Back in our Paleo days, hormones gushed and neurotransmitters fired in order to help us skirt life-threatening situations. "We're not faced with as many run-like-hell physical emergencies today," says Sally Winston, codirector of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. "But that fight-or-flight response turns on during mental stress too, resulting in primitive and inappropriate reactions." Internal confusion can take a toll on our bodies in some freakish ways, but it's easier than you think to deal with those health issues-even if you can't shrug off the stress.
1. THE PROBLEM: FUGLY NAILS
It's not only nervous nibbling-stress alone can cause brittle nails, and major upsets (like a divorce or death in the family) can trigger horizontal grooves called Beau's lines, says Whitney Bowe, MD, a dermatologist in NYC.When you're emotionally strained, the body shifts energy away from the nail cells to higher priorities like major organs.
A protein-rich diet (lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy, lentils) is crucial for strong nails, says Dr. Bowe. You can also improve nails by eating omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins, both found in salmon, avocado, and nuts. For an additional strength boost, ask your doc about Genadur, a prescription nail lacquer. To prevent peeling and flaking, rub hydrating sunflower or almond oil on cuticles at night to create a protective, moisturizing shield.
2. THE PROBLEM: A COLD THAT WON'T QUIT
You're not imagining it-people totally get sick before big events or when shit hits the fan. Research from Carnegie Mellon University has found that being stressed can double your odds of catching a cold. When we're under stress, the body pumps out cortisol, which interacts with white blood cells (the ones that power the immune system). If they become desensitized, you can't fight off infection as well, says Daniel Allan, MD, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic.
Meds like antihistamines can help calm symptoms, but a cold is a virus, which means there's no Rx that'll stop one from running its course. Clocking extra sleep (try to get at least 7 hours a night) can build up your immune system, says Dr. Allan. Mindfulness meditation might also help. An Annals of Family Medicine study found the practice can reduce the severity and duration of a respiratory infection by about 60 and 43 percent, respectively. Download the app Headspace to learn the basics.
3. THE PROBLEM: TINGLY BITS
During exhilarating and stressful moments-like taking the LSAT or giving a speech-it's not uncommon to hyperventilate, either breathing too rapidly or too deeply. As you do, the body expels too much carbon dioxide, which changes the pH of your blood. The weird result: tingling in the hands or feet or around the mouth.
To increase CO2, take in less oxygen. Holding your breath can help (aim for around 10 seconds), as can breathing through one nostril.
4. THE PROBLEM: AN UPSET STOMACH
Our brains and our bellies are connected by a superhighway of neurons and hormones called the brain-gut axis. Intense emotions can set off neurotransmitters in the GI tract that cause the intestines to contract more vigorously (leading to diarrhea) or to slow down (which you feel as constipation). Stress can also trigger heartburn, caused by stomach acid backing up into the esophagus.
First off, maybe skip the hot wings after a rough day. And before a pressure-packed event, hit the gym. Mood-elevating endorphins can offset stomach trouble before it starts, says Roshini Raj, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. If stress already has your insides on the fritz, an OTC antidiarrheal, stool softener, or heartburn chewable may settle things down. For frequent stomach issues that stress exacerbates, like IBS, your doc may recommend an antidepressant (there's that mind-gut connection) or a probiotic that boosts good gut bacteria.
5. THE PROBLEM: STIFF, SORE MUSCLES
"When the body senses danger, muscles tense," says Winston. That reflex can lead to tightness and pain in your neck, back, and shoulders. What's more, as stress zaps energy, your posture goes to hell, putting pressure on your joints.
Stretches can undo some of that tension. Try placing your hands behind your head to open the chest, twisting side to side to release back muscles. And sit up straight. When University of Auckland researchers asked study participants to complete a stressful task, those who used good seated posture reported less stress and a better mood than those who slouched. As usual, Mom was right.
This article was originally published as "WTF Is Stress Doing to My Body?" in the September 2016 issue of Cosmopolitan.
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