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9 Signs That Your Body Is Chronically Stressed, According To A Functional Medicine Practitioner

Upset Young Woman Sitting Outside
Image by Caleb MacKenzie Gaskins / Stocksy
May 25, 2021

Stress is so ubiquitous in our everyday lives that there's a good chance you don't even realize just how stressed out you actually are. Our bodies, on the other hand, know immediately when something is off, even if it takes us a while to consciously acknowledge.

If there's one thing over 10 years of seeing patients in my telehealth functional medicine clinic has taught me, it's that the human body is a fascinating masterpiece of brilliant genius. It gives us warnings at the first start of trouble, and if we are willing to stop and listen, we can hear them for what they are: a sign to make a change and calm the heck down.

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Even though our bodies are resilient and can put up with a lot, there comes a point when enough is enough, and it starts to give. No one becomes chronically ill overnight, and these symptoms are your body's check engine light. But unlike a car, you can't upgrade to a new model; you can only love on the one, beautiful body that you have right now. So here are the not-so-obvious signs your body might be chronically stressed:


Irregular bowel movements

While you might associate irregular digestion with a food intolerance, chances are you are less likely to attribute your change in bathroom habits to stress. However, when you are stressed, it can lead to inflammation in the gut and a whole slew of inflammatory bowel issues. You can thank the gut-brain axis1 for that, as research has shown that what happens in your brain can directly affect your gut.

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Skin problems

Your skin is like a window to everything that is going on inside your body, and chronic stress can do a number on your skin. Not only does cortisol, your body's stress hormone, increase your skin's oil production, but stress also causes inflammation in your gut, which can lead to a cascade of inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, acne, or autoimmune-related skin conditions like psoriasis.


Sudden insomnia

Ongoing stress leads to chronically high cortisol levels. And when cortisol is high, your sleepy-time hormone melatonin is low. This is supposed to happen each morning to help you wake up, but when your cortisol is still on high alert in the evening, you'll no doubt have trouble falling asleep.

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Frequent headaches

Studies have found stress to be a direct trigger2 for many people struggling with migraines. Stress may also contribute to sleep bruxism3—the act of clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth while sleeping—affecting the development of next-day headaches.


Ringing in your ears

Constant ear ringing, also known as tinnitus, is not only irritating but over time can lead to uncomfortable bouts of dizziness. Research suggests that chronic stress may be associated with tinnitus symptoms4. Even though researchers are still learning exactly how stress relates to tinnitus, managing stress levels has been suggested as a way to help improve symptoms.

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Thinning hair

Anyone, regardless of gender, can experience one of these types of stress-related hair loss

  • Telogen effluvium5: When your hair follicles stay in a state of rest, limiting the amount of hair that grows.
  • Alopecia areata: An autoimmune condition that can be directly triggered by chronic stress leading to hair loss from the scalp, and in some cases, the entire body.
  • Trichotillomania: When a person pulls out their own hair subconsciously or consciously during times of heightened stress or anxiety.
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Thankfully, since stress-related hair loss doesn't actually damage the hair follicles themselves, finding effective ways to manage stress can encourage hair to regrow.


Irregular menstrual cycle

Your brain's hypothalamus is responsible for releasing chemicals that signal your pituitary gland to tell your ovary to release estrogen and progesterone to start your period. However, high cortisol levels can throw this delicate system out of whack leading to delayed, light, or even missed periods altogether.


Low libido

High levels of stress have the potential to throw your sex hormones out of whack6 and affect drive. Not to mention, it can also be difficult to get in the mood when you're distracted and have your mind elsewhere.


You get sick more often.

Chronic stress decreases your immune function. Simple as that. If you are constantly stressed out, your immune system isn't going to be prepared to fight off viruses and bacteria, making you more prone to any illness that comes your way.

Thankfully, we have the power to take control of our stress levels, whether that means leaving a stressful situation, toxic relationship, or incorporating more mindfulness practices into our daily lives. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, take it as an invitation from your body to get the rest, nourishment, and care it is desperately craving.

William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C.
Functional Medicine Practitioner

Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.