Skip to content

Behind the headlines: what does stress do to the body?

Find out more about why and how high-stress levels can have a negative effect on your health.

There has been a lot of focus on stress in the news lately with a recent Guardian news article [1] revealing the health problems chronic stress can cause. We explain more about the effects of stress on the body and how easy it is to check and monitor your cortisol levels with Medichecks.


What happens to the body during times of stress?

From time to time we all experience stress, but for many people, stress isn’t just an occasional reaction to a threat but rather a daily occurrence as a result of a hectic lifestyle. During stressful times, the body releases hormones that increase our heart and breathing rates and prepare the muscles to respond to a threat. When faced with a perceived threat, the body’s fight or flight system triggers in a well-choreographed sequence that has evolved over millions of years. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands during times of stress. It plays an important role in many bodily processes including regulating blood sugar levels, metabolism, blood pressure and inflammation. Cortisol also suppresses functions that could be detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation, such as the immune and digestive systems.

Is stress ever a good thing?

For short-term situations, stress can be good for our health as it allows us to cope with potentially serious situations. Research presented in the news article suggests that some stress exposure is crucial for developing resilience, allowing us to cope with challenging and unexpected future situations. Almost like a form of immunity against later stressors, much in the same way that vaccines induce immunity against disease.

Too much cortisol in the body

When stressors are always present, the body’s fight-or-flight response becomes chronic and cortisol is constantly suppressing important functions such as the immune system. Prolonged stress can cause health problems including heart disease, digestive problems, headaches and insomnia. Cushing’s syndrome develops if the body makes too much cortisol.

Symptoms include rapid weight gain, fatigue, muscle weakness, irritability, excessive body hair (in women) and loss of libido and erectile dysfunction (in men). High levels of cortisol can also cause fat to be stored around the organs in the abdomen (visceral fat) which can lead to risk for developing diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The body also produces cortisol during exercise, as exercise is perceived by the body as a form of stress and stimulates the release of cortisol. Over-exercising, exercising at a very high intensity or not giving yourself adequate recovery time can cause chronically high levels of cortisol. This then has similar effects on the body as chronic stress and can not only cause health risks but also hinder the results of exercise by breaking down muscle and causing the body to hold onto fat.

Test your cortisol levels

If you are worried about your stress levels and are concerned that you may have elevated cortisol levels, a simple saliva test can check whether your levels are within the normal range. As cortisol levels fall and rise naturally throughout the day, a cortisol saliva test is an accurate way to get a complete picture of the body’s cortisol levels.

[1] Devlin, H. (2019). Heart racing, palms sweaty – what does stress do to the body?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 13 Feb. 2019].