Stress is a regular occurrence in life, you can’t avoid it and neither should you necessarily always try to, however, you must absolutely control how it impacts your health.
Last week I had a deep and meaningful chat with my parents. We were discussing the amount of things they take on in life including renovation projects, travelling, looking after family, etc. Whilst they love doing these things and I wouldn’t want them to stop it’s vital they observe the impact these activities may have on their health.
Each of them brings an additional load to their daily routine, at times they become a source of stress (don’t even get my dad started on the cost of a new boiler), life gets busier and corners get cut.
The more things they take on the less time they have to prepare nutritious meals, exercise, have a sleep routine and relax. Ironically, when they take a holiday they make time for all these healthy habits.
I suggested they begin to monitor their daily load and make adjustments to their nutrition and lifestyle accordingly. The load I was referring to is known as allostatic load, this is the total stress load on the body at any one point. The greater the load the greater your need to implement a consistent health routine to buffer the damaging impact stress can have on the body.
It’s important to highlight here that the stress your body experiences are a combination of physical and psychological inputs. Some of them you have chosen to take on and decide it’s a stressor e.g. a deadline, project, relationship, exercise or getting stuck in traffic, others maybe occurring largely beyond your control like infections or pollution. Finally, there are some stresses that are a result of your choices e.g. high blood sugars, high blood pressure, sleep deprivation or a nutrient deficiency.
Despite the fact you know that stress changes your physiology, understanding how damaging the impact can be is helpful in terms of motivating you to limit affect it has on you health by adapting BOTH your mindset and lifestyle.
The Physical Impact of Stress
Stress has the potential to alter memory, appetite, body composition, sleep, immune system balance, hormones and cardiovascular health.
In response to a stressor the body has a process known as allostasis that allows it to adapt and deal with the changes in physiology. During a stress response multiple chemical messengers are released into the bloodstream, some are hormones and neurotransmitters including cortisol and adrenaline, however there are also numerous chemicals produced by your immune system designed to create a pro-inflammatory state within the body.
Many of these chemicals are helpful and protective in situations of acute stress. Typically referred to as “fight or flight” the stress response increases focus, vigilance, energy, strength, speed and reaction times. Inflammation is your defence against injury.
The length of time and degree of total stress you experience is hugely relevant in terms of how it impacts your health, when the balance tips towards dealing with multiple, prolonged stressors the body finds itself in a state of allostatic overload. Now your physiology is causing more harm than good, the adaptations that would have aided your survival begin cause a decline in your health.
What Happens When You’re Overloaded?
For your body to function optimally and be ‘healthy’ it requires a state of balance known as homeostasis. Whilst your body is designed to cope and adapt to stressors it also needs set periods of time allocated towards repair, refuelling and resuming business as usual.
When it’s not dealing with stress your body has a comprehensive ‘To Do’ list it can finally get to work on including digesting food, blitzing infections, getting rid of damaged cells (especially cancerous ones), reproduce if the timing is right and rebuild vital structures in the body (e.g. joints, blood vessels, gastrointestinal tissues, new brain cells and lean muscle).
This is why chronic stress is associated with frequent injuries, chronic pain, ongoing fatigue, poor healing, a decline in cognitive function, decrease in muscle mass, digestive issues and infertility.
It’s also important to note that a stress response is demanding from an energy and nutrient perspective so may create deficiencies of vital vitamins, minerals, macronutrients and antioxidants. It generates a high output of something known as reactive oxygen species or free radicals, these are simply the by-products of activity in the body. These compounds are highly reactive and damage your cells leading to further dysfunction, disease and (to motivate you a little more) ageing. Antioxidants can neutralise free radicals, however, the capacity is limited and when was the last time you reviewed your antioxidant intake?
What Happens With Chronic Overload?
If your allostatic load in life continues to outweigh the time out you allow your body to recover then changes in all the body’s chemical secretions occur.
Cortisol itself may fall out of it’s normal daily pattern. As your waking hormone cortisol levels are highest at the start of the day and gradually lower until the evening where melatonin (your sleep hormone) begins to take over.
This hormone relay known as circadiam rhythm can become disrupted numerous ways, cortisol levels can flat line, remain high for too long or peak at the wrong time of day.
There are various mechanisms that cause this including influences from the immune system, depletion of nutrients, damage to mitochondria (the batteries of the cells) which produce hormones and it is often exacerbated by sugar, caffeine and other stimulants (including exposure to light and technology at night).
Reproductive hormones, digestive secretions and neurotransmitter (brain chemical) production are often suppressed due to a lack of resources or simply because the body remains in a state of ‘fight or flight’ and these activities are not life saving.
Signs Your Overloaded
Your stress load is difficult to measure and quantify, many people thrive with a certain degree of stress in life too, not enough activity can also become a stressor. It’s also slightly complicated by the fact that how and what you respond to is unique to you.
Recently it was suggested that gender differences may also occur here and the traditional ‘fight or flight’ is a reflection of a male response, whilst a female response is more characteristic of ‘tend and befriend.’
Whatever your response it’s definitely possible (borderline addictive) to over tend to too many others leading to complete depletion and a reliance on sugar and caffeine to cope.
The following are suggestive that your body maybe overloaded and struggling to function –
1)Poor Memory, Focus and Increased Anxiety
Over a short period of time stress improves focus and concentration. Both adrenaline and cortisol will improve memory, which is why exercise and fasting (which release these hormones) often give you more cognitive clarity.
Over time the side effects of all the intense activity in the brain and the inflammatory chemicals produced by the stress response can damage the neurons (brain cells that release neurotransmitters responsible for memory and emotions) and cause them to atrophy whilst also hindering the development of new neurons.
Areas of the brain responsible for memory then decline in function, new memories especially become a luxury so you no longer can remember what day it is or where your keys are! Parts of the brain that generate feelings of fear and anxiety begin to dominate because the environment is suggesting this would be most appropriate.
The brain will also start to direct tryptophan, vital for the production of feel good serotonin and sleep, down a different pathway to continue the stress response, resulting in depression type emotions.
2) Gut and Immune Issues
In a prolonged stress response certain immune functions are suppressed, however, there’s an increase in activity of immune cells located in areas of the body close to the outside world. They are preparing for an invasion or ready to act in case you’re wounded in the fight.
The skin, airways and gastrointestinal tract are primary sites that may begin to express signs of inflammation. Histamine, a chemical messenger released by immune cells, is one of many alarm chemicals that signals danger is present. It’s increased during a stress response and continues to drive overstimulation of the immune system worsening symptoms, especially eczema, asthma, hay fever, sinusitis, hives and general skin aggravation.
Meanwhile dealing with a virus, bacteria or cancer goes on the back burner, often the reason you may fall sick on holiday when you relax your immune system is able to go on a big spring cleaning mission.
Digestive health is also effected as it tumbles down the list of priorities. Irritable bowel syndrome, food intolerances, constipation or loose stools are all common symptoms.
3) Reproductive Hormone Health
The hormone hierarchy runs from the brain to the key organs that release the hormones and then then via a feedback loop to the brain levels can be adapted to the body’s requirements.
This is also disrupted when the brain perceives it’s not safe to procreate as the environment is one of fear and adrenaline. Remember your body doesn’t necessarily understand the difference between financial worries, a marathon or relationship issues.
Libido, healthy menstrual cycle, morning erections, good memory, a healthy body composition, optimal digestion and bone health are just a few indicators of the hormonal state of the body.
4) Cardiovascular and Metabolic Health
Whilst many people notice weight loss with acute stress as these hormones promote a catabolic effect on the body, breaking down stored energy, if allowed to continue over time high amounts of cortisol can increase appetite. Coupled with poor sleep, excess free radicals, poor digestion and often sedentary lifestyles this can create a recipe for weight gain and insulin resistance.
Many people often notice issues with blood pressure whilst stressed. It should naturally rise and fall across the day however may become chronically elevated or excessively low as the hormones adapt to the situation.
What Can You Do? 8 Essentials
1) Re-frame Stress
Your top priority is to begin to make lifestyle and mindset adjustments, often you’ll find you’re sweating the small stuff and creating a whirlwind of inflammation over things that don’t really matter in life. Keep in mind that when the big challenge strikes you maybe too exhausted to cope.
2) Increase Nutrient Density
Whatever the stress if the intensity increases at any point with deadlines or an emotional trauma your need to eat a nutrient dense diet with an abundance of antioxidants is greater. Also keep in mind your appetite and metabolism are altered so minimising processed foods is wise, your off switch is likely off. We have an abundance of meal plans in our Fitter 365 membership site that fit this criteria.
3) Increase Your Protein
Increasing your protein to around 1.2-1.5g per kilo is helpful to mitigate the catabolic effect of stress and support the maintenance of lean muscle, it also helps regulate appetite and provides the building blocks for feel good, motivational brain chemicals.
4) Support Healthy Serotonin Levels
Support your serotonin levels and eat plenty of tryptophan rich foods (e.g. turkey, cottage cheese, bananas, sweet potatoes) and ensure you have good levels of all micronutrients, especially B vitamins, Iron and vitamin D.
5) Schedule In Time Out
Give your mind and body time out at every opportunity in your day. This takes many forms including a few minutes of deep breathing, yoga, a walk outside, meditation, relaxing music, talking through the overwhelm with someone you trust, creative hobbies and losing yourself in a story (book, film or podcast).
6) Guard Your Sleep
Do everything in your power to grab 8 hours sleep and optimise the quality with a relaxing evening routine and good sleep hygiene.
7) Consider Supplement Support
Nutritional supplements can be hugely supportive but they are not the solution. They can be used therapeutically whilst you re-balance your life and thought patterns. There are many that support energy output, put the immune system back in balance, reduce anxiety and improve the quality of your sleep.
I often help clients with herbs and nutrients including ashwaganda, rhodiola, theanine, medicinal mushrooms, magnesium, high quality multivitamins and amino acids to support neurotransmitter function. The best approach is to invest in some nutritional therapy for a personalised supplement plan rather than trying to self medicate, it will only be effective if implemented alongside a healthy nutrition foundation and lifestyle guidance.
8) Gaze At A Dog
This isn’t a wind up, there’s science to prove it! There’s a hormone known as oxytocin which is released during positive social interactions and often referred to as the anti-stress hormone. In one study dog owners had their oxytocin levels measured after gazing at their dog, the longer the gaze the greater the levels of oxytocin in the owner.
So here’s a little stress busting gaze from Hamish just in case your day isn’t going to plan, however, if you are feeling the effects of stress and in need of some support contact us HERE, we have lots of resources to help you.