What Happens to Your Body Under Chronic Stress? 

by JJ Virgin on April 18, 2024

Stress can make you stronger or take you down—it’s all in how you respond to it. Acute stress carries a sudden jolt of adrenaline, like feeling your heart race when you narrowly avoid a car accident or butterflies in your stomach before a presentation.  

This stress is your body’s immediate reaction to a perceived threat, often termed the “fight or flight” response. Acute stress is short-lived and usually beneficial, sharpening your senses and giving you a burst of energy to handle the situation.1 

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is stealthier and more insidious. Like background noise that never entirely disappears, this stress lingers and builds over time. Demanding jobs, financial worries, or challenging relationships are among the lingering stressors of daily living.2 

When stress is a constant companion, it can gradually impact various systems in your body. 

How Chronic Stress Can Affect Your Body 

Chronic stress results from repeated exposure to stressors over a prolonged period. It disrupts normal bodily functions and worsens damaging, low-grade chronic inflammation. It can also weaken your immune system, increase vulnerability to illnesses, and contribute to the development of mental health issues like anxiety and depression.  

Research links chronic stress to various physical conditions, such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.4 

While short-term stress can be a normal and even healthy part of life, chronic stress can have the opposite effect, impacting your physical and mental health.   

1. Chronic Stress Can Overproduce Cortisol 

Cortisol, your body’s primary stress hormone, acts like an internal alarm system, playing a crucial role in how you tackle stressful situations. Its main function during acute stress is to provide a surge of energy by increasing glucose levels in the bloodstream, effectively fueling your body during a crisis. This hormone also temporarily suppresses non-essential functions, such as the immune system, in a fight-or-flight response.5  

However, the continual overproduction of cortisol due to chronic stress can have detrimental effects. Persistent high cortisol levels can lead to sustained high blood-sugar levels and weaken your immune system’s ability to ward off infections and heal, making you more susceptible to illnesses.6, 7  

Additionally, cortisol influences your body’s metabolism by increasing appetite and cravings,8 potentially leading to weight gain, particularly in the form of harmful visceral fat.  

Furthermore, elevated cortisol can disrupt your sleep patterns, hindering your ability to experience the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep. This disruption can exacerbate the cycle of stress and sleeplessness, further increasing cortisol levels and amplifying its negative impacts.9 

2. Chronic Stress Can Disrupt Your Hunger Hormones 

Chronic stress can significantly disrupt your hunger hormones, insulin, ghrelin, and leptin. This hormonal imbalance is a key reason why stress often leads to weight gain. Here’s why: 

  • Insulin regulates your blood sugar by facilitating glucose uptake into cells. Under chronic stress, your body’s response can lead to insulin resistance. Your cells don’t respond to insulin as effectively, leading to higher blood-sugar levels and, over time, increased fat storage, especially around the abdomen.10 It’s a double whammy when coupled with cortisol’s effects on blood sugar. 
  • Ghrelin signals your brain that it’s time to eat. Stress can ramp up the production of ghrelin, turning a whisper for food into a loud hunger cry.11 Your body may believe it needs more energy to combat the stress, leading you to overeat. 
  • Leptin is the opposite of ghrelin: this hormone tells your brain when you’re full. However, chronic stress can disrupt leptin’s signals, dulling this sense of satiety.12 Combine this disruption with heightened ghrelin levels, and you have a perfect storm for stress-induced overeating

3. Chronic Stress Can Mess With Your Mood 

Chronic stress doesn’t just have physical repercussions; it can make managing emotions harder. Stress disrupts key neurotransmitters responsible for regulating mood, including serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Imbalances in these hormones can significantly increase the risk of various mood disorders: 

  • Often referred to as your feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin helps regulate mood, happiness, and anxiety. Chronic stress can lower serotonin levels, disrupting this delicate balance and paving the way for mood swings and depression.13 
  • Dopamine plays a role in your brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When you eat something enjoyable, such as dark chocolate, your brain releases dopamine. Dopamine tells your body that this activity is rewarding and pleasurable. As a result, you feel a sense of happiness or pleasure from eating chocolate, reinforcing the behavior and making you more likely to seek out the experience again. Chronic stress can impair dopamine’s production or transmission, creating feelings of apathy, depression, and loss of pleasure in previously enjoyable activities.14 
  • Oxytocin is your bonding or love hormone; it plays a role in social bonding and trust. Stress can reduce oxytocin levels, impacting relationships and social connections. As a result, you may feel isolated or disconnected, exacerbating feelings of anxiety and depression.15 

4. Chronic Stress Can Impact Brain Function 

Chronic stress isn’t just a burden on your emotions, it can negatively impact your brain function, too. The impact of prolonged stress can range from memory problems to impaired decision-making. 

Chronic stress hinders your ability to concentrate, making tasks requiring deep focus or prolonged attention harder.16 This mental overload, especially prevalent during activities like reading or working and even when trying to sleep, creates a vicious cycle of stress and exhaustion. 

In the bigger picture, long-term stress can also increase your risk of dementia and cognitive decline. That’s because high cortisol levels can damage brain cells, impair the part of your brain that helps with memory and learning (called the hippocampus), and increase inflammation and free-radical damage in your brain.17 

5. Chronic Stress Can Harm Your Gut 

Chronic stress disrupts your gut microbiome, an imbalance known as dysbiosis. This affects your digestion, immune function, and mental health.18 Chronic stress also triggers inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, leading to discomfort and digestive problems like cramping, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.19 Stress can exacerbate conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and heighten the risk of autoimmune reactions.20, 21 

Furthermore, stress exacerbates intestinal permeability, commonly called leaky gut. Here, the intestinal barrier is compromised, allowing detrimental substances to enter your bloodstream. This disruption in the gut can have far-reaching consequences throughout the body, triggering widespread inflammation and immune reactions.22

Consequently, many health issues may arise, from skin ailments such as eczema to persistent fatigue.23 Likewise, dysbiosis has broad effects on your immune function, metabolism, and mental health issues including depression and anxiety.24 

Simple Ways to Reduce Chronic Stress 

Chronic stress doesn’t have to be your downfall. I’ve found some powerful, effective, science-supported ways to manage it and reclaim your peace of mind. These strategies help you navigate stress with grace and resilience.  

Mindfulness Meditation 

Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, provides a peaceful escape from stress. This type of meditation centers on directing attention to the present moment, embracing it openly and without judgment.  

Meditation helps reduce stress by cultivating a sense of calm and equilibrium, enhancing your capacity to manage daily stresses. Consistent mindfulness meditation can restructure your brain to improve resilience, making it an effective strategy for managing stress.25  

Find a type of meditation that works for you. I’ve found Dr. Joe Dispenza’s guided meditations life-changing. 

Deep Breathing  

Deep breathing exercises act as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. You can activate the body’s relaxation response by focusing on taking slow, deep breaths. Imagine each breath washing over you like a gentle wave, calming the mind and easing tension.  

This practice helps reduce stress-related symptoms by slowing your heartbeat and lowering blood pressure, making it an accessible tool for immediate stress relief.26 


Magnesium, often called the relaxation mineral, helps regulate neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine. Low magnesium may increase stress levels. Conversely, chronic stress can deplete magnesium.27  

A quality magnesium supplement can help mitigate the effects of stress, reduce anxiety, and promote relaxation.28 High magnesium intake can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort, such as upset stomachs or loose stools. Look for buffered chelated magnesium, which pairs this mineral with an amino acid to enhance absorption and ensure you get the most out of your supplement. 


Yoga is a holistic stress-relief practice combining physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. Through gentle movements, yoga helps release physical tension, while the meditative aspect encourages mental relaxation.  

Regular yoga can relieve stress, reduce muscle tension, and sharpen concentration.29 

Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique) 

Tapping, or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), involves tapping specific body meridian points.  

Picture gently tapping on different parts of your body with your fingertips while focusing on a particular issue or stressor. This practice can help balance your energy system and alleviate emotional distress.30, 31 

Social Support 

Whether it’s spending time with friends and family, joining a club, or participating in a support group, social connections can provide a sense of belonging, improve your ability to cope with stress, and offer an outlet for sharing your feelings.32  

You’ll find a helpful, supportive, like-minded group of women who support your health and wellness goals in my JJ Virgin Lifestyle Community on Facebook. 

Getting Professional Help 

Sometimes, the best approach to managing stress is to seek professional help. This might include talking to a psychologist, counselor, or therapist. Professional help can provide personalized strategies to cope with stress, offer a fresh perspective, and equip you with tools to manage stress more effectively. 

Master Your Mindset to Manage Stress 

While stress is inevitable, letting it dominate your health and well-being doesn’t have to be. 

When it comes to managing stress, mindset determines everything. The right mindset helps you regulate stress, sleep better, create a happier life, and move through life more powerfully. 

In Mindset Mastery: 20 Practices for Power and Purpose, I’ll show you how to incorporate mindset-shifting moments into your daily life so you can handle life’s inevitable stressors more effectively. You’ll learn my favorite ways to start the day, my go-to macronutrient for calm and focus, mindful techniques that you can use immediately, and more. 

Get the FREE guide here. 


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*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. Products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The views in this blog by JJ Virgin should never be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. Please work with a healthcare practitioner concerning any medical problem or concern.