When we think about ‘getting healthier’ we usually think about what kind of changes we need to make in our diets and what kind of exercise program we should engage in. Sometimes, we start to make these changes when our body gives us the ‘wake up’ call- we find we are developing a chronic disease like high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity or perhaps even cancer. Perhaps we just feel tired, overwhelmed and frazzled and are gaining weight for what feels like an unknown reason, or we keep getting colds and feel run down.
Although a healthy diet and the right choices in exercise routines are extremely important, there is a 3rd aspect and often overlooked piece of the wellness puzzle. That piece is Stress. Our bodies and minds are stressed these days to well beyond where they were ever meant to go, and nourishing our systems with healthy foods is important (as well as adopting some kind of stress management program) to counteract the negative health effects of stress and is critically important to overall health.
What is Stress?
Stress is not just that tense emotional feeling we feel when we get into the bullpen of our day and must react and cope with everything that demands our attention and time. Stress is an innate SURVIVAL mechanism; a physiological response inside our bodies that happens every time we react to any kind of change in our external or internal environment. Any change is stressful and can bring on what is known as ‘The Stress Response”. This Stress Response is a real physiological state of biological-neurological-chemical-hormonal changes in our body. It’s a survival mechanism designed to keep us safe (see Rolling Strong Blog “When It’s all About the Tiger”) as a survival mechanism, certain things happen inside our bodies when we experience stress. Stress is known as the “Fight or Flight Response” because it’s our body’s way of helping us cope with any demand or threat that’s made upon us. Our body instantaneously prepares to either deal with it and ‘fight’ or run away fast (flight). And in order to do that in a real physical way our body starts to orchestrate energy functions and releases some very important hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. Adreo give you a rush of energy. Cortisol is the Stress Chief Commander. Cortisol is glucocorticoid and increases the sugar (glucose) in your bloodstream, turbocharges your brains use of glucose and increases blood fats to rise so we have available fuel sources (to fight or run) as well as repair any tissues that are injured.
Acute Stress vs Chronic Stress
Not all stress is bad and problematic. Acute stress is an adaptive reaction and can help us rise to the stressful occasion and get things done and get past it all. All of us experience “acute stress” every day in our lives. After the ‘stress’ occurs however, our body will naturally return to a homeostatic place of balance.
Chronic stress is a long-term stress. Chronic stress is what gets us in trouble with our health and well-being. It results in illness and exhaustion. One of the biggest problems with stress is that it has a cumulative effect on us. Chronic stress is different than short term both in its physiological response and in the body’s adaptation to it. Imagine Chronic Stress as driving yourself with the body’s gas pedal pressed to the floor on a continual basis. It’s go go go and that continual cascade of hormones and the increases in blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar, blood fats, inflammation and hyper-state of alertness causes the body excessive wear and tear on it’s systems. The excessive chronic levels of glucocorticoids have been shown to have increasingly detrimental effects on immunity, reproduction, memory, growth of bone and tissues, pain reception, sleep, psychological disturbances such as depression and anxiety, aging process and gastrointestinal function.
Through a vast amount of research, we now know the long-term effects chronic stress has on our physical, emotional and psychological health. The chronic activation of the stress response takes a toll on us. Research shows us that being in a chronic state of stress promotes atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and can change the brain creating anxiety, depression and even addictions. Chronic stress is a big contributor to the obesity epidemic in direct and indirect ways. Directly stressed people look to sooth and calm themselves with high carbohydrate foods and sugars to increase neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Indirectly, stress interferes with sleep and can stop some people from exercising.
Different Sources of Stress:
We tend to think of Stress as an emotional, physical kind of ‘feeling’ that we get when facing the demands of our lives. But our body experiences all of the physiological processes of stress through many different ways and it’s important to look at the different avenues that create stress so that we don’t fall into a chronic stress state. Some of these may surprise you:
- Physiological stress: Physical stressors include inadequate nutrition, lack of rest, sleep or excessive work and/or excessive exercise, allergies, infections, surgery, anesthesia, dental work, physical trauma, and reproduction (hormonal and excitatory stress). Eating processed foods stresses the body systems. Excessive exercise might seem like a good idea, but it too can create a chronic stress on the body, ramping up inflammation and suppressing immune function. Are you not able to sleep for 7-9 hours? Yes, this will create an overabundance of stress hormones in your body as well.
- Emotional stress: Emotional stress takes on many forms. It can encompass either strong positive and/or negative emotions, or emotional trauma. Relationship problems, caretaker demands, worry, anticipation, rumination over arguments, negative belief systems are all examples of emotional stress and will set off the stress response in the body. Chronic stress develops as these emotional stress events continue.
- Environmental stress: Environmental stress can include exposure to heat, cold or even the sun. think about all those times you were told that you’d catch a cold from going out without a jacket. We know that you need to be exposed to a virus to catch a cold so why would not wearing a coat make a difference? Because the stress response kicks in with extreme temperature changes, suppressing your immunity. Pollutants in the air create stress in the body.
- Social and Economic Stress: A lifetime of poverty or dysfunctional family situations can create a state of chronic stress. Financial hardships, lack of education and opportunity can also lead to a chronic state of stress. Social isolation, lack of friends and social contacts have debilitating effects on one’s health-all through the mechanisms of chronic stress.
“Don’t be foolish enough to dig your own grave with a fork and spoon.” —Anonymous
The Stress Response taxes the body system in so many ways when we experience chronic stress. Our digestion is compromised and shuts off when the stress response is activated. It’s easy to imagine how Chronic Stress can create nutritional imbalances; if we are not able to digest our food, we are unable to absorb nutrients from our food. It’s hard enough for all of us to take in all the nutrients that we need every day! We need minerals, proteins, vitamins, antioxidants, healthy carbs for energy, healthy fats every day as a constant supply of fuel for our body. Stress makes a mess of it all because it changes the way our body needs to function and chronic stress wreaks havoc on the whole process because of the digestive shutdown and inflammatory responses in the body as well as the over-supply of fats and glucose in the blood stream at all times. In addition, on-going stress needs nutrients and requires energy to run that system.
How do we eat for stress? Start with the basics and focus on nourishing your nervous system.
- Fruits and vegetables: Eat at least 5 or more servings of a variety of brightly and varied colors of fruits and vegetables will provide antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
- Citrus fruits provide vitamin C which is important for immune function as well as working as a counteractive to all that cortisol the stress response creates in the body.
- Magnesium rich foods like nuts, seeds, 70% cacao dark chocolate, avocados, oatmeal, quinoa, whole grains help because magnesium relaxes those tense stressed muscles.
- Eat fatty fish like wild salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, flaxseeds, walnuts in order to good sources of omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids are important for nerve function.
- Avoid all added sugar, processed foods, fried foods and refined grains like white bread, pasta, rice and white flour products. Consuming these foods ACTIVATES the stress response! Your body cannot ‘run’ on them and perform its trillions of actions that keep you alive. This is a ‘stressor’ which will further increases your need of healthy foods as well as increase your susceptibility to chronic inflammation and disease.
- Don’t overdo alcohol or caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant and will raise cortisol levels. Alcohol, especially excessive intake raises cortisol levels as well. If you are already chronically stressed it’s a good idea to limit your intake.
- RELAX before you eat! Purposely relaxing counteracts the Stress Response and will improve your ability to absorb the nutrients from your food. Take a deep breath, be grateful and mindful of the nourishment in the food you are about to eat. Read ‘Stress: It’s All About the Tiger for some quick tips on breathing exercises to counteract the stress response
By: Cindy Luisi WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach