I have always heard that stress can have detrimental effects on our health but if I am honest, I never really understood this until it happened to me. After a period of prolonged stress, I suffered with poor sleep, low energy and just didn't feel like myself. Sadly, I am not alone. Stress is quickly becoming the primary driver of chronic disease in the 21st century. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020, stress related disorders will be the second leading cause of disabilities in the entire world.
The term stress was originally coined by stress researcher Hans Selye in 1936. He defined stress as the “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” It is in this context that we have to consider the nature of stress. Is it possible that certain stressors might actually be good for us? In the short-term, stress such as a deadline at work can increase motivation and productivity and may also temporarily boost brain and immune function depending on how we respond to it. However, it is also true that prolonged stress can be detrimental to our health both physically and emotionally.
The stress response, otherwise known as ‘fight or flight’ is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. When we perceive a stressful situation, our sympathetic nervous system responds by stimulating our adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause the following reactions in the body:
An increase in heart rate and blood pressure to deliver blood to our muscles
An increase in respiration to deliver oxygen to the heart, lungs and muscles
An increase in blood sugar levels to provide an efficient source of energy
Pupils dilate to increase peripheral vision
Energy is diverted away from non-essential functions such as digestion and reproduction as these aren’t as important in a fight or flight situation.
In the short term, this response is very useful, especially in life-threatening situations. However, long-term stress keeps our sympathetic nervous system ‘switched on’ and can end up interfering with the vital functions that the parasympathetic nervous system controls including digestion, maintenance and repair of tissues, and sleep. This prolonged over-exposure to cortisol can lead to blood sugar imbalance, weight gain (especially around the middle), hormonal imbalance, immune suppression and poor memory.
Fortunately, there are some powerful things we can do to counteract the harmful effects of stress on our minds and bodies. Consider incorporating some of these following strategies into your daily life:
Consume a diet rich in unprocessed, whole foods. Include a source of protein with each meal to maintain balanced blood sugar levels. Imbalanced blood sugar caused by skipping meals and eating processed foods leads to the release of stress hormones, the exact thing we are trying to avoid!
Reduce or even better eliminate caffeine and alcohol which interfere with blood sugar balance and stimulate the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands further exacerbating the negative effects of these hormones on your body.
Focus on vitamin C, the B's and Magnesium. When under stress, these nutrients tend to get used up quickly in the body. Foods rich in B vitamins include organic poultry, salmon, eggs, avocadoes, nuts and seeds. Vitamin C rich foods include red peppers, dark leafy greens, kiwifruit, broccoli, berries, citrus fruit and papayas. Consume plenty of green leafy vegetables, seaweed, legumes, nuts and seeds as good sources of Magnesium.
Get plenty of Omega 3’s by incorporating wild salmon, mackerel and sardines in your diet. A study in 'Brain, Behaviour and Immunity' reported that people who took a daily supplement of Omega 3 containing both EPA and DHA had reduced anxiety levels by 20% as compared to the placebo group.
Include fermented foods to improve your gut flora. This has been shown to have a positive impact on brain health. Examples include sauerkraut, kefir, miso, kombucha, tempeh and kimchi.
Identify your stress triggers - understanding how stress manifests in your life is the first step to finding balance
Move – regular exercise is the best way to burn off stress hormones. It also improves sleep, boosts energy and helps you remain calm and focused
Develop a positive mindset – consider the nature of your thoughts and beliefs regarding your circumstances. One of my favourite quotes is “Life is not what happens to you, but how you respond to it.”
Create a gratitude practice – people who consciously focus on gratitude experience greater emotional well-being and physical health.
Find Stillness – meditation and prayer help to release stress and reverse the effects of fight of flight.
Deep Breathing - when we are stressed we often breathe very shallow without even realising it. Try breathing in for 4 breaths, holding your breath for a count of 7 and exhaling for a count of 8. Do this several times throughout the day. This technique has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which reduces levels of stress hormones in the body. The trick is to lengthen the exhale!
Enjoy a relaxing bath with 2 cups of Epsom Salts. The magnesium is absorbed through your skin helping you to relax from the outside in. You can also add a couple drops of lavender essential oil to increase relaxation.
Prioritise sleep to give your body and mind the opportunity to reset and renew.
Use Aromatherapy to activate the "smell" receptors in your nose that communicate with parts of your brain (the amygdala and hippocampus) that serve as storehouses for emotions and memories. When you breathe in essential oil molecules they stimulate these parts of your brain and may positively influence physical, emotional, and mental health.
If you have any questions or feel like you are suffering from the negative effects of stress, please take advantage of my free 20 minute health consultation to see if Nutritional Therapy is right for you!
To Your Health and Happiness,