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The Body's Little-Known Signs of Stress

Are you more stressed than you think?

You probably know the usual signs of stress -- dry mouth and sweaty palms -- but there may be some hidden signals your body is sending, alerting you to the stress you're feeling.

CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton pointed out some of the ways your body is communicating stress, and some things you can do to help yourself relax.

Special Section: Dr. Jennifer Ashton
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Ashton said a little bit of stress could be good, but chronic stress can have a negative impact on your overall health.

"Stress is a normal, physiological response in our body and brain to a stimulation. People have heard of the fight or light. That's usually with a threat. But any stress whether physical, emotional or psychological one can produce a response and that might be a positive or beneficial thing. It's not always negative."
Ashton shared these secret signs of stress on the broadcast:

While some people lose their appetites when under stress, for others it triggers cravings for things like chocolate and carbohydrates. You may not realize this but "stressed" is "desserts" spelled backwards. Under pressure the body tries to regulate itself and you might be able to comfort and regulate by eating the foods you crave. People often go for the junk foods, soda, caffeine and alcohol to give themselves a lift or calm themselves, but it's only temporary.

Stress Buster: When those cravings set in, you'd be better off chewing sugarless gum or, better yet, going for a walk to relieve the stress.

The skin is the largest and most visible organ in the body so it tends to register stress fairly quickly. If you have dry skin, eczema or psoriasis, stress will increase these conditions. If you are prone to breakouts, stress increases the inflammation that can lead to acne. When you're under stress the body produces adrenaline and cortisol. Production of these hormones is controlled by the brain. They are secreted along with androgens, which stimulate the production of sebum, which in turn encourage the development of acne.

The other fact has been established is that stress can slow down the process of healing, which also applies to acne. In fact, the rate of this slowdown could be as high as 40 percent, which seems to suggest that acne could be connected to stress.

Stress Buster: Keep skin clean and moisturized, drink lots of water -- breathe.

An achy jaw can be a sign of teeth grinding, usually during sleep brought on by stress. There were many reports of an increase of "bruxism" or teeth grinding from anxiety during the economic downturn.

Stress Buster: Ask your dentist about a nighttime mouth guard -- up to 70 percent of people who use one reduce or stop grinding their teeth, according to the American Dental Association.

A 2008 study showed that even slight stress and anxiety can substantially worsen a person's allergic reaction to some routine allergens. The researchers found that allergy sufferers had more symptoms after taking an anxiety-producing test, than when they did a task that did not make them tense. Stress hormones may stimulate a blood protein that causes allergic reactions.

Stress Buster: Antihistamines given to treat allergy symptoms may not be the whole solution. Get plenty of sleep every night, not just on weekends. Getting in bed and resting can restore the body's balance and help the allergic body heal. Exercise daily. Even if you only have time to take a walk, exercise helps reduce stress hormones that may cause you to feel keyed up. And remember, exercise produces epinephrine, which acts as a natural decongestant, helping you breathe better.

We know stress can trigger migraines. So it seems strange that the absence of stress on the weekends can give you a headache as well. This is not well understood, but the theory is a sudden drop in stress can prompt a migraine. It could have to do with a change in schedule and habits, like caffeine consumption and different waking and sleeping times.

Stress buster: Stick closely to weekday eating and sleeping schedule and try to "even out" the stress and minimize other triggers.

Stress and stomach problems are well documented. One tummy problem is aptly named: Nervous stomach. It may be caused because the brain releases a lot more acids into the stomach when you are stressed.

According to the Mayo Clinc, hair loss is related to stress. The most common type of stress-induced hair loss is telogen effluvium. In this condition, emotional or physical stress, related to a death in the family, pregnancy, severe weight loss or surgery, for example, pushes large numbers of growing hairs into a resting phase. Within a few months, the affected hairs may fall out suddenly when simply combing or washing your hair. The hair typically grows back when the emotional or physical stress is resolved, although this can take months. For some people, intense stress may trigger a type of hair loss called alopecia areata. In this condition, white blood cells attack the hair follicle, which stops hair growth. Within weeks, the affected hair falls out. The hair loss usually starts as a small round patch but may eventually spread to the whole scalp, and sometimes to body hair as well. The hair generally grows back, but the cycle may repeat itself.

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