The month of April has been Stress Awareness month. Today’s article will be looking at different types of stress, their effects on our physical body and how we can reduce our stress through simple dietary and lifestyle changes.
Our bodies are designed to deal with stress. We have an in-built response controlled by the sympathetic nervous system called “fight or flight” that enables us to deal with short-lived stress. This could be anything from getting out of the way of an oncoming car quickly to having a row with a loved one.
Types of stress
What many people don’t realise is that stress can be physical as well as mental, such as an ongoing infection, gut dysbiosis or a physical accident putting stress on the body systems. Whether physical or psychological, this built-in response gives rise to a whole cascade of physiological effects:
Is produced to kick start your reactions and then cortisol is secreted to keep you alert.
We sweat more to cool down our muscles, which causes water loss.
The blood flow is directed to our extremities and away from the frontal cortex, the part of our brain that allows us to analyse. If you think about primitive man, he needed to be able to react quickly without analysing when approached, for example, by a tiger. Directing blood flow to the extremities allowed him to either run away or fight. They do so by increasing heart rate, restricting blood vessels and increasing blood pressure.
The urge to urinate and defecate increases so that the body can lose weight in order to be able to fight more efficiently.
Shallow and rapid breathing enables oxygen to be diverted to the muscles to get them ready to run or fight. This will also cause further water loss.
Our digestive, reproductive and immune systems shut down to conserve energy in order to fight or run from the impending threat.
Increased cortisol production elevates blood sugar, to give us more energy. It also modulates inflammation within the body. This is all great for short-lived acute stressors as after the stressor has gone our nervous system switches back to parasympathetic, also known as rest and digest. This is the system responsible for digestion and healing.
Never ending stress
In today’s modern world, stress is often ongoing and chronic. It can be caused by financial problems, problems at work or ongoing family situations. In these situations, our sympathetic nervous system is continually on. We cannot be in “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” at the same time, so our immune system starts to struggle. Our digestion becomes affected, we lose the ability to think clearly, our memory gets worse, our sleep is affected, and so on. Sound familiar?
Symptoms of stress
Clearly this cascade of physiological reactions is not desirable on an ongoing basis and can lead to a whole host of physical symptoms and conditions. This can include excessive weight gain from storage of excess cortisol produced under stress, heart attacks, strokes, M.E./CFS and diabetes, to name just a few. But this isn’t something to get even more stressed out about! Why? Because, as always, there are things we can do.
Whilst we may not be able to do anything about these external stressors, we can reduce the amount of internal stress. We can do this by making simple lifestyle and dietary changes to reduce the existing load on our bodies and switch back into our parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”).
So how can we begin to make these changes?
Well the first thing we need to address is our hydration. As we’ve seen, the stress response causes us to lose water and as a result of this it’s really important that we replace that water in the right way daily (see my blog about water).
The other thing we can do is start to cut out those things that we ingest that cause us to lose more water, such as stimulants like sugar, caffeine and cigarettes. Alcohol and stimulants are often the first thing we reach for when we feel bad. However, we need to give our body the right ingredients to make our own feel good hormones, which we do through food and supplementation.
Even certain foods such as gluten and dairy can cause us to lose water. Because gluten and dairy are so difficult to digest, the body creates a lot of mucous to try and break them down, and guess what mucous is made from? That’s right, water!
We can soak any dried foods such as nuts, seeds, legumes and grains for a good 8 hours before cooking or eating them and this well help to increase their ability to hold water. Just throw away the soak water, give them a good rinse and they are good to go.
Congees, also known as Chinese rice porridge, are an excellent water rich way of using food to hydrate the body. Moving away from processed foods to a whole food, organic diet full of water rich vegetables is also a good choice.
A healthy plate should be well over half full of water rich organic veggies, (both raw and cooked) and sea vegetables (although anyone with IBS or histamine intolerance may require much more tailored dietary advice, as certain vegetables and seaweeds can trigger a negative response in certain people).
B vitamins and magnesium
Whilst there are many nutrients that we need to ensure we are getting on a daily basis to help our bodies deal with the effects of stress. Two nutrients of particular mention are B vitamins and magnesium. Any tension anywhere in the body can indicate inadequate levels of magnesium, as magnesium enables us to physiologically relax. Symptoms such as migraines, cramps, even heartburn, can be caused by insufficient amounts of magnesium.
However, supplementing with magnesium should be done at the right time and at the right dosage as magnesium can cause cells to release toxicity. If our detoxification pathways are not open enough, this can cause more issues. This is why another important thing we need to address is improving our elimination of toxins, which will take further stress off our systems. This can be done through a variety of naturopathic techniques, as well as using diet and fluids to cleanse. As for B vitamins, they are literally gobbled up under stress, so we can often see a higher need for a good quality B complex in ongoing stress.
Herbs are also very useful in helping us normalise the stress response. They are called adaptogenic as they can allow the body to achieve equilibrium. However, a word of caution, as some herbs are more stimulating and some more calming. I like to run a saliva cortisol panel, as cortisol levels vary throughout the course of the day. They start high in the morning to get us out of bed, and reducing at night to allow us to get restful sleep.
However, in the case of long-term stress, the cortisol pattern can take a variety of unhelpful forms, including day night reversal. This is where someone’s cortisol levels are low in the morning, making it difficult to get out of bed, and high at night, making it difficult to get to sleep. In fatigue conditions such as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, often people can produce very little cortisol at all. So, which herbs are used when depends on each individual’s pattern of cortisol and adrenaline production and the use of glandulars may even be required to rebuild the adrenal glands in some cases.
We all know that exercise is good for us, but too much exercise, such as heavy training and running, can elicit the same stress response. Of course, our bodies are designed to be able to deal with some stress, but when exercise becomes excessive, this too can affect us physically. In cases of adrenal fatigue, such as with M.E./CFS and fibromyalgia, the wrong type of movement can actually have a detrimental effect on the body as the body is unable to regenerate cellular energy efficiently (more on this in my forthcoming blog on M.E./CFS and Fibromyalgia).
We can also change our behaviours. For example, I always tried to fit so much into my routine that I would be continually late and find myself driving about stressed if I hit traffic. Now, I try and leave extra time for traffic delays and I can drive about without putting additional stress on myself. It seems obvious, doesn’t it, but I’m sure we all have habits or behaviours that don’t serve us well, but over which we we have some control.
Did you know that unprocessed emotions can actually be stored as physical toxicity at cellular level? How many of us bottle up our emotions, and stoically bury how we feel and “get on with things”. There are so many techniques available nowadays to help us safely uncover and clear these emotions. There is EFT (emotional freedom techniques) and EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing), hypnotherapy and counselling, to name just a few.
For those of us who have had past trauma, particularly childhood trauma, our system actually becomes hard-wired to sympathetic dominance, i.e. “fight or flight”. The trauma doesn’t even have to be an obvious trauma like abuse. It could be something like the divorce of parents, a difficult relationship with a parent as a child or bullying at school. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study found a clear correlation between adverse childhood events and chronic health conditions suffered in later life. This makes total sense when we consider the physiological effects of ongoing stress that we’ve looked at above.
Our thoughts have also been shown to alter how we respond to stress. In Rhonda Byrne’s book, “The Magic”, we are encouraged to take up a month-long challenge of gratitude journaling. Having tried this, it definitely changed the way I felt. I practice Nichiren Buddhism (see here) which has a profound effect on a daily basis on whether I sink into negativity with my thoughts or have a positive outlook.
This was especially important for me when I was bedridden for several years with adrenal fatigue. Focusing on how bad I felt or on every single symptom would only increase guess what? How bad I felt. Anyone familiar with Louise Hay’s work will know how positive affirmations can change how we feel. However, we still need to remember to feel and process our emotions!
Other things that can help us to manage stress include yoga, deep breathing exercises and how regularly we eat. Finally, a great way to release stress is to laugh, and could you think of a better way?!