How stress hurts your teen’s body

Teenagers can be a great mystery to their parents but here's one thing we know with great certainty - they will experience periods of high stress during the final years of school. Year 12 in particular can be an intense year for the entire family. Finding strategies to help ease the load for everybody helps, but there will be moments when the wheels feel like they are falling off and health issues arise for your stressed out teen.  

The unavoidable fact is that chronic stress affects the body in a number of negative ways. The first piece of the puzzle is identifying them. The second piece is  addressing them to ensure your teen remains balanced both mentally and physically. 

What causes the stress response? 

When your teen feels stressed their adrenal glands kick into action. The adrenal glands weigh only 3.5-5gm each but they pack a mighty punch and it's not all bad. They are important for helping us get through stressful situations, and help the nervous system mount a fight or flight response.  

Your teen may not look outwardly like they are ready to slay a saber-toothed tiger but their body doesn’t differentiate between the stress felt about an upcoming exam or the stress felt if they were hanging on the edge of a cliff. It's the same physiological response in the body. 

Signs that stress is affecting your teen.

The three big areas affected when people are chronically stressed are digestive health, sleep, mood and immunity. There are plenty of clues if you know what you are looking for: 

  • Trouble falling asleep: keep in mind that teens do have a slowing of their circadian rhythms so don’t be alarmed by the lateness in getting to bed. It’s the trouble falling asleep once in bed that tells you there is a problem

  • Waking up at night (usually between one and four am)

  • Constantly waking tired

  • Feeling tired throughout the day

  • Inability to concentrate and focus on school work  

  • Mood changes such as feeling short fused, angry, anxious or depressed 

  • Diffuse hair loss (typically occurring three months after a major stressful event/injury)

  • Poor digestive function that leads to nutrient deficiencies (think belching, bloating and being gassy) 

  • Recurrent infections

Stress and digestion 

If your teen starts to experience gut issues like bloating, wind and pain, the chances are that their body is in a constant fight or flight response and is not switching back into the “rest and digest” mode. This means their ability to absorb the food they eat switches off. Chronic stress leads to nutrient deficiencies. 

Stress and sleep 

Sleep can be affected because melatonin (your sleep hormone) and cortisol share an inverse relationship. When cortisol levels are high during the day, melatonin levels should be low. Melatonin begins to rise early evening and stays elevated at night for sleep maintenance. Teenagers who are chronically stressed will often have high cortisol during the day and at night. This means low melatonin levels at night and that is a classic cause of insomnia. 

Stress and mood 

Teens who are constantly stressed are also prone to mood changes. Anxiety occurs when high cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system which blocks the neurotransmitter that helps us feel calm. Teens who feel depressed and de-motivated when stressed are often experiencing a drop in serotonin and/or dopamine. 

Stress and immunity 

It is normal to have one or two colds a year. However if your teen is sick on a regular basis and you know they have been stressed, their elevation in cortisol may be inhibiting their immune system. This leaves them wide open for infection by whatever bugs they come into contact with.

Useful testing to consider 

Blood AM cortisol and DHEA-S are accurate tests available through your general pathology lab that are a great starting point for tracking where your teen’s stress levels currently sit. Functional pathology labs offer saliva adrenal hormone profiles that are also accurate and test stress hormones over a 24 hour period. Melatonin can also be added if sleep is significantly disrupted. 

If you would like more support for your teen get in touch to learn more about my one on one Stress Less program I offer that helps teens and their families get on track with stress management.