4 Physical Signs of Stress and How it Relates to Serotonin Levels

Stomach Pain can be a result of a lack of serotonin
Picture of Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, PMHNP

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Are the physical signs of stress signaling a problem with your hormone regulation?

As mamas, stress management is essential as we all strive to take care of ourselves and those around us. But in the chaos of everyday life while often running on stress hormones & caffeine,  it can be easy to ignore signs that our bodies are trying to tell us something important – like stress overload!

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in regulating our moods and anxiety levels, so when its production suffers it can cause both emotional symptoms like depression, anxiety, and even postpartum rage, but also physical symptoms such as fatigue or headaches.

In this blog post, we’ll explore some common physical signs of stress and how your body might be sending out a stress alert.

Stomach Pain can be a result of a lack of serotonin

Gut Issues and Stress

Do you ever notice you feel queasy or nauseous when you’ve got a lot going on? You’re not alone. This might happen when you’re traveling, off of your normal routine, or dealing with intense situations and emotions in your personal life. 

When our bodies are experiencing stress, the enteric nervous system (ENS) is activated and sends signals to the brain. This causes changes in the motility of the GI tract, as well as modifications in secretions from the stomach. In turn, this can cause discomfort and digestive issues like constipation or diarrhea, as well as abdominal pain.

Have you ever “had butterflies in your stomach” before a big event or stressful encounter? Have you noticed yourself running to the restroom right before that big soccer game or before boarding that flight? Stress can also affect how quickly food passes through the gut, leading to further gastrointestinal problems.

Did you know that 90% of serotonin actually lives in your gut? 

The relationship between uncontrolled stress and anxiety and its effect on your belly is a vicious cycle. When we experience high levels of stress hormones like cortisol, it can cause inflammation in our gut which increases intestinal permeability – also known as ‘leaky gut’.

Prolonged stress can also increase our chances of developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Furthermore, this increased inflammation can contribute to symptoms of depression such as fatigue or difficulty concentrating

trouble with sleep is one of many physical signs of stress

Anxiety at Night Affecting Your Sleep?

Is your anxiety worse in the evening? Does your mind race when your head hits the pillow? These are symptoms caused by insufficient stress management when you’re awake and your body is trying to tell you something!

Getting enough quality sleep is essential for reducing anxiety and managing stress levels. When we don’t get sufficient rest, our bodies are unable to properly recover from the day’s events and cope with the demands of the next day.

This can lead to increased levels of cortisol – a hormone released in response to stressful situations – which can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and further disrupt our sleep patterns. By making sure you’re getting adequate rest every night, you can help regulate your cortisol levels and improve overall well-being.

Can Stress Cause Pain?

You bet it can! Chronic stress can lead to chronic pain in the form of body aches, TMJ (temporomandibular joint) pain, and even migraines.

High levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can wreak havoc if chronically elevated, can have a significant negative impact on chronic pain and disorders such as migraines and TMJ. 

Ever notice yourself clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth when you’re stuck in traffic or upset with your partner? That’s definitely not helping your headaches and jaw pain.

Cortisol is released in response to external or internal stressors and has been shown to increase inflammation which can lead to further exacerbation of existing conditions (all while depleting serotonin). 

In addition, cortisol has an effect on our nervous system, leading it to become more sensitive to pain signals. This means that even minor aches or pains may feel more intense when we are under high levels of stress. Which for moms, is seemingly almost all of the time. 

Furthermore, studies have found that people with chronic pain often experience higher levels of depression due to their condition being exacerbated by increased cortisol levels. Raising serotonin levels has powerful muscle-relaxing effects, and can stimulate our natural painkillers, endorphins, which is why getting your stress levels under control is so necessary! 

sugar cravings can result from elevated stress hormones

Sugar Cravings and Stress

Do you find yourself craving high-carb and  sugary snacks in the afternoon? An uptick in the darker months?

This can artificially raise serotonin, but can manipulate your brain and body into thinking you need these snacks to feel better. In reality, these snacks set off a stress alarm to the body, your pancreas goes into alert and releases insulin, which cascades other problems with metabolism and gut health. 

One study done by Harvard students found that consuming excess sugar “changes cortisol levels and hippocampus activity during stress, and perhaps how the brain perceives and responds to stressful events.”

Also related, you brain uses more energy when under higher levels of stress, which could explain why your body is craving sugar as a quick source of calories. Eating a balanced diet with protein and fiber can help ward off some of these cravings. That means not waiting until you are starving to get a good meal in! 

In Conclusion: Stress and Serotonin Levels

As you can see, there are a number of ways stress can effect hormones in our bodies, especially serotonin. From lack of sleep to physical pain and depression, the lack of serotonin in our bodies during times of stress can affect every aspect of our wellbeing. 

As mothers with full plates, it’s important to know the effects stress can have on our physical and mental health, one of which is a decrease in serotonin levels.

We now know that being stressed causes a decrease in serotonin, leading to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. But, by understanding how stress affects our serotonin levels, we can take steps to reduce both the stress and its effects.

Taking action can include exercising regularly, managing our workloads, implementing self-care, and learning how to meditate or practice mindfulness. Let us remember that there is always something that we can do to help ourselves, no matter the situation.

Joining the Matrescence Community is one way to start getting ahead of your stress management. With meditations, journal prompts, affirmations, and access to mental health experts, our community is full of resources to help you cope during the chaos of motherhood. 

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Picture of Lauren Hays, PMHNP

Lauren Hays, PMHNP

Lauren was a licensed and trained registered nurse in the NICU and has since made a career shift to focus on mental health. Lauren is now a board certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, focusing on women’s health and wellness. She is a mom of three precious little men who has turned her pain into passion.

mother with eyes closed pressing her face up against her infant to calm her anxious feelings

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