April – Stress Awareness Month
April is Stress Awareness Month during which time health care professionals across the country aim to increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. There’s probably not an adult alive in the western world who has not talked about being stressed at some point in their lives. Stress can be psychological, emotional or physical. It can be real or perceived. This means that just thinking about a potential stressful situation can trigger the same reactions in the body as if the stress were actually happening.
Physical stressors include food or drinks that are challenging to the body, extremes of temperature or injury to any part of the internal or external body. Emotional or psychological stress can be triggered by thoughts, feelings or events.
The Fight or Flight Response
Stress can be referred to as the fight or flight response as we are designed to react to stress by running away or staying to fight. This is an evolutionary response to the kind of stresses to which our ancient ancestors were exposed.
During a stressful event or thought process the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline are released from the adrenal glands. These chemicals increase our alertness and speed up our reaction times. Physical signs of stress may include raised blood pressure and heart beat and increased sweating. The blood flow to the digestive system is diverted to the muscles of the arms and legs ready for fight or flight. Fat and sugar stores are mobilised.
The things that cause stress in modern life are somewhat different from the stress triggers to which we evolved. This means that even if we are sitting in a traffic jam or have a tight work deadline our body is preparing to fight or flee. In addition today we live under constant pressure meaning the body does not have time to return to a state of balance in which digestion can resume and the body can repair itself. It is this on-going, low level stress that ultimately leads to health problems and burn out.
Stress and Disease
Stress can affect every aspect of health.
Immune Function – Chronic stress suppresses the immune system making the sufferer more susceptible to illness. Allergies and sensitivities may also increase.
Digestive Health – during stress digestive processes are put on hold. This can lead to bloating, flatulence, malabsorption and indigestion. IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is a common outcome.
Sleep Disruption – The stress hormones are designed to keep us alert and awake so any residual adrenaline and cortisol in the system can lead to insomnia or unrestful sleep.
Adrenal Fatigue – ongoing stress depletes the adrenal glands. As well as producing the stress hormones the adrenal glands produce some sex hormones. However, in chronic stress the reserves available to produce sex hormones may be inadequate leading to imbalances in oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Depleted adrenal glands also have a knock on effect on the thyroid gland which is responsible for our metabolism.
How to support the body to reduce the effects of stress
- Avoid foods and drinks that create stress in the body. These include stimulants such as tea, coffee, alcohol, energy drinks and colas.
- Avoid foods that upset blood sugar levels including sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined carbohydrates and processed foods.
- Avoid any foods to which you are intolerant; wheat and dairy products are common culprits.
- Eat high nutrient foods to replenish depleted reserves. These include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, whole grains, fish, eggs, herbs, spices and sea vegetables.
- Drink herbal teas, water, ginger tea and freshly pressed vegetable juices.
- Eat in a relaxed atmosphere. Take some deep breaths and full exhalations before eating.
There are certain nutrients that are particularly depleted during times of stress. These include:
- B Vitamins – needed to convert carbohydrates from food into energy. Vitamin B5 plays a role in cortisol production. Vitamin B6 is needed to make several neurotransmitters that can counteract the effects of adrenaline. Good sources include whole grains, fish, eggs and green vegetables.
- Magnesium – Magnesium is vital for the nervous system and energy production. Chronic stress can deplete magnesium stores. Good sources include green vegetables, whole grains, pumpkin seeds, cacao, avocados, almonds, hazelnuts and alfalfa sprouts.
- Vitamin C – The adrenal glands have a high need for vitamin C and stress often depletes this nutrient. Good sources include berries, black currants, red currants, lemons, grapefruit, kiwi fruits, peppers, broccoli and watercress.
- Antioxidants – Under stress the production of free radicals is increased. Free radicals are responsible for many symptoms and chronic illnesses. It is antioxidants that protect the body against free radical damage. Good sources include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sea vegetables.
- Essential Fats – The omega 3 and 6 essential fats are needed by every part of the endocrine system including the adrenal glands, sex glands and thyroid. They are found in oily fish, walnuts, hemp seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds and avocados.
You may not be able to control what life throws at you but you can choose how you react to life’s events. Here are some ideas that may help:
- Stress management techniques such as yoga, tai chi, meditation and mindfulness can all help to bring the body back into a state of balance as well as changing your perspective on what is happening. Talking to friends and family is also therapeutic.
- Breathe – When we are under stress breathing becomes shallow. The quickest way to tell your body that everything is OK is to breathe into the abdomen and to exhale fully. Do this a few times and notice how much better you feel.
- Reset your circadian rhythm – getting to bed by 11pm and getting up at the same time each day can help to reset your daily rhythms. Spending time outside in daylight is also important.
- Switch off the gadgets – especially in the evening a couple of hours before you go to bed. The light emitted by gadgets suppresses the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
- Take a look at your life – Review your life and see which aspects of it are causing stress. Is it your relationship with your family, partner or children? Your job? Your health? Your home? Whatever it is you can take steps to do something about it. Talking things through can help to get things into perspective.
- Take Moderate Daily Exercise – Exercise can dissipate stress hormones. However, do not overdo it as this can create stress in the body. It is best not exercise late in the evening as the body needs time to wind down in order to get a relaxing night’s sleep.
- Spend time in nature – Being in nature is relaxing on a deep level. Even if you live in a city try to visit the park or somewhere green every day.