We welcome back nutritional therapist Tracy Tredoux to discuss the impact of stress on mind and body and on our overall health.
We’ve previously looked at the important roles nutrition, sleep and exercise play in our health care. But as part of the Four Pillars of Health, it’s important we look at stress, as most people today admit to being stressed. In fact, the Healthy and Natural Journal estimates that 70% to 80% of doctors’ visits are for stress-related illnesses. Despite this, very few people truly understand the toll that stress takes on health.
What exactly is stress?
When we talk about stress, it is important to distinguish between acute and chronic stress. Our stress response is our survival response. This so-called ‘flight or fight’ reaction to perceived environmental threats has given us an evolutionary advantage, making us better able to survive by increasing our chances of either destroying a threat or escaping from it. In prehistoric times, if we were confronted by a lion or a sabre-toothed tiger, our stress response would potentially enable us to escape. But how? Hormones are chemical messengers that alter the activities of certain cells. When we are stressed, the hormones cortisol and adrenaline come to the rescue. These hormones prepare us to either fight or flee from the stressor (the tiger).
When our fight or flight stress response is activated, several things happen: our heart rate and breathing accelerates, our liver releases glucose for extra fuel, energy is diverted away from systems considered less important; such as digestive, immune and reproductive, our thinking and critical decision-making capabilities sharpen, and we gain increased energy, focus and concentration. For a short time, we become more highly functioning versions of ourselves. A certain amount of stress is therefore necessary and helpful, in the event of a short-term crisis. In the case of our ancestral selves however, once the threat/chase subsided, and assuming that we hadn’t by this point been eaten, our stress response would subside and we would continue collecting firewood and berries, and hormonal balance would be restored. This is what we mean by ‘acute stress’.
Fast forward to today. The issue we have in the 21st century is that our bodies are unable to distinguish between life-threatening stressors and non-life-threatening stressors. The response is the same. Chronic stress is ongoing, relentless, never ending stress and today, many people are stressed for large portions of their lives. Stress takes many different forms: deadlines, tests, projects, managing our family, relationship issues, social obligations, rushing from place to place, economic worries and unrest in the world are all common contributors. Add to this the fact that many of us are not sleeping as well as we should, are consuming a diet filled with chemical additives, flavourings and sugar, and have gadgets that allow us to be accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
We are increasingly becoming a society that is overwhelmed and burned out. Our bodies are designed to endure short periods of stress but for many, stress has become a chronic, long term problem that is taking a toll on our health. For a healthy body experiencing acute stress, once the stressor has passed and cortisol levels have decreased, hormonal balance is restored and normal bodily functions resume. However, in the case of chronic stress, when the levels of stress hormones remain elevated, symptoms begin to appear.
Symptoms that indicate stress could be causing a hormonal imbalance
When cortisol is released, digestion slows down. While making notes in your health diary, be mindful of whether you are stressed at meal times. Are you grabbing a sandwich and eating it at your desk while you continue to answer e-mails? Eating on the go? Or are you wolfing down your meal as quickly as possible to avoid being late for a meeting? Your body senses you are stressed and the process of making digestive enzymes to help break down your food, slows down. This often leads to GERD or acid reflux, bloating and cramps.
High blood pressure
When you are under stress, the body increases your heart rate in order to get more oxygen to your muscles so that they have enough fuel to take action. It is oxygen and glucose that make your fuel molecules. Although you may be stressed about a meeting with your boss later in the day, your stress response is preparing you for a fight or flight situation, this causes a rise in blood pressure. If stress becomes chronic, high blood pressure can become chronic as well. High blood pressure ultimately increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
High blood sugar levels
Glucose is the best source of fuel for your body. This is the main reason why, when we are stressed, we crave all the wrong foods. It makes sense. We are craving the high sugar foods that will give us the greatest influx of glucose, for quick energy. The slower, more steady release of energy from eating fats and proteins would not have helped us escape a sabre-toothed tiger, whereas if you had needed to run as fast as possible, the extra glucose would have provided your muscles with fuel which would have been burned off as you made your escape.
However, if you are sitting at your desk worrying about a deadline, a meeting with your boss or dealing with relationship problems, etc., the increased blood glucose levels are not needed by your muscles and ultimately end up being stored for use at a later time, in your fat cells. When blood sugar levels remain high for an extended period of time, there is an increased risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.
Lowered immune system
When you first deal with a stressor, the body actually stimulates your immune system. If you were attacked by a tiger and you survived, your immune system would try to protect you against infection and help heal your wounds. Today, in the case of chronic stress, the longer your stress hormones are raised, the weaker the immune system becomes. It simply can’t keep operating on overdrive forever. The immune system becomes so weak that it leaves you susceptible to bacteria, viruses and fungal infections.
Loss of fertility and libido
Our stress and sex hormones are both made from cholesterol and pregnenolone. Our stress hormones are our survival hormones and our body always gives precedence to these, they have managed to keep us around a long time. If cortisol and adrenalin levels are constantly raised, they are ‘stealing pregnenolone,’ also needed to make sex hormones such as testosterone and progesterone. Since the early 1990s, male testosterone levels have come down down by an average of 40%. When couples are stressed, infertility problems are common. Progesterone is crucial for falling pregnant and to maintain a pregnancy. When couples go on holiday, relax and the stress response calms down, hormones are re-balanced and very often the woman falls pregnant.
When under stress, after the release of cortisol, the body believes that it needs carbohydrates or fatty foods. In response, your appetite increases but often, as mentioned, so does your waistline. Cortisol induced weight gain tends to happen around the abdomen, where the fat cells are more sensitive to the effects of cortisol.
When stress becomes chronic it has a damaging effect on the brain. Cortisol damages the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, learning and regulating emotions; resulting in memory loss, decision making problems and loss of impulse control.
Much of the time, removing the stressors in your life is not practical, particularly if your stress is work related. It therefore becomes important to manage the way you deal with stress to avoid health issues. Here are a few tips to help you de-stress, relax and unwind. Use your health diary to keep track of the affirmative actions you take every day and note down any changes you become aware of.
Deep breathing exercises are the quickest way to let go of tension. Many physicians, especially cardiologists, are prescribing deep breathing exercises to their patients to eliminate stress. Learn more about breathing techniques which can be done anytime, anywhere.
Meditating, walking in nature, exercises
Exercise programmes such as Tai Chi and yoga can all help lower stress levels and turn off the stress response so you can lower your cortisol levels. Even ten minutes of meditation a day can make a difference. Meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm and Buddify can help get you started.
Listen to soothing music
Music is incredibly powerful on our emotions and our stress levels. Harness that power to help calm you, particularly after a stressful day at work or after dealing with conflict.
Learn to say “NO” more often
Many times, we agree to do things we either don’t want to, or realistically have not got time for, adding to our already stressful lives. Recognize when you are already overwhelmed with obligations and don’t be afraid to say no. Most people will understand if you let them know you already have too much to do. If they have a problem with it, acknowledge that that is their problem, not yours. There is a lot of freedom in learning to say no.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is a founding principle to good health. You’re probably aware that getting 7-9 hours a night sleep is vitally important in order to recharge your body. If you get enough sleep, you can handle stress better and become more productive.
These are a few tips to help you reduce your stress levels. When you reduce stress, you will find you get more done, feel happier and enjoy improved health.
Tracy Tredoux is a Nutritional Therapist, working in London. When not consulting with clients, she posts health articles, tips and recipes on her website. You can also follow Tracy on Twitter for more top tips and to chat!