Stress is an ever-present guest that we have all learned to accept as part of our daily life. Whether it is at work, at home, or at school, it is something that every individual experiences, regardless of their age or gender. Unfortunately, given the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept over the world in the last year or so, the degree of stress in a significant portion of the population has reached new heights. But beyond its psychological and mental impact, stress also affects other areas of our health including appetite, mood, and even our sex life.
Identifying Your Source of Stress
Stress is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple aspects of your life. It can be a result of physical injury, infection, inadequate nutrition, or other health concerns. As we know the body is programmed to maintain a state of balance or ‘homeostasis’, and any disruption to it is interpreted by the body as a form of stress. Secondly, stress can also come in the form of emotional or psychological stress. Internal feelings bottled up can lead to mental health concerns in the long run. Thirdly, there is what we call social stress which can be a result of a lack of support system, feelings of being unwelcomed in your environment, and peer pressure. Lastly, an individual’s battle against her own beliefs and values can inflict what we call spiritual stress. Now, ask yourself, where is your stress coming from?
How Does the Body Respond and Handle Stress?
As soon as a threat is perceived and processed by the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, it then relays the signal to other parts of the body, including the adrenal glands, to produce hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
When you are stressed, you may be aware of your heart beating rapidly, feel that you are breathing much faster, and start sweating profusely. This is a short-term result of the release of adrenaline (aka epinephrine). These physiologic effects are beneficial in acute stress. However, in the case of prolonged or chronic stress, these adrenaline-induced changes may bring more harm than good, and even progress to hypertension, stroke, heart attack, and peripheral vascular diseases.
Likewise, the cortisol released during a period of stress is responsible for increasing the availability of blood glucose to the brain and your bloodstream. Cortisol also redirects the resources away from processes that are deemed non-essential at the present moment such as the digestive and reproductive systems. Similar to adrenaline, effects of cortisol are beneficial in acute stress, but over time can cause obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, weakened memory, dysfunctional immune system, decreased libido, and erectile dysfunction.
Can Stress Hamper Your Sexual Function?
The straightforward answer is: Yes. Going back to the body’s response to stress, it redirects your energy to organs that are needed to solve the situation at hand (usually the brain). As such, sex is not the priority of your body during such times. Cortisol and sympathetic nervous activity also have an inhibitory effect on arousal and can disrupt erectile function in males. In a study done by Uckert et al. (2003), the serum cortisol levels in the systemic circulation and the erectile tissue of healthy volunteers significantly decreased with arousal. This implies that as an individual becomes more aroused, cortisol decreases to allow erection to take place. However, chronically elevated cortisol in your body can lead to sexual dysfunction and the inability to have an erection.
A similar study by Hamilton & Meston (2013) in female volunteers has yielded comparable results. Women who are under chronic stress had lower levels of genital arousal when watching erotic films. This was attributed to being due to both psychological effects of stress and also to increased cortisol levels in their body.
Stress Can Hurt Your Chances to Conceive
Stress negatively affects the reproductive system of both men and women. Prolonged stress in men is linked to decreased sperm count and defective sperm maturation. Meanwhile, chronic stress in females has also been found to cause irregular or absent menstrual cycles and it can also worsen premenstrual symptoms such as bloating, depression, and mood swings. More importantly, stress can also decrease a woman’s ability to conceive a child. In pregnant women who are already expecting, stress may predispose them to pregnancy complications (which can compromise fetal development) and increase the likelihood of postpartum depression and anxiety.
What To Do To Manage Your Stress
Seeing the many adverse effects of stress can make one extremely overwhelmed. But fortunately, there are many strategies to combat stress! The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging the problem — which you have already done by reading this article! Here are some commonly overlooked tips that can keep your overall health in check:
Adopt a healthy diet. Avoid junk foods and choose nutrient-dense foods instead. Eating your greens and vegetable can go a long way.
Establish an exercise routine. Getting your body moving does not only help with stress management but also can prevent cardiovascular diseases. A moderate-intensity exercise of 30 minutes duration for 5 days a week is highly recommended.
Cut down on your coffee and alcohol intake. Too much caffeine and alcohol are associated with prolonged elevated cortisol levels akin to chronic stress.
Practice mindfulness training. Dedicating a few minutes of meditation every day can help soothe and calm your body and soul. Having alone time to focus on yourself may help decrease the tension in both your mind and body. While stress will be always in our lives, learning to process our emotions, and being aware of our inner strengths can help us live life to the fullest every day.
Get adequate rest. Good quality sleep (around 8 hours a day) helps to regulate the amount of cortisol in your body.
Ask for professional help. While there are many coping mechanisms that anyone can try like those listed above, if you feel like the burden is difficult to carry alone, do not hesitate to reach out to your doctor or any mental health professional. Your mental health is equally important as any other aspect of your health.