Can you honestly say you’ve never felt a glimmer of pride when telling someone how ‘stressed out’ you are?
After all, it proves how important and in demand you must be and how hectic and interesting your life is. A crazy schedule shows you’re still young, hot and in demand, right?
Wrong. Stress is toxic. Stress makes you old, fat, tired and slow-witted. It kills your libido, stops you sleeping, makes you irritable and increases your blood pressure.
Not only that, it’s linked to just about every serious illness, from heart disease to cancer.
Why? It starts with hormones.
Stress causes a cascade of chemical reactions. One is the release of cortisol, which fuels the blood with energy in the form of sugar, enabling us to flee from potential dangers.
This was fine when we needed that rush to, say, run away from predators. The minute we escaped from the sabre-toothed tiger, our cortisol level would drop and we’d be OK.
These days there are fewer sabre-toothed tigers, and more tax bills, bad dates, rows with husbands, deadlines and overdrafts. And worrying about this stuff means your cortisol levels stay chronically high.
Stress feels good at first because your body’s initial reaction is to pump out the hormone adrenaline, which gives a rush of energy and a mental high.
You don’t feel hungry or tired, you don’t feel pain. You feel strong and brave. Enough adrenaline can make you feel practically superhuman.
But – and it’s a big but – as the adrenaline fades, cortisol steps in, and that takes a lot longer to go.
If triggered by constant mini-bursts of adrenaline, it will stick around even longer and in higher concentrations, and too much cortisol makes you feel anxious, worried and negative.
Meanwhile, to your body, this hormone cascade signals an emergency, so it puts other functions on hold to conserve energy. You know, pointless stuff like growth, reproduction and your immune system.
You don’t want sex. You get ill. And you look, frankly, terrible. As cortisol levels rise, the blood flow to your skin is cut back. Result? You appear pale and grey.
Cortisol also increases oil in your skin, causing breakouts, and it messes with the skin’s natural barrier, a coating of good bacteria that keeps infection at bay. Without it, we are more prone to spots, redness, eczema and psoriasis.
To get rid of the cortisol-induced sugar in our blood, our body produces a ton of the hormone insulin, which mops it up.
But insulin has another effect. It’s known as ‘the fattening hormone’ because it increases our appetite and encourages our bodies to store fat.
Also, stress makes many of us indulge in comfort eating, because it primes the brain to want high-fat, high-calorie food.
It shrinks the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with problem-solving, coping with change, emotions, impulse control (aka grabbing an apple instead of a doughnut) and regulating glucose and insulin levels.
Plus, you know how your shape might change in mid-life? And how hormonal changes might lead you to gain weight around the waist? Well, stress can do this, too.
Scientists have found that too much cortisol can mess with fat storage and lead to spikes in visceral, or internal, belly fat.
That’s right, chronic stress contributes to making you fat. And this stress-belly-fat doesn’t just sit there to prevent you doing up your jeans. It’s alive!
Abdominal fat cells appear to be particularly active, pouring out hormones and chemicals, including ones that promote insulin resistance, a condition causing the body to have high blood-sugar and retain fat – which in turn can lead to diabetes.
Visceral fat also releases substances called cytokines, which cause inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation will make you fat, old and ill.
It’s not something you want to encourage.
Readers of high50 will know all about telomeres, the caps at the end of our chromosomes that seem so crucial to ageing. When they get too short, our cells start to die off. But why do they shorten? You’ve got it: S-T-R-E-S-S.
Researchers looking at mid-life and older women who were uncommonly anxious found that their telomeres were significantly shorter than average; more like those of women six years older.
Stress had prematurely aged them, at a deep-cell level, by six years.
How? It’s thought that stress may reduce production of the enzyme telomerase, which protects our telomeres. High blood sugar also causes glycation, causing cells to become stiff and damaged. Skin cells are particularly susceptible to this effect. Result: skin ageing.
Meanwhile, badly controlled blood sugar can lead to duller, yellower skin (as sometimes seen in undiagnosed diabetics). High cortisol even causes our skin to produce less hyaluronic acid, the skin’s natural ‘moisturiser’.
All of this talk of toxic stress could be making you feel a bit stressed – in which case, um, sorry. But the good news is, you can re-balance. And amazingly, you may even be able to lengthen those poor stressed-out telomeres.
How? As you’ll discover if you read our book, self-affirmation, sleep, downtime, massage, exercise, yoga, hot baths, reading, laughter and socialising with the right people all help; as do a healthy diet, meditation, breathing exercises and mindfulness.
But even if you never consult Your Hormone Doctor, our core message remains: please, don’t stress out.
• Your Hormone Doctor, by Leah Hardy and Susie Rogers with Dr Daniel Sister, is published in original paperback by Michael Joseph, £12.99