Stress may feel like a purely psychological phenomenon, but it can have a detrimental effect on our physical health too, reducing function of all body systems. In recent years we have seen a rise in various disease states in the Western world. There is no doubt a variety of factors involved: a cocktail of dietary and lifestyle choices combined with environmental factors, creating a perfect storm. Stress is a part of this mix.

What is stress?

As humans we very cleverly developed a stress response in order to help us respond to danger. When faced with threat our bodies help us prepare for ‘fight or flight’ by increasing blood flow around the body, blood sugar levels, and hormones like cortisol. Our pupils widen, allowing us to be hyper-alert. And we temporarily switch off unrequired systems like reproduction, digestion and sleep; to allow our bodies to focus solely on the task of dealing with the threat.

Fortunately in our modern society we are not often faced with physical threats; we don’t often need to run away from danger. But there is a whole host of other stressors that we are faced with on a constant, daily basis. Work deadlines, social and family pressures, bills to pay, phones ringing, emails to reply to, being constantly bombarded with news updates and social media are some of the stressors we face, along with physical stressors like environmental toxins, nutrient devoid processed food, and drugs. Our bodies perceive these modern stressors as threats and respond in the same way: the only way they know how.

What does stress do to the body?

The dangers our ancestors faced were short-term dangers and we evolved to be able to deal with these very effectively. The ‘dangers’ we are faced with nowadays are constant. We find ourselves in a constant ‘fight or flight’ state; permanently poised, at the ready to fight an invisible danger that never goes away. Blood sugar, blood pressure and cortisol levels remain high; and digestion, reproduction and sleep functions remain switched off. Is it any wonder we are facing such an increase in disease states like diabetes, heart disease, infertility, insomnia and digestive disorders?

Furthermore, over-production of cortisol (our ‘stress hormone’) may lead to adrenal burn out, contributing to fatigue and disease. Our immunity reduces when high cortisol is present meaning we are less able to fight infection. Increased hormones like cortisol and adrenaline also mean our bodies have to work harder to clear used hormones; taking away resources from other essential processes like mythelation: the biochemical communication process that takes place on a cellular level across all body systems. This, amongst other factors in our perfect storm cocktail, leads to DNA damage leading in turn to disease states like cancer.

If you experience symptoms like low energy, headaches, digestive issues, heart palpitations, insomnia or frequent illness, you may be suffering from chronic stress.

What can we do about it?

Fortunately, there are lots of things we can do to help. Even where we can’t eliminate the stressor itself (the thing giving us cause for stress), we can change the way we respond to stress. Try some of these tips:

  • Have a healthy diet. People are sometimes surprised that their diet can impact on their mental wellbeing. But nutrients like vitamins and minerals are required by the body for essential functions like creation of neurotransmitters, energy production and all the other things that keep us physically and mentally well. Sugar, alcohol and processed foods deplete the body of these nutrients, so a diet high in these is naturally going to impact on how we feel. Instead ensure your diet is nutrient-rich by basing it on healthy foods like lots of fresh vegetables and a little fresh fruit, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and oily fish. Including a protein source (e.g. lean meat or fish, beans, pulses, nuts or seeds) with each meal and snack will help keep blood sugar levels stable, helping to make you more resilient to stress.
  • Focus on the positives. There have been so many studies around how much this can help, showing positive thinking literally increases longevity. Instead of dwelling on problems, take time out each day (perhaps in the shower or while travelling home from work) to make a mental list all the things that have gone well in the past couple of days, no matter how small. Perhaps you responded to a difficult situation well? Praise yourself for the achievement.
  • Manage your time. Plan ahead, use your time constructively and don’t procrastinate; you will achieve more and feel better about yourself. Use a diary or planner if you need to. Plan your rest times too, and remember these times are equally important so don’t feel guilty about your relaxation time.
  • Improve relationships with those around you. Relationships, whether with family, partners, friends or colleagues, can be a big cause of stress. With every interaction, focus on the other person instead of yourself and try to help; and at the same time don’t be afraid to ask for help from others when you need it. Building up a support network will help you deal with stress.
  • Exercise. This releases endorphins which helps combat stress and supports us physically. A walk outside, some yoga, a team sport or the gym: try whatever suits you.
  • Get close to nature. Studies have found that this can make a big difference in how well we cope with stress and can reduce anxiety and depression. Even if you live in a city, try getting to the park or taking a walk along a cycle path. Perhaps you could ditch the car and find a green walk home from work?
  • Reduce your use of technology. These days everyone is walking around the streets glued to their mobile phones as they walk. Don’t be a slave to social media, emails and text messages. Try looking up as you walk, taking in your surroundings, and only use digital media when it serves a purpose. Meal times in particular should be technology-free time; focus instead on your food to help your body digest (refer to my February Newsletter: Mindful Eating, get in touch if you missed it!)
  • Be mindful. Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to be hugely beneficial in combatting stress. If you’re not sure how, try simply being aware of the present moment and your surroundings whether you are walking home from work, cooking or doing the laundry. You could also try a meditation class or an App like Headspace, or a meditative activity like yoga.