18 October 2021
Why do we get stressed?
Stress can come from many different places – from the food we eat (for example a high sugar diet or high alcohol intake), to pressures at work or at home, to emotional or physical trauma.
Short-term stress is not necessarily harmful and is actually important to help us deal with immediate problems. Stress causes the adrenal glands to secrete the ‘fight or flight’ hormones – adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisol. Cortisol is often known as the ‘stress hormone’ – it helps us to deal with stress by increasing blood flow and releasing glucose for energy so we are ready for action.
Cortisol also plays an important role in helping us get out of bed in the morning and giving us our get up and go, and it helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning and naturally decrease throughout the day until evening when they are at their lowest in preparation for sleep.
Evolution of Stress
In the days when we were hunter-gathers the fight or flight reaction was vital for enabling us to flee dangerous situations whilst out hunting. Our modern stressors are obviously very different. Fast paced lives mean that many people are now under long-term stress, producing prolonged high cortisol levels which can be damaging for our health.
Over time increased levels of cortisol can contribute to high blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes and anxiety. If this is left unchecked, a situation may arise when cortisol levels ultimately become low as the adrenal glands struggle to keep up. This can lead to exhaustion, low immunity and depression (Nicolle, L. et al, 2010, p.197).
Functional testing using saliva or urine analysis can be extremely useful in providing insight into imbalances in adrenal hormones and can help inform a targeted health plan aimed at restoring adrenal health.
What are the signs of stress?
- Feeling tired despite a good night’s sleep
- Struggling to get out of bed in the morning
- Regularly craving salty, fatty foods or sugar
- Getting angry quickly
- Depression, mood swings, anxiety
- Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
- Getting light headed if you stand up too quickly
- Needing longer to recover from illness/trauma than usual
- Afternoon energy dip
- High/low blood pressure
- Increased body fat around your middle
What can you do to help
Identify the source
Identify and address sources of stress. Causes of stress can include a hectic work schedule, lack of sleep, imbalanced blood sugar, intensive athletic training, bereavement and divorce. Removing the source of stress is of course not always possible, so you may want to think about finding some support.
Always seek help from your GP if you are struggling. You could consider therapies such as Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), hypnotherapy or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Sleep is vital for rest and repair. Aim to get eight hours a night. Go to bed early and get up at the same time each day as this helps to set your body clock. Allow yourself to wind down before going to bed – have a warm bath with Epsom salts, read a good book or practice deep breathing. Don’t watch TV or use screens in bed, don’t have your bedroom too warm and avoid heavy meals late at night.
Give yourself permission and incorporate some time to relax in your daily schedule such as reading a good novel, spending time with friends or gardening. Make sure you book in regular breaks or holidays.
Regular bodywork can help to reduce stress. Consider massage, reflexology, or acupuncture.
Exercise is a fantastic way to tackle stress but if you are significantly stressed steer clear of vigorous exercise as this can deplete you even further. Instead go for gentle exercise such as yoga, t’ai chi, pilates, swimming and brisk walking.
Meditation or mindfulness can be a wonderful way of taking time out from everyday stresses and incorporating some valuable ‘me-time’ into your routine. There are many Apps available now such as Headspace.
Balance Sugar Levels
Dips in blood sugar can put more pressure on your body’s stress response – eat regular meals and ensure protein at each meal. Avoid sugary foods such as cakes, biscuits and chocolate. High sugar intake can create spikes and subsequent dips in blood sugar levels
If you get a sugar craving, snack on fruit, nuts and seeds or eat a small piece of good quality dark chocolate.
Eat Nutritious Foods
Eat foods containing B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, calcium and magnesium – vital nutrients for supporting adrenal function.
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Peppers, tomatoes
- Berries, apples
- Citrus fruits, kiwi fruit
- Wholegrains (oats, brown rice, rye, etc.)
- Nuts, seeds, pulses
- Eggs and fish
Nourish your gut bacteria
Your brain and digestive system are in constant communication with one another – these communication links are called the gut-brain axis. The different bugs in our guts (the gut microbiome) interact with the body and some strains of bacteria can affect our stress and anxiety levels.
For example, bacteria such Lactobacillus plantarum DR7 has been shown to alleviate stress and anxiety in adults (Chong et al., 2019). Foods to include are live yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and kimchi.
Chew your food well and aim to eat in a relaxed environment. Practice mindful eating – before you eat take a few deep breaths to relax your body and be aware of the food on your plate.
Screen Free Time
Too much time spent on smartphones or tablets can increase levels of anxiety and depression – turn the screens off and instead spend time in nature or curling up with a good book.
References and bibliography
Chatterjee, R. (2018) The Stress Solution. London: Penguin
Chong, H., Yusoff, N., Hor, Y., Lew, L-C., Jaar, M., Choi, S-B., Yusoff, M., Wahid, N., Abdullah, M., Zakaria, N., Ong, K-L., Park, Y-H., Liong, M-T (2019). Lactobacillus plantarum DR7 alleviates stress and anxiety in adults: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Beneficial Microbes 2019 Apr 19;10(4):355-373. doi: 10.3920/BM2018.0135
Nicolle, L. et al (2010) Biochemical Imbalances in Disease. London: Singing Dragon
For further reading
I highly recommend ‘The Stress Solution’ by Dr Rangan Chatterjee.
This article is for information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
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