Are your health issues being caused by Stress?
Are your health issues being caused by Stress?
Modern living and stress seem to go hand in hand and it may be no surprise to you that the effects of stress can have a significant impact on mental wellbeing. It is now normal for people to be stressed and talk to each other about how crazy busy and stressed they are. It has become such a socially acceptable way to live that many of us don’t realise that it doesn’t have to be this way!
Stress often shows up as emotional stress in the beginning. When people feel overwhelmed, they can respond with anger, fear/anxiety or depression. Those emotions can trigger the release of stress hormones, setting off nearly 1,400 chemical reactions in the body and brain that are linked to many kinds of health issues.
Stress can cause irregular heart rhythm, angina or coronary constriction, high blood pressure, headaches, muscle tension, digestive issues, nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar issues, memory loss, aging, fatigue, hormone imbalances, chronic disease and much more. Anger alone can increase the risk of a heart attack by about 230 percent.
In a ground-breaking 2005 study, biologist Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., and psychologist Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D., discovered that chronic stress speeds up aging in cells. They found that women with the highest levels of continued stress had cells that had aged 10 years over their biological age!
These damaging reactions aren’t inevitable, it’s how people perceive and react to what happens to them that controls how their bodies respond. Two people can have the same experience, such as being cut off in traffic and have completely different responses.
The stress response
Fight or Flight – the Ancient Coping Mechanism The stress response is an evolutionary strategy to cope with immediate dangers, such as an approaching lion! In response to an external threat, the chemical messengers, adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline are released from your adrenal glands to enable you to either stand and fight or flee. In modern times, the feeling of being under constant stress, whether from work, family or financial pressures is interpreted by your body in the same way and can therefore lead you to be in a permanent state of emergency. Your body does not know that you are not being chased by a lion, it believes the messages you give it regarding the perceived threat.
This is significant as stress may be the underlying reason for your health issues or your inability to re-gain your health. For example, stress may be a big driving factor behind your weight issues and hormonal imbalances. This is why:
Irregular blood sugar control – cortisol signals the release of sugars into the bloodstream in anticipation that muscles will need fuel to help you run away. These sugar spikes can lead to weight gain if the sugars are not utilised as muscle fuel and instead converted to fat.
Hormonal imbalances – lack of libido, menstrual irregularity and fertility issues can all arise when your body switches to making stress hormones in preference to sex hormones.
Breaking the Cycle
There are a number of lifestyle changes you can employ to help manage your stress and optimise your wellbeing:
- Tell your body that you are not being chased by a lion ! – it may sound silly but it’s a serious matter, if you start to feel you are going into a stress response (chest tightening, heart beating faster, breathing changes), actively tell yourself that you are safe, there is no lion, you don’t need the stress response, there is no emergency. Remember you react to perceived stress. So what you tell your body is important, if you respond so bad traffic as if you are being chased by a lion your body will believe you. Let yourself know that you are OK, it is almost always true.
- Healthy eating – nourish yourself with quality proteins (fish, eggs, chicken, beef, lamb etc), loads of antioxidant-rich vegetables, a little bit of fruit and essential fatty acids from oily fish, nuts and seeds, all nourish your neurotransmitters.
- Regular exercise/movement – a fabulous stress buster, movement helps burn up excess adrenaline whilst releasing the ‘feel good’ chemical messengers, the ‘endorphins’. Even putting on your favourite song and dancing around the house, would be good for you!
- Good sleep (7-8 hours) – practice good ‘sleep hygiene’ techniques such as no TV or computer time for at least half an hour before bedtime and avoid caffeine in the afternoons.
- Meditate – particularly helpful if you cannot “switch off” your brain at night. There are numerous techniques available to help calm an overactive mind. Taking a few minutes to meditate each day helps build resilience by promoting clarity of thought and a calmer, more measured response to events, it can even lower blood pressure and decreases anxiety and pain.
- Smile and laugh – how long has it been since you had a good laugh. Laughter helps relieve stress and triggers positive changes in the body. It truly is the best medicine.
- Nurture yourself – schedule in “me time”, time where you do something that “fills your cup”. Something that brings you joy or peace. It may be a massage, a relaxing bath with essential oils, reading/listening to a novel, listening to music, going to a movie, art, craft, journal writing or chatting with a friend. Ensure you do this, even if you can only do 5 minutes in a day!
- Gratitude diary – write down at least six things every day that you are grateful for, you would be surprised at how much of a difference it makes when we focus on what we have and what it going right as opposed to only seeing or thinking of things we don’t have.
- Connection – schedule time with friends/family/loved ones, connection is extremely important for our mental health.
- Be present – stop, feel your feet on the ground and ensure you are breathing fully (not shallow breathing). Spend 30 seconds doing this at intervals throughout the day.
Shake it off – yes Taylor Swift is right, just shake it off, the same as dogs and ducks, they have the right idea!
Fiona Kane, Nutritionist, Informed Health Nutritional Wellbeing Centre
Note: There are several nutrients that can help calm an overactive stress response, which may be hindering you from achieving your health goals. It’s best not to self-prescribe, a qualified Nutritionist can provide support and prescribe specific quality nutrients, diet and lifestyle changes to support your health.