Stress. We all know too much is bad for us, but is there such a thing as good stress? Turns out that not all stress is bad for us. In fact, some stress is necessary and helpful to our overall health and well-being. Exercise is an example of helpful, or hormetic, stress. Our skin’s response to sunlight, ie. tanning, is another example. Working on challenging memory tasks or crossword puzzles improve our cognitive function. Actually, any kind of stress can be “good” or “bad”, depending on our response to it and attitude about it.
To understand when stress becomes damaging to us, we need a brief tutorial on how our nervous system works:
- The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates our internal organs (lungs, heart, intestines, etc).
- The ANS is divided into sub-systems, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
- The PNS regulates our homeostasis, or maintenance of the body’s systems. It is known as the “Rest and Digest” system.
- The SNS regulates our “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response. It kicks in when we perceive danger.
When the SNS is dominant because you are stressed, either mentally or physically, your body responds in the following ways:
- The stomach does not produce hydrochloric acid (HcL), the main digestive acid.
- Adrenaline is released, so that your heart rate and breathing speed up, your muscles tense and your saliva production stops.
That is a very simplified overview that only deals with the digestive system in the stress response. But you can see that even just these few affects are detrimental to a relaxed, calm, enjoyable eating experience. When stressed, too many of us reach for a sugary treat at this point to help feel better, but your body can't digest or utilize the food when you are in this fight-flight-or-freeze state. When your PNS is dominant, on the other hand, your heart rate is slow and steady, your stomach makes plenty of HcL, your muscles are relaxed and your saliva production increases. This is the time when our bodies can best digest and assimilate the food we eat.
Ways chronic stress affects your overall health:
1) Contributes to weight gain and digestive disorders. The SNS down-regulates any processes associated with digestion when facing a life-or-death situation. The food in our stomachs won’t do us much good if we don’t get away from whatever imminent threat is in front of us. People dealing with chronic stress often deal with bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea, cramping, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome. Part of the cause of these problems is cortisol, an important and necessary hormone that goes into overdrive when we are stressed long-term. For many of us, reaching for a sugary snack or some other comfort food for a quick fix may offer a temporary reprieve from the stress, but this leads to an inevitable crash which leads to more stress. This downward spiral can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes and other health problems.
2) It damages your brain. Chronic, long-term stress actually kills brain cells, and diminishes memory and learning. (Read about how to prevent brain shrinkage HERE.)
3) Increases risk of heart disease and stroke. Chronic stress increases blood pressure and damages blood vessel linings.
4) It reduces, or over-activates, your immune system function. When you are stressed, fighting infection, such as a cold, becomes more difficult. Symptoms can be more severe and longer-lasting than if you weren’t over-stressed. On the other hand, stress can also lead to your immune system to overproduce cytokines, which contribute to inflammation.
5) It contributes to aging. When in a life-or-death situation, our bodies shunt blood away from the extremities (hands, feet, etc) and divert it to the internal organs. Over time, this lack of blood to the skin certainly affects the way you look. More importantly, chronic stress speeds up the aging process of the brain. Cortisol (a hormone released in fight-or-flight situations to mobilize blood sugar to the muscles for quick reaction) reduces the size of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. The hippocampus is also involved in turning off the production of cortisol. As the hippocampus shrinks from over-exposure to cortisol, its ability to turn off the cortisol is diminished, leading to a “degenerative cascade”.
6) Chronic stress increases pain.
7) It negatively affects our hormones.
So what can you do to improve your response to stress?
1) Daily exercise. Exercise increases circulation, heart rate and breathing. All of these help clear the toxins from chronic stress out of your body. Please exercise releases endorphins, which are our bodies’ internal “feel-good” chemicals.
2) Schedule relaxation time. Put it in your calendar and stick to it. Maybe it’s tea time with a friend, a long soak in a hot bath, take a yoga class, curl up with a good book.
3) Learn to say no. Spreading yourself too thin doesn’t help anyone.
4) Sleep. We need 8 – 9 hours of sleep every night. It’s the time when our bodies get to rest and renew.
5) Meditate. Five minutes, every day. Sit and focus on your breath for the first two minutes. Then spend the next three minutes focusing on all the things in your life have to be grateful for, no matter how small.
6) Eat nutrient-dense foods. A well-nourished body is better able to withstand the damaging effects of the stressful world we live in.
7) Eat Mindfully. No distractions: No TV, computer, phone etc. Not in the car or on the run. Eat sitting down. Really taste your food. Create a calm inviting atmosphere for you to enjoy your meal. This helps the PNS keep the body relaxed and in the best situation to “rest and digest”.
8) Connect with others. Social connection is critical for us to be happy and healthy.
9) Serve someone else. Related to connection, volunteering for a cause you believe in is a wonderful way to gain perspective and stay grounded.
10) Ask “Why?” Why are you racing around trying to accomplish too much in too little time? Who does it serve? Who benefits from it? Is this rushed never-enough-time feeling what you really want in your life? If not, only you can choose differently.
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