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A Nutritional Therapist's Guide to Stress

Stress is something that affects all of us to one extent or another. Many of us think of it as something negative that should always be avoided, while others believe themselves to thrive under stress and invite it into their lives as an aid to performance. The truth is that the stress response has evolved with us over many millennia and can serve us incredibly well, when activated at an appropriate time and for a limited period. However, as a species, we have not evolved to cope with prolonged periods of stress and, as such, these can cause serious health complications. This article takes a closer look at the stress response and what you can do to develop a healthy relationship with it.

What is Stress?

Stress is your body's physical response to a perceived threat. When in danger, your body believes that the two most likely survival strategies are either to stand and battle your way out, or to run very fast in the opposite direction. So the stress response has also come to be known as the 'fight or flight' response. This fight or flight instinct served us well in our evolutionary past, making it possible to react extremely quickly in the event of coming across a hungry wild animal, or being ambushed by a rival tribe of Neanderthals.

Stress therefore at the right place and time is not a bad thing; an emergency occurs, the stress response kicks in and a couple of minutes later, so long as you haven't been eaten or clubbed to death, the emergency is over and the stress passes. This is known as ‘acute stress’ The problem that we have in today's world is that we are surrounded by non life-threatening things that nevertheless activate our stress response. This can include work pressure, family issues, traffic jams, social media, films, video games or anything else that takes you out of a state of calmness. And when the body is stressed for extended periods of time, it can start to have a serious impact on health. This is known as ‘chronic stress’.

Your body under acute stress

The bodily system that reacts to a stressful event or ‘stressor’ is called the ‘autonomic nervous system’. The autonomic nervous system consists of two opposing systems, called the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ and the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’, which act in a push/pull manner.

When a stressor occurs, the sympathetic nervous system takes over, shutting down non-essential operations and prioritising those needed for immediate survival through fight or flight. This includes shutting down digestion and immune functions while releasing glucose for immediate energy, raising heart-rate and accelerating breathing. The stress hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin are also released and for a short time we become more focussed, high-functioning versions of ourselves.

When the stressor subsides, the parasympathetic nervous system comes into play and reverses the evasive actions taken by the sympathetic nervous system, allowing the body to return to a more relaxed state and resuming all the normal functions that are required for healthy living.

Your body under chronic stress

Our natural response and resolution to acute stress relies entirely on the stressor being short-term. Once the stressor passes, the parasympathetic nervous system can usually return the body to equilibrium in about 15 minutes. But what happens to the body in the event of chronic stress, where the parasympathetic nervous system is not allowed to do its job and we stay in a state of indefinite high-alert? This is a reality for many of us today as stressors are everywhere in modern life. These do not have to be life-threatening emergencies; the build up of low-level stressors such as deadlines or anxiety about finances can all keep the sympathetic nervous system activated and the body in a state of high alert. Other stressors that may not be immediately obvious include lack of sleep, toxins in our diet and poor air/water quality.

When the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol remain elevated, a hormonal imbalance takes place, which can result in numerous health conditions.

These include:

Digestive issues - As cortisol is released, the digestive system slows down. Digestive enzymes are not released and the resulting symptoms can include bloating, cramps, acid reflux (heartburn) or GERD. A common cause of digestive issues is when people eat lunch on the go. Eating too quickly, while performing other tasks, will indicate to the body that it is under stress and the sympathetic nervous system will fire up, causing the digestive system to be suppressed.

High blood pressure - the sympathetic nervous system increases the heart rate in order to pump extra oxygen and glucose into the muscles to make more ATP (energy molecules) necessary to 'flee' or 'fight.' A consequence of this increased heart rate is that blood pressure rises. Again, this is fine in the short term but long term blood pressure increases can contribute towards heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure, aneurysm, dementia and many other serious health issues.

High blood sugar - Your body's main source of fast-release fuel is glucose. Glucose is also by far the most common chemical used by the brain. However, like everything, it needs to exist in the correct balance. When stressed, the body causes you to crave sugary foods that will give it a quick glucose energy burst to deal with the imminent threat. What the body is expecting is that you are about to undertake some extreme physical exertion that will quickly burn through the extra glucose. However, if the stressor involves sitting in front of a computer and worrying, while supplying the body with the sugar it craves, the increased blood glucose does not get directed to the muscles and instead is stored for later use as fat. One of the main dangers of a long-term increase in blood sugar is that the body can become insulin resistant, leading to type-2 diabetes.

Impaired immune system - In the case of acute stress, the immune system is actually temporarily boosted, helping to quickly heal the body from whatever damage was sustained during the period of threat. However, the immune system cannot operate on overdrive indefinitely and ultimately it becomes too weak to function normally, leaving the body open to viruses and infections.

Sexual and reproductive dysfunction - When stress hormones are elevated, sexual hormones such as progesterone and testosterone are inhibited, as they are both synthesised from the same precursors, cholesterol and pregnenolone. We cannot produce stress hormones and sex hormones at the same time and the sympathetic nervous system ensures that the stress response is given priority. Infertility issues are often associated with high levels of stress as correct levels of progesterone and testosterone are essential for pregnancy. For this reason, I often recommend that couples trying to get pregnant should try a relaxing holiday together before seeking out medical intervention.

Weight gain - As mentioned above, a prolonged increase in glucose can lead to the storage of extra fat, triggered by the elevated cortisol levels, which make you crave unhealthy foods. Cortisol-induced weight gain tends to be most evident around the abdomen as the fat cells here are more sensitive to the effects of cortisol.

Memory loss - Elevated cortisol levels can help the brain focus and function at a heightened capacity in the short term. However, if chronically elevated for long periods at a time, it can eventually have a damaging impact on the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain that plays a significant part in memory and learning, as well as regulating the emotions. Damage to the hippocampus can result in impaired memory as well as impulse control issues.

Managing stress

Strategies for combating stress can be broken down into two categories. The first is to remove the stressors from your life. This is probably the preferable option wherever possible, but in many cases will not be realistic and so the second strategy is to change your relationship with stress.

Whether or not you are able to remove stress from your life depends very much on your circumstances and the nature of the stressor. Why not try making a list of things that cause stress in your life, then write down what, if anything, you can do to remove each stressor? This will give you a good idea of how many things you can actually change and how many you will have to learn to manage more effectively.

Remember, unhealthy eating habits act as stressors themselves, so be sure to include these. If you find that your diet may be causing a problem and you would like help with this, please get in touch to arrange a one-to-one consultation, where we can develop an individualised nutrition plan that suits your lifestyle and individual requirements. You will almost certainly find that there are many items on your stress list that you are stuck with. Perhaps this is not a good time in your life to consider a career change, or maybe you have recently become a new parent and are unavoidably under-slept. Luckily there is much that you can do to change your relationship with stress. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Practice calm breathing - Although this may sound deceptively simple, controlled breathing exercises are known to have an immediate impact on stress and anxiety levels. Another huge benefit is that you can practice them in any place and at any time. Try this simple exercise the next time you feel uptight and make a note of any changes you feel afterwards:

  1. Imagine a square in front of you.

  2. Focus on top left corner of the square.

  3. As you focus take a slow, deep breath in through your nose for a count of four, then slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of six.

  4. Move your attention clockwise to the next point and repeat step 3.

  5. Repeat for all points on the square.

This exercise will take no more than a minute to perform and you can repeat as many times as necessary. Research has shown this kind of breathing exercise to be effective in reinstating the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore decreasing the symptoms of stress.

Practice meditation - Meditation has been shown to have numerous benefits for both mind and body, including reduced stress levels and generally increased levels of happiness. There are many types of meditation so if the first one doesn't work for you, simply try something else. A great place to start is with one of the many apps available, such as Headspace , or Calm . Another app that is completely free is Insight Timer, where meditation teachers from all over the world upload guided meditations to suit whatever your mood and availability are at the time. The key with meditation is not to get disheartened or frustrated. Even the most experienced meditators get distracted and find their minds wandering; it's just part of the process. Be gentle with yourself and keep trying. You will really start to notice the benefits before long. Yoga and Tai Chi - Another proven way to lower stress levels is through the practice of yoga and/or tai chi. The slow and controlled movement, along with an emphasis on correct breathing make these wonderfully stress-relieving, helping to switch off the body's emergency response system. You can find any number of classes near to you although they can often be quite expensive. A cheaper and less time-consuming alternative is to practice at home using one of the many free online resources. One of my favourites is Yoga With Adriene, where you can find full courses, or individual sessions that suit your mood and schedule. Get more exercise - As well as being vital for maintaining physical health, exercise is also an important tool in combating stress. When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins, which act as natural pain killers (the name comes from ‘endogenous morphine’) and also aid in getting better sleep. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress levels, improve sleep, elevate mood and boost self-esteem. The best news is that you do not need to be running marathons to achieve these benefits. Even going for a brisk walk will help to lower stress levels and improve physical health. Most phones now come with a pedometer included for counting your daily steps but if yours does not have one, you can pick up a dedicated wearable device for a few pounds. The advice on how many steps to achieve per day varies and I would not want to put you off by setting an unattainable target, so start by measuring how many steps you take on what is one of your more active days and try to hit this number every day. Remember, anything is better than nothing so always be forgiving with yourself and simply reset if you miss your target on any day. Learn to say ‘no’ - This is such a simple thing, but for many people it is incredibly difficult. The term ‘people pleaser’ refers to somebody who constantly agrees to requests and demands, regardless of the effect that this has on them. Over time, the constant demands of others, and our acquiescence to them, can lead to greatly elevated stress levels as our responsibilities become unmanageable. Learning to feel comfortable with saying ‘no’ to people can be difficult but is an essential part of managing your stress well. Think of it this way; you can't look after other people effectively if you aren't looking after yourself. If people react badly at first, acknowledge to yourself that the problem is theirs, not yours. With time, people will become accustomed to the assertive, low-stress version of you.

Get more sleep - Tiredness means that we are less equipped to deal with the stressors of day-to-day life and even small tasks can become stressful and frustrating. A good night's sleep is essential in order to feel relaxed and able to cope. Most experts recommend that we get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. To learn more, please take a look at this article on the importance of sleep and what you can do to improve your relationship with bedtime.

Improve your diet - Did you know that diet can play a massive part in how your body deals with stress? eating the right foods at the right time is essential to proper stress management, as is avoiding the wrong foods. Please take a look at this article on my ‘Tips’ page that deals with Important Food Groups to Lower Stress.

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