Although much has been made of the different ways that men and women respond to stress ("fight or flight" vs. "tend and befriend"), there are also substantial discrepancies in how stress impacts women's health as compared to men's. Studies have found that women differ from men not only in their emotional responses to stress, but also that acute and chronic stress may take a greater toll on womens' physical and mental health.
When reacting to stressors, the body releases hormones such as cortisol, which is known to impact the immune system, digestive system, skin and more -- and cortisol responses to psychological stress have also been shown to differ between men and women. Stress can affect nearly every system in the body, and it may be undermining your health in more ways than you realize. Scroll through the list below for 10 physiological and cognitive effects of stress on women's health.
When reacting to stressors, the body releases hormones such as cortisol, which causes a temporary increase in energy production, sometimes at the cost of other bodily process not required for immediate survival, such as digestion and immune system function. In women, these hormone changes impact bodily processes in unique ways, which can lead to short- and long-term health problems.
LOOK: 10 Ways Stress Can Hurt Women's Health
1. Reduced Sex Drive
Major life events that cause stress, like starting a new job or moving to a new city, may lower libido, according to Dr. Irwin Goldstein, M.D. This can occur when elevated levels of cortisol suppress the body’s natural sex hormones.
2. Irregular Periods
Acute and chronic stress can fundamentally alter the body's hormone balance, which can lead to missed, late or irregular periods. Researchers have also found that women in stressful jobs are at a 50 percent higher risk for short cycle length (less than 24 days) than women who do not work in high-stress positions.
3. Acne Breakouts
Raised levels of cortisol in the body can cause excess oil production that contributes to the development of acne breakouts. A 2003 study observed that female college students experienced more breakouts during exam periods due to increased stress.
4. Hair Loss
Significant emotional or psychological stress can cause a physiological imbalance which contributes to hair loss. Stress can disrupt the life cycle of the hair, causing it to go into its falling-out stage. While you may not notice hair loss during or immediately following a period of stress, the changes can occur three to six months later.
5. Poor Digestion
Prolonged stress can greatly impact the digestive system by increasing stomach acid, causing indigestion and discomfort, and in some cases contributing to the development of IBS and ulcers. Reducing stress is key to maintaining a healthy digestive system, according to womenshealth.gov.
Women are twice as likely to experience depression as men, and recent research has looked to differing stress responses and stress reactivity between the sexes to explain this discrepancy. Elevated levels of cortisol resulting from the chronic stress of a long-term, low grade job stress or the acute stress of a difficult life event like death or divorce can act as a trigger for depression.
Most of us know the feeling of tossing and turning at night, thinking over the events of the day or problems at work. Unsurprisingly, stress is a common cause of insomnia, which can in turn lead to difficulty concentrating, irritability and a lack of motivation.
8. Weight Gain
Research has linked higher levels of cortisol to a lower waist-to-hip ratio in women (i.e. more weight around the belly area), as well as a decreased metabolism. High stress levels are also correlated with increased appetite and sugar cravings, which can lead to weight gain.
9. Decreased Fertility
While further research is needed to better clarify the link between stress and fertility, recent studies have found that women with high levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme linked to stress, had a more difficult time getting pregnant. Women with the highest concentration of the enzyme during their menstrual cycle were 12 percent less likely to conceive than women with the lowest concentration of alpha-amylase.
10. Increased Risk Of Heart Disease And Stroke
According to a 2012 study of over 22,000 women, women under high amounts of stress at work were 40 percent more likely to experience a cardiovascular event (a heart attack or stroke) than women who reported low levels of job-related stress. Strokes are also more common among individuals with with stressful lives and tightly-wound personalities.
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Bring Your Dog To Work
A recent study in the <em>International Journal of Workplace Health Management</em> showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/01/bringing-dog-to-work-stress_n_1391420.html" target="_hplink">bringing your dog to work</a> could help to lower office stress and boost employee satisfaction. "Pet presence may serve as a low-cost, wellness intervention readily available to many organizations and may enhance organizational satisfaction and perceptions of support," study researcher Randolph T. Barker, Ph.D., a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a statement. "Of course, it is important to have policies in place to ensure only friendly, clean and well-behaved pets are present in the workplace." The study, which looked at the pet-friendly company Replacements, Ltd., showed that employees who brought their dogs in to work experienced <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/01/bringing-dog-to-work-stress_n_1391420.html" target="_hplink">decreases in stress</a> throughout the work day. Meanwhile, self-reported stress <em>increased</em> for people who didn't bring their dogs, and for those who don't have dogs.
Laugh It Up
If you're feeling particularly stressed, perhaps it's time to take a quick YouTube break. A small 1989 study in the <em>American Journal of the Medical Sciences</em> showed that<a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2556917" target="_hplink"> "mirthful laughter"</a> is linked with lower blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The Mayo Clinic reported that laughter also promotes <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-relief/SR00034" target="_hplink">endorphin release</a> in the brain and relaxes the muscles, which are all key for stress relief.
Grab A Shovel And Some Seeds
Caregiving is extremely stressful, but a 2008 survey showed that gardening may help to reduce stress among caregivers. The survey, by BHG.com, showed that 60 percent of caregivers feel <a href="http://www.alz.org/national/documents/release_110308_garden.pdf" target="_hplink">relaxed when they garden</a>, the Alzheimer's Association reported. And, Health.com reported on a Netherlands study, suggesting that gardening can help to <a href="http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20507878_2,00.html" target="_hplink">lower cortisol levels</a> and boost mood among people who had just finished a stressful task. That's because doing something that requires "involuntary attention" -- like sitting back and enjoying nature -- helps to replenish ourselves, Health.com reported.
Crack Open A Book
Just <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html" target="_hplink">six minutes of reading</a> is enough to help you de-stress, the <em>Telegraph</em> reported. The study, which was sponsored by Galaxy chocolate, suggested that <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html" target="_hplink">reading was linked with a slower heart rate</a> and muscle relaxation. Drinking tea or coffee, listening to music and taking a walk also seemed to help lower stress, according to the <em>Telegraph</em>.
Even if she's not there in person, a call to mom can help lower stress. <em>Scientific American</em> reported on a study in the journal <em>Proceedings of the Royal Society B</em> showing that young girls who <a href="http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2010/05/11/a-phone-call-from-mom-reduces-stress-as-well-as-a-hug/" target="_hplink">talked to their mothers on the phone</a> after completing stressful tasks had decreased cortisol (the stress hormone) in their saliva, and increased oxytocin levels (the bonding hormone). The girls who talked to their mothers on the phone had <a href="http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2010/05/11/a-phone-call-from-mom-reduces-stress-as-well-as-a-hug/" target="_hplink">decreased cortisol</a> and increased oxytocin levels compared with young girls who weren't allowed to contact their mothers at all, <em>Scientific American</em> reported -- girls who hugged their moms in person had a similar reaction to the phone group.
Eat Some Chocolate
Dark chocolate doesn't only have health benefits for the heart -- eating it can also help to <a href="http://www.livescience.com/7974-chocolate-reduces-stress-study-finds.html" target="_hplink">lower stress</a>. LiveScience reported on a study illustrating that eating 1.4 ounces of <a href="http://www.livescience.com/7974-chocolate-reduces-stress-study-finds.html" target="_hplink">dark chocolate</a> a day for a two-week period is linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. That study was published in 2009 in the journal <em>Proteome Research</em>. (But of course, chocolate still contains sugar and lots of calories, so make sure you're eating the chocolate in moderation!)
Gossip may not be viewed as socially "good," but it <em>might</em> have benefits in relieving stress. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/17/gossip-stress-exploitation-heart-rate_n_1211207.html" target="_hplink">gossiping can actually lower stress</a>, stop exploitation of others and police others' bad behavior. "Spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/17/gossip-stress-exploitation-heart-rate_n_1211207.html" target="_hplink">make people feel better</a>, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip," study researcher Robb Willer, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, said in a statement. Willer's research was published this year in the <em>Journal of Personality and Social Psychology</em>. So if something's bothering you, go ahead and gab -- but just make sure you move on so you don't dwell on the negative emotions!