7 physical signs of stress you shouldn’t ignore – plus what can help

Estimated read time 8 min read


From fatigue to cravings, there are some physical signs of stress that probably shouldn’t be ignored. Nutritionist for DIRTEA, Clarissa Berry reveals more, plus what can help 

The adrenal glands are two small glands situated on top of the kidneys and are where your primary stress hormones are made.

These are hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that are produced in response to stress. Their role is to prepare your body to fight or flee when faced with danger, like a tiger or an avalanche, and to favour rapid, effective, physical action.

hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that are produced in response to stress

The release of stress hormones enhances blood flow to the heart, lungs and muscles in order to prepare the body for anticipated physical exertion, and in so doing diverts energy from less imminently vital tasks like digestion and detoxification.

This is called the ‘stress response’ and is intended to be temporary: see a tiger, run from tiger. Once the threat has gone, your biology is designed to return to normal.

In the modern world however, the ‘danger’ our bodies perceive is usually far less tangible than a ferocious beast.

READ MORE: Insomnia? Too stressed to sleep? 5 tried & tested sleep hacks to beat stress

Physical signs of stress

Stress comes in many forms and is seemingly never-ending: unread emails, demanding colleagues, environmental toxin exposure, food intolerances, bad weather, energy bills, health worries and more add up every single day and keep our bodies in an extended state of activation.

With so many stressors bombarding us from all angles, it’s harder to return to our baseline ‘rest and digest’ state.

Chronic stress unchecked causes your body to stay in the stress response, causing our hormones to become systemically dysregulated, our adrenal glands to become fatigued and a cascade of negative health outcomes.

Here are some physical signs of stress that you shouldn’t ignore…

#1 Fatigue

Fatigue that you can’t shake and difficulty getting started in the mornings. Fatigue that isn’t fixed by a good night’s sleep can be a sign that your adrenals are struggling, particularly if you know you have a lot on your plate.

One function of our stress hormones is to help regulate our energy levels during the day and get us going each morning.

Fatigue that isn’t fixed by a good night’s sleep can be a sign that your adrenals are struggling

Overworked adrenal glands can lead to inconsistent stress hormone production, causing morning sluggishness and fatigue, often combined with feeling wired at night.

#2 Coffee cravings

Reliance on stimulants like caffeine. If your stress hormones are running on empty and you’re feeling fatigued, you might find yourself relying heavily on caffeine to stay alert and ‘feel human’.

This can also be a sign of poor sleep. However, sleep quality is influenced by feelings of stress and anxiety, and insufficient sleep can also add to your stress load, so it may still be worth assessing your stress levels.

READ MORE: 6 mind-skin rituals to support women through Menopause

coffee cravings physical symptoms of stress

#3 Sugar cravings

Similarly, feeling fatigued can lead to increased sugar cravings as your body seeks external sources of energy.

Sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, cereals, pastries and pasta provide an instant source of energy that is soon followed by an energy crash and further sweet cravings.

This blood sugar rollercoaster perpetuates a state of stress and hormone dysregulation in the body.

your body seeks external sources of energy

Instead of leaning into these cravings, try to nourish your body with whole foods, protein and healthy fats to keep your blood sugar balanced, hormones healthy and micronutrient intake up.

#4 Salt cravings

Unlike sugar cravings, you may want to heed your salt cravings. The adrenal glands require a lot of salt (or sodium) to function, so salt cravings can be a sign that your adrenals are working on overdrive.

Contrary to popular belief, salt is not inherently bad for you (although contraindicated in certain cases of high blood pressure).

Make sure to choose a quality sea salt or Himalayan rock salt and to eat foods rich in potassium and magnesium too. These extra minerals can help to support your adrenal glands during times of stress.

READ MORE: Embracing Veganuary? Nutritionist reveals 5 things to consider if you are

salt cravings physical signs of stress

#5 Low tolerance to stress

When your stress load is high, a seemingly tiny event can feel enormous and unsurpassable. It’s the classic example of crying over spilt milk: it’s probably not about the milk at all but about the series of stressful events that led to the spillage.

If you’re feeling like your emotions are close to the surface, this could be a sign that you’re overstressed.

#6 Frequent illness

Chronic stress can impact the immune system and contribute to frequent illness. This unfortunately adds even more to your stress load so can be a vicious cycle.

Chronic stress can impact the immune system

If you find yourself getting ill frequently, it could be a sign to take your foot off the pedal and look at reducing your stress levels, as well as supporting your immune system.

#7 Disturbed sleep

Chronically high or dysregulated stress hormones can lead to feeling wired in the evening, difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, and impaired sleep quality.

Unfortunately, this only compounds the issue as deep rest is so vital for healing and de-stressing. One way to support your sleep quality is to address your stress levels.

READ MORE: 7 practical sleep tips your circadian rhythm will thank you for

disturbed sleep insomnia physical signs of stress

What you can do about it?

If some of these signs sound familiar, there’s a chance that you’re suffering from chronic stress and overworked adrenal glands.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is to reduce the amount of stress that you’re under. While it’s not always possible to remove stressors – there are some things that we simply can’t change – try to focus on what is within your control.

To support yourself in the meantime, here are some tips for reducing stress…

#1 Use mindfulness and breathing exercises to calm the body and mind

Meditation is an excellent way to hit pause on life’s stresses. You can also try calming breathing techniques, such as lengthening the out-breath to double the length of the in-breath, e.g. breathe in for 4 counts, out for 8 counts. Repeat for several minutes.

#2 Prioritise getting enough high-quality sleep

Sleep is one of the most important pillars of health and the key to healing and regeneration. Most people need a minimum of 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, so make sure allow sufficient time in bed.

Optimise quality sleep by taking time to wind down in the evening, keeping your bedroom cool, reducing blue light exposure before bed, taking daily exercise, limiting alcohol consumption and having a caffeine cut-off in the afternoon.

READ MORE: From Shiitake Mushrooms to Reishi – 5 reasons shrooms are magical for your health

mindfulness how to manage physical signs of stress

#3 Try supplementing with an adaptogen

Adaptogens are herbs that increase resilience to stress. One of my favourite adaptogens is the Reishi mushroom, which not only helps to reduce perceived stress levels, it can also calm feelings of anxiety, enhance sleep quality and offers powerful immune and digestive support.

I recommend DIRTEA’s Reishi mushroom extract powder, £39.99, added daily to a hot drink or taken as a tea.

DIRTEA, is a unique range of powders and Super Blends which harness the healing powers of functional mushrooms, adaptogens and ayurvedic herbs to naturally enhance your wellbeing.

#3 Reduce your environmental toxin exposure

Toxic burden contributes to your overall stress load. You can reduce your toxic load, for example, by getting a water filter, buying organic food, skincare and cleaning products, and avoiding having plastic in contact with your food.

reduce your consumption of inflammatory, processed foods and refined sugar

Eat a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods and reduce your consumption of inflammatory, processed foods and refined sugar.

One the one hand, this can reduce your stress load by removing potentially harmful toxins from your diet. On the other, it optimises the nutritional support for your body and adrenals, to help them cope better with your stress load and to aid the healing process.

#4 Set healthy boundaries

Consider setting healthier boundaries around work and difficult relationships. Learning to say ‘no’ instead of constantly taking on more work or emotional responsibility is an important way to protect yourself and reduce stress.

Make sure too that you have a supportive social network. Your relationships can either be a source of stress or relief – choosing carefully who you spend your time and energy with can help you define that.

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