Stress can shorten your life, make you fat and affect your performance both physically and mentally. This article explores what stress is and tells you what you can do in order to reduce it.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s response to any kind of demand. Some of these will be a little too familiar to some you – long working hours, financial worries or concerns about your weight and health. You may have heard that the body has a natural “fight or flight” response to these demands, meaning that when we are faced with a stressful or potentially dangerous situation we either deal with it or avoid/distance/ignore it.
This initial ‘stay or go’ decision has immediate physiological implications. In layman’s terms, your ‘gut’ kicks in. Technically speaking, your brain has detected and decoded the external demand and the hypothalamus (part of your brain) has triggered your survival systems – i.e. your nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. This is when stress becomes more obviously physical in the form of tensed muscles, heart palpitations and sweating.
We need stress
You read that right! Stress is our body’s way of dealing with a demand. When ‘stressed’ the nervous system will flood the body with adrenaline and noradrenaline, whilst the pituitary gland will secrete a hormone called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) which will travel via the bloodstream to the adrenal cortex. This has the knock on effect of causing the body to pump out over 25 hormones (including cortisol) which are designed to address the stressful situation.
Cortisol, which is often referred to as the stress hormone because it is secreted in higher levels during the bodies ‘fight or flight’ response, serves an important role; it facilitates the rapid release of glycogen for immediate energy.
So why is stress so bad?
In many respects, it is the type of stress we face that is the problem. A stressful situation to our ancestors 10,000 years ago may have come in the form of confrontation with a hungry sabre-tooth tiger, which would have required some serious fight or rapid flight! But modern man often faces a constant, low-level of stress, almost like an undercurrent that never gets released. If you are sat in a traffic jam, worried about a mortgage repayment or concerned about your expanding waistline, the stress is persistent. And it is persistent stress that poses the threat to our health.
So whilst cortisol helps when we need a burst of energy, persistent cortisol release actually requires other vital bodily mechanisms – such as immunity, digestion, endocrine function, etc. – to shut down. Numerous studies have also connected higher levels of cortisol with impaired cognitive performance (things like memory, concentration, problem solving abilities etc.), decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, higher blood pressure, suppressed thyroid function and “adrenal fatigue”, blood sugar imbalances and weight gain (particularly abdominal fat).
Stress also makes you stressed. If you are anxious you will find it more difficult to relax and sleep well at night. Without sleep your productivity/concentration/reasoning will decrease and you are likely to feel stressed about work. Your resolve will also diminish and you will be more likely to reach for sugary, ‘quick fix’ foods, which could compound any weight concerns you have and, you guessed it, stress you out! It’s a vicious circle, in other words.
What can be done to deal with stress?
Fortunately there is a lot that can be done to combat stress …
Mindset. A lot comes down to mindset. Personally, I believe that one of the most important steps is accepting that stress cannot be totally avoided. It is therefore important to recognise situations (or people!) that are likely to cause you stress and either avoid them, if possible, or plan and organise yourself in such a way to minimise the affect they have.
In a world of multi multi-tasking, it is also important to know your limits and do one thing at a time, which in itself requires careful prioritisation. A lot of mental unease – again, I am speaking from my own experience – comes from not having a real sense of purpose. I remember watching Tony Robbins being interviewed on CNN earlier this year (2013) and he suggested that a key part of dealing with stress is for people to ‘find a mission bigger than themselves’. Some would find this a little contrived, but I have certainly found that having a goal, something to aspire towards, helps me explain and justify some of the stresses in my life.
Exercise. Daily exercise should be part of your life. Exercise releases endorphins and helps regulate the production of critical brain hormones. Practicing a martial art or resistance training can not only help release your aggression, it can also enhance your body’s antioxidant system, which plays a critical role in purging the body of those substances produced inside the body when you are stresses. A molecule called glutathione is of vital importance here, because it is glutathione that protects you from the negative effects of excessive cortisol or insulin.
Diet. You were probably wondering when we’d get around to food, weren’t you? Diet and nutrition plays a critical role in dealing with and reducing stress. Here are my ‘Top 5 Ways To Eat Away Stress’
- Eat small meals regularly. Eating regularly can help stabilise blood sugar levels, which is crucial because low blood sugar levels result in a rise in cortisol levels, which, in turn, can lead to binges and subsequent weight gain. The body actually produces insulin in response to increased cortisol levels, which explains why we crave sugary food when hungry (i.e. the insulin will cease the production of cortisol.
- Eat your omega-3′s. Omega-3′s are proven to decrease inflammation in the body (notably there is strong evidence that the omega-3 DHA is highly effective at decreasing inflammation in the brain) and inhibit the production of certain stress hormones (such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, steroids and aldosterone).
- Eat anti-oxidant rich foods. Foods that are rich in anti-oxidants, such as cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli), berries (i.e. bluberries), dark green vegetables (i.e. kale) and certain herbs and spices (i.e. ginger and tumeric), will provide the nutrients required by the body to enable glutathione (see above) to effectively reduce the effects of stress.
- Get enough magnesium. It is important that after our ‘fight or flight’ response to stress we allow the body’s relaxation response to be activated. This means returning the body’s hormonal levels, blood pressure, heart rate and digestive functioning to normal. Magnesium plays a vital part in this because it calms the nervous system and makes us less prone to the effects of stress. Magesium-rich foods include seeds (such as flax, pumpkin and sunflower), nuts (such as almonds, cashew and Brazil) and even dried herbs (such as coriander, sage and basil).
- Drink tea. Both green and, especially, black tea have been shown to reduce stress, lower stress-induced cortisol and increase relaxation. Admittedly you will have to drink a lot to feel the benefits (which might make supplementation with a highly concentrated green tea capsule preferable), but studies have shown that drinking these teas will increase your total antioxidant levels and raise glutathione levels.
Laughter. Laughing can help reduce your stress levels. No joke. It can improve glutathione and your immune system – evidence suggests that positive thoughts/feelings release neuropeptides that help fight stress. Laughing can also increase the release of endorphins as well as lower blood pressure.
Sex. Given that my darling mother may well read this article I will not call upon personal experiences here, but sex can prove to be an effective weapon against stress. Various studies have found that participants who recently had intercourse had either lower baseline blood pressures or less of a blood pressure rise during stressful events. Research focusing on women’s heart rates and cortisol levels also found that participants experienced less of a stress response following physical contact (emotional support, it seems, was not enough). And finally, the stress management benefits of exercise can also be achieved through sex, although I guess this depends very much on how you do it.
Thanks for reading
Jared, Fresh Fitness Food Founder