feeling tired

Stress can affect your energy levels, and may result in more energy fluctuations. It can especially lead to fatigue, as some research has shown.

One study found that perceived stress is also positively associated with fatigue levels. According to their findings, the more a participant felt that they were stressed, the more likely they were to feel fatigued. Interestingly, these results also suggest that the perception of stress may also play a role in how you feel.

5) You Have Chronic Headaches

Stress induced headaches are quite common. They may be directly caused by the stress itself or indirectly by the effect stress has on your blood sugar levels.

When it comes to the direct influence of stress, research has shown that tension headaches, migraines, or a mix of both tension and migraine headaches can be linked to stress. Similarly to acne and fatigue, it appears that the more intense the stress is, the more intense the headaches symptoms can be.

6) You Regularly Have Stomach Aches

a woman lying down on the couch

Like hypersensitivity-associated skin reactions, stress can cause stomach aches by increasing intestinal sensitivity. This especially applies to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.

As we mentioned earlier, stress can alter the HPA axis, but you may not know that it can also alter the gut-brain axis. By doing so, increased stress can aggravate IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain and stomach aches.

7) You Have Brain Fog or Trouble Focusing

Chronic stress can have a major impact on cognitive function. Research suggests that chronic stress can lead to age-related cognitive loss. It does in a variety of ways from increasing inflammation, to affecting the glucocorticoid receptors.

8) You Frequently Have a Cold

a girl drinking a tea and feeling sick

Along with triggering allergies (or other hypersensitivity associated conditions), stress can make you more susceptible to the common cold as well. Like many of the other signs discussed here, the severity of stress can affect the rate or severity of the common cold and its associated symptoms.

Stress-related illnesses can arise from a weakened immune system. Research shows that the more severe the stress, the greater the risk for developing an acute respiratory illness, such as a cold.

9) You Have High Blood Sugar

Finally, long-term and chronic stress can lead to insulin resistance in some people. And insulin resistance can lead to chronic hyperglycemia, or chronically elevated levels of blood sugar, because your cells may not respond to insulin’s signal to absorb glucose.

Elevated blood sugar levels can also increase levels of reactive oxygen species creating more inflammation and perpetuating the negative effects on your health.

Tips for Better Stress Management

a man out on a run

Luckily, there are ways you can combat or reduce the symptoms of stress in your life. By reading this article, you’ve already conquered step one, which is to be aware of how stress is affecting you and your health.

Here are some quick tips to improve your stress levels. You can also read our article on 13 healthy ways to relieve stress for more tips.

  • Engage in regular exercise: a mix of cardio and strength training may be beneficial. If you're experiencing fatigue, more exercise may not be a good idea however, and you will want to consult a doctor before proceeding.
  • Reduce time spent on screens. Set aside some “no screen” time, and try staying off your phone and laptop an hour (or more) before bedtime. 
  • Try meditation and deep breathing and engage in mindfulness on a day to day basis. 
  • Spend more time in nature and sunshine. 
  • Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake.
  • Spend more intentional quality time with your friends, family, and loved ones.
  • Practice gratitude. You can start by listing three things you’re grateful for, and make it a regular habit (or incorporate it into your daily routine). 
  • Make sure to practice good sleep hygiene.
  • Eat a healthy diet that meets your nutrition needs, as it can help moderate your body’s stress response in a number of ways.
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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.

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