From hair loss to memory loss, we ask the experts about the far-reaching effects of stress, recognising the symptoms and the best ways to combat it

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Surely a little stress is a good thing right? A bit of adrenaline coursing through your veins could be just the thing you need to make a sizeable dent in today’s workload. However, with the endless conveyor belt of to-do lists, roles and responsibilities, it’s easy for stress levels to cross the line from being useful to harmful, impacting both your emotional and physical wellbeing.

“According to UK studies, psychological problems, including stress, anxiety and depression, are behind one in five visits to a GP,” says Get The Gloss Expert Dr Anita Sturnham . “The human body is designed to experience stress and to react to it. Some forms of stress can be a good thing, keeping you alert and ready to avoid danger. We talk about the 'fight or flight' mechanism, where a stressful situation can stimulate our body to produce hormones such as noradrenaline and cortisol, which prepare our bodies to deal with any threat.”

So when is an intervention needed? “Stress normally only becomes a bad thing when a person faces continuous challenges or sources of stress, without a break in that stress. Eventually the body's ability to counteract the stress slows down. We call this a negative stress reaction.”

Stress can have far-reaching effects on your health ,  hair  and skin  and more often than not, we’ll continue on autopilot as normal without putting a stop to it. Therefore, we asked the experts about the implications of leaving stress unchecked and how to fix it - use this as your go-to guide for recognising when your limit’s been reached and to help you put a stop to it before it goes too far.

The effects of stress on your health...

In addition to stress-related mental illnesses, stress can cause physical ailments too. “Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes , skin conditions, digestive problems and sexual function,” explains Dr Sturnham.

“When I see patients who are suffering from stress-related illness, they may present with physical, psychological or behavioural symptoms.” These are the symptoms of stress you should keep an eye out for:

Physical stress symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Weakened immune system - leading to an increase in illnesses such as coughs and colds
  • Skin problems - worsening of conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis
  • Digestive problems - irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhoea, flatulence, bloating, indigestion
  • Heart problems: raised blood pressure, palpitations, dizzy spells
  • Gynaecological symptoms - erratic, heavy or absent periods. Stress can affect your hormones in strange ways
  • Loss of libido
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Premature ejaculation or impotence
  • Aches and pains in your joints
  • Excessive sweating
  • Tremor and shakes
  • Teeth grinding
  • Obesity or weight loss - stress can trigger overeating or emotional eating or food avoidance due to loss of appetite

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Psychological stress symptoms

  • Loss of short-term and long-term memory
  • Stress can affect your performance at work and make it difficult to remember things
  • Reduced ability to learn new skills
  • Poor concentration
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Depression or low mood
  • Racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying - often in an irrational way
  • Feeling bad about yourself
  • Inability to enjoy things that one would normally enjoy
  • Inability to plan things

Behavioural stress symptoms

  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs or cigarettes
  • Absence from school or work
  • Avoidance of social interaction and withdrawal from social groups

The effects of stress on your skin...

Similar to lack of sleep, stress can wreak havoc on the condition of your skin and no matter how many anti-ageing  or skincare  products you use, you won’t be able to truly resolve it unless you treat the root cause and learn the tricks to combat stress effectively. According to Dr Nick Lowe , consultant dermatologist at the Cranley Clinic and Get The Gloss Expert , “It’s not so much about product selection, it’s more about modifying your lifestyle.”

So what can stress do to the skin? “It does several things,” explains Dr Lowe. “It releases certain hormones in the body that can cause and worsen skin problems and diseases like acne , eczema or psoriasis .”

“The reason for why stress is thought to increase acne is that it increases the production of cortisol hormones which can especially trigger it in acne prone people,” he adds. “Repetitive amounts of cortisol weakens the elastin and collagen structures that give the skin support, which can cause the skin to age prematurely.”

“Next, stress can lead to an increased risk of smoking, splurging on food and consumption of alcohol in attempts to decrease stress levels and lead you into harmful lifestyles or habits which will further damage the skin - there’s the direct effect of hormones released by stress and then the more indirect effect from getting involved in other things like alcohol, smoking and comfort foods which are high in undesirable calories, carbohydrates and so on.”

The effect of stress on your diet can have long-term health implications which can, in turn, impact on your skin too. “If you indulge in too many carbohydrates over a long period of time, some people can develop diabetes as a result. Sufferers are at increased risk of ageing faster due to the increased damage to tissue,” explains Dr Lowe. “You can reduce that though by eating more low glycemic foods .”

MORE GLOSS: Low GI vs high GI - here are the facts you need to know...

The effects of stress on your hair...

If you’re finding that stress is starting to take its toll on the condition of your hair, you’re not alone. “Stress-related hair problems are often seen in my clinic, and the added stress of hair problems exacerbates the stress further, creating a vicious cycle,” says renowned trichologist and Get The Gloss Expert Philip Kingsley . Can stress lead to hair loss  too? According to Philip, yes.

“Through a convoluted metabolic path, stress can lead to the formation of more androgens (male hormones), which in genetically susceptible hair follicles can cause extra hair fall – and therefore hair thinning – by reducing the hair’s overall volume.”

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10 ways to combat stress and reduce its effects...

1. Recognise the signs of stress: “The best thing you can do is to take measures to prevent your stress levels from getting too high in the first place. Recognise the warning signs: irritability, poor concentration, insomnia, mood swings etc.” advises Dr Sturnham.

2. Stress management makeover: “Look at what you’re doing to reduce the stress, for example smoking or drinking and excess eating amongst other things,” suggests Dr Lowe. “Comfort foods consisting of poor quality glucose and sugars increase ageing by damaging the proteins in the skin. So if you’re a chocoholic, switch to a healthier form of chocolate like dark chocolate which has less poor quality sugars and more antioxidants.”

3. Eat good to feel good: “We know that eating a poor diet can make stress and  anxiety  symptoms worse,” says Dr Sturnham. “Caffeine, alcohol and stimulants such as sugar can heighten one's state of anxiety. Eating high glycemic foods can lead to extreme fluctuations in mood. Aim for a healthy balanced diet packed full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to keep your immune system healthy. Omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish, nuts and avocados have been shown to help with neurological function and may be of benefit.”

4. Targeted skin treatments: “If stress causes increased or onset acne or eczema or psoriasis, they can be addressed by targeted treatment,” advises Dr Lowe. “Topical products can help, but only if you use them in conjunction with stress relaxation programmes.”

5. Lean on your support network: “A problem shared is a problem halved. Let friends or family around you know if you are stressed. Quite often having additional support can help alleviate the pressure,” suggests Dr Sturnham.

6. Mood boosting fitness: “Exercise is a good stress buster. We often prescribe exercise for patients suffering with low mood, stress or anxiety. Exercise can raise your serotonin (feel good hormones) and help to reduce tension,” says Dr Sturnham.

7. Hair supplements: “It is difficult to reduce stress, but it can be counteracted by gentle lifestyle changes, such as yoga, putting aside a time to relax during the day, eating a meal without extraneous pressures on your mind, etc.,” recommends Philip Kingsley. “Nutrition too, could be a factor. Stress tends to deplete some vitamins and minerals in the body, so a good multi-vitamin and multi-mineral supplement could help, such as  Philip Kingsley’s Tricho Complex , £45.”

8. Scalp sense: “As far as topical treatment is concerned, the use of an appropriate scalp and hair mask would be beneficial, as would regular and frequent shampooing and scalp massage,” recommends Philip.

“Stress often causes scalp flaking and/or itching, and recent research indicates that flaky and itchy scalps cause more hair fall. I would recommend the use of  Philip Kingsley’s Exfoliating Scalp Mask , £16 or, if no flaking, the  Stimulating Scalp Mask , £16.

9. Hair hero: “Stress can also cause an adverse change in scalp secretions (such as sebum and sweat) which can lead to the hair losing its lustre and bounce,” says Philip. “In this case  Philip Kingsley’s Elasticizer , £29 would certainly help in restoring this.”

10. Professional intervention: “If you think that your stress levels are making you feel unwell, go to see your doctor,” recommends Dr Sturnham. “Sometimes it is necessary to do blood tests to make sure there is no other underlying medical reason for you symptoms. Your doctor can also access support services for you such as counselling and therapy, which is often a really useful tool to fight stress.”