Stress is attributed to approximately 90% of all diseases, and I'm not just talking about psychological or mental diseases. Because no matter what diet you follow, how much you exercise and what supplements you take, if you’re not managing your stress, you will still be at risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity.
If you have not got some form of regular stress management technique, you may harm all of your best efforts with diet, exercise and supplements. The answer is not to remove stress completely from our lives, the key is to manage stress so we can reach our potential without crashing and burning. Stress management is absolutely crucial to optimal health.
What is stress?
Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Stress can occur when responding to the challenges faced every day. It is a disturbance to the body’s ability to regulate its inner environment. When the body loses this ability, disease and imbalances occur.
Most people are aware of the circumstances in which stress can arise, such as hectic and busy daily schedules, financial problems, family issues, driving in traffic, losing a job and the many other emotional and psychological challenges of modern life.
But other factors not commonly considered when people think of ‘stress’ can have just as much of a burden on our bodies. These include blood sugar imbalances, gut dysfunction, food intolerances, chronic infections, environmental toxins, autoimmune problems, inflammation and overtraining. All of these conditions sound alarm bells and cause the body to pump out more stress hormones.
One way to categorise our brain function is to break it down into the following two categories:
Sympathetic activity – which is often called ‘fight or flight’ state.
Parasympathetic activity – which is often called ‘rest and digest’ state.
As you can imagine, most of us tend to be in the ‘sympathetic’ activity that throws us into a ‘fight or flight’ state.
Common symptoms of chronic and prolonged stress on the body are:
Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up
Dizziness when moving from sitting or lying to standing
Sugar and caffeine cravings
Irritability or light-headedness between meals
Eating to relieve fatigue
How does stress negatively impact our health?
Our bodies aren’t meant to withstand constant stress. If you’re suffering from chronic stress, as mentioned earlier, your body spends too much time in ‘fight or flight’ mode, and not enough time in ‘rest and digest’ mode.
When stress becomes chronic and prolonged, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus is activated and triggers the adrenal glands (small glands located on top of each kidney where they produce hormones) in your body to release a hormone called cortisol.
Cortisol is normally released in a specific rhythm throughout the day. It should be high in the mornings when you wake up (this is what helps you get out of bed and start your day), and gradually decrease throughout the day (so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep).
Recent research shows that chronic stress can not only increase absolute cortisol levels, but more significantly it disrupts the natural cortisol rhythm. It’s this broken cortisol rhythm that wreaks so much chaos on our bodies. Among other effects, it also:
Raises blood sugar levels (1,2)
Weakens the immune system (3,4)
Increases intestinal permeability (6)
Makes a person hungry and crave sugar (1,2)
Reduces a person’s ability to burn fat (12)
Causes hormonal imbalances (such as thyroid hormones, DHEA, testosterone and growth hormone.) (13,14)
Increases a person’s belly fat (5)
Causes depression, anxiety and mood imbalances (9,10, 11)
Contributes to cardiovascular disease (7, 8)
These are all well-documented in the scientific literature, and the list of health problems caused by stress goes on.
But I am sure, most people do not need much convincing of this. You’ve witnessed the negative effects of stress first hand, every day of your life. So the question is, what can we do to prevent this cascade of negative, stress-related outcomes?
How to manage stress?
Purposeful rest and recovery. It’s an important part of the health equation. Yet it’s the one most of us neglect. Building in restful and mindful activities will help keep stress in its place.
The time to relax is when you don't have time for it - Sydney J. Harris
The key is balance.
We’re never going to reduce all of our stress. And honestly, a certain amount of balanced stress is good for us. So instead of focusing on the sympathetic side, we need to focus on the parasympathetic side. Basically, we need to engage in more activities that help us create our own parasympathetic state of ‘relax and digest’.
There are all sorts of activities that can help build greater resilience to stress. An integrated approach works best.
Eat three meals a day and never skip breakfast: This helps you keep your blood sugar levels balanced. Blood sugar levels dip either from not eating or as a rebound effect after eating refined carbs such as sugars and pastries. This triggers cortisol release, and hence stress.
Eat a protein source with every meal: This could be animal or plant based protein. Examples include: eggs, greek yoghurt, smoked salmon with your breakfast; and meat, fish, legumes or whole grains for your lunch and dinner. This will help to sustain your energy levels and alleviate any cravings.
Choose complex carbohydrates rather than refined carbohydrates: So opt for brown rice, whole grain bread, quinoa and oatcakes (avoid processed and white equivalents).
Reduce your dependence on stimulants: such as coffee, tea and energy drinks. Rather than giving you energy, these deplete energy over time, and contribute to blood sugar imbalances.
Snack wisely: if you know you have a mid-afternoon dip, avoid sugar-loaded treats and instead opt for energy-sustaining fresh fruit and nuts, nut butter, or hummus, a natural yoghurt and berries, or a sugar-free protein bar.
Develop a ‘winding down’ routine before bedtime: When it gets dark outside, dim the lights in your house and reduce blue or full-spectrum light in your environment by shutting off all electronics 1 or 2 hours before sleep. The light from laptop screens, TV’s, and phones can affect the production of melatonin, which means your body isn't preparing the hormones it needs to enter the sleep phase.
Enhance your sleeping environment: The ideal sleeping environment is dark, cool, and quiet. Don't make your bedroom a multi-purpose room. Eliminate TVs, laptops, electronics, and general clutter as these factors can decrease sleep quality and increase wakefulness.
Relaxation techniques before bed: Proven methods include daily journaling, deep breathing exercises, prayer, meditation, hot bath or keeping a gratitude journal where you can write down something you are grateful for each day. All these methods can help you achieve high quality sleep.
Exercise 20-30 mins a day: But no later than 2 to 3 hours before going to bed (performing it too late in the day may cause sleep problems due to the stimulatory effect of exercise, which increases alertness and hormones like adrenaline). Exercise is a proven effective approach to improve sleep quality as it will make it easier for your brain and body to power down at night.
Avoid caffeine late in the day: ideally no caffeine after 2pm as it can have disruptive effects on sleep (20).
Set a schedule: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day creates consistency which can improve the quality and duration of sleep as our bodies become accustomed to schedule. Staying up late and sleeping in late on weekends can disrupt our body clock's sleep–wake cycle.
TECHNIQUES & PRACTICES
Being mindful and conscious in prayer/meditation: it’s vital to cultivate a greater awareness of the unity of mind and body. Unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviours can undermine emotional, physical, and spiritual health.
Being grateful: Simply shifting our focus from what is not okay or not enough, to what one is grateful for can completely change our perspective - and ultimately relieve stress.
Managing your time: Poor time management is a major cause of stress. When you’re overwhelmed with commitments and stretched too thin, it’s difficult to stay present and relaxed. Careful planning and establishing boundaries with your time can help.
Learn to say ‘no’. It’s important to know your limits, and don’t take on projects or commitments you can’t handle.
Engaging in exercise: regular exercise correlates with an increase in rest and overall health.
Being in nature: A growing number of studies have shown that visiting green spaces and being exposed to natural environments can reduce psychological stress.
In the end, remember this. Rest and recovery are as important as what you’re doing in the gym, what you’re doing in the kitchen, and what you’re doing with your supplements. So make sure that you’re getting some ‘rest and digest’ action every day.
References & further reading:
1) Mathews EH1, Liebenberg L. (2012). A practical quantification of blood glucose production due to high-level chronic stress. Stress Health. 28(4):327-32.
2) Kyle W. Murdock, Angie S, et al. (2016) Executive functioning and diabetes: The role of anxious arousal and inflammation. Psychoneuroendocrinology; 71: 102
3) Pongratz G, Straub RH. (2014). The sympathetic nervous response in inflammation. Arthritis Res Ther. 16(6):504.
4) Koopman, F. A., Stoof, S. P., Straub, R. H., Van Maanen, M. A., Vervoordeldonk, M. J., & Tak, P. P. (2011). Restoring the balance of the autonomic nervous system as an innovative approach to the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Molecular medicine (Cambridge, Mass.), 17(9-10), 937–948.
5) Grassi G1, Dell'Oro R, Facchini A, Quarti Trevano F, Bolla GB, Mancia G. (2004). Effect of central and peripheral body fat distribution on sympathetic and baroreflex function in obese normotensives. J Hypertens. 22(12):2363-9.
6) Konturek PC1, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. (2011). Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 62(6):591-9.
7) Fisher, J. P., Young, C. N., & Fadel, P. J. (2009). Central sympathetic overactivity: maladies and mechanisms. Autonomic neuroscience : basic & clinical, 148(1-2), 5–15.
8) Hering D1, Lachowska K, Schlaich M. (2015). Role of the Sympathetic Nervous System in Stress-Mediated Cardiovascular Disease. Curr Hypertens Rep. 17(10):80.
9) Slavich, G. M., & Irwin, M. R. (2014). From stress to inflammation and major depressive disorder: a social signal transduction theory of depression. Psychological bulletin, 140(3), 774–815.
10) Dantzer R. (2018). Neuroimmune Interactions: From the Brain to the Immune System and Vice Versa. Physiological reviews, 98(1), 477–504.
11) Yang, L., Zhao, Y., Wang, Y., Liu, L., Zhang, X., Li, B., & Cui, R. (2015). The Effects of Psychological Stress on Depression. Current neuropharmacology, 13(4), 494–504.
12) Xenaki, N., Bacopoulou, F., Kokkinos, A., Nicolaides, N. C., Chrousos, G. P., & Darviri, C. (2018). Impact of a stress management program on weight loss, mental health and lifestyle in adults with obesity: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of molecular biochemistry, 7(2), 78–84.
13) Ranabir, S., & Reetu, K. (2011). Stress and hormones. Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism, 15(1), 18–22.
14) Lennartsson A-K, Theorell T, Rockwood AL, Kushnir MM, Jonsdottir IH (2013) Perceived Stress at Work Is Associated with Lower Levels of DHEA-S. PLoS ONE 8(8): e72460