The physiological impact of stress on the body is nothing short of amazing. Stress is a necessary and needed reaction in the human body – it’s our ‘flight or fight’ response and it’s what gets us out of dangerous situations quickly, or what gives us that extra boost of energy when we are going through a tough stint at work or within our emotional lives.
When we are stressed, several things happen within the body to help us ‘cope’.
Firstly, our adrenal medulla secretes the hormone adrenaline which stimulates our sympathetic nervous system and suppresses our parasympathetic one. This hormone is what many of us might recognise in the physical form when we experience an increase in heart rate, shorter breaths, dilated pupils and perhaps even sweating. Other adaptations triggered by adrenaline are a suppression in our digestive and fertility functions allowing the blood circulation to move into our arms, legs, and brain giving us the energy boost we need in that moment. Once the stressor has passed, our body then reverts back into the parasympathetic state of ‘rest and digest’.
The second major hormone triggered when we are stressed is cortisol – released from our adrenal glands, this hormone enables the body to secrete and maintain steady supplies of stored glucose from the liver, which gets pumped into our blood stream to give us the increased energy we need during that moment. Whilst our cortisol levels are increased, our immune system is suppressed to allow for this process to happen effectively.
Both of these major stress responses are normal, and safe for the short term. Where stress starts to severely affect the body is when we are ‘on edge’ most of the time and therefore our body remains in the sympathetic state for much longer than desired.
The hormonal mediators of the stress response promote adaptation in the aftermath of acute stress, but they also contribute to what is known as ‘allostatic overload’ - the wear and tear on the body and brain that result from being “stressed out” for a longer period of time. Symptoms of this type of overload in the body can include, but not be limited to:
As you can see, ongoing stress can be totally debilitating to our overall health and wellness and therefore, understanding and knowing when our body is stressed and more importantly, knowing how to de-stress, can reduce the risk of so many future complications.
Learning to listen to your body is the key in knowing when to stop, re-assess and make necessary adjustments. Here are my top tips for helping to manage ongoing stress.
Yep. It can be that simple. But so many of us forget to take deep belly breaths. The shortness of breath associated with stress alongside the increased heart rate means we aren’t getting enough oxygen into our system. When you’re feeling stressed, stopping to take 3 deep belly breaths can work wonders on reducing cortisol levels, increase feelings of happiness, and even improving sleeping patterns. Why? Because deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system actively trying to reverse the effects of our ‘fight or flight response’.
Daily meditation with a focus on deep breathing can help to keep the body calm in the long term, allowing us to make rational decisions and allowing us to practise mindfulness when faced with stressful situations.
Combining meditation & deep breathing exercises with essential oils can increase levels of calmness and relaxation even more. Keeping calming, grounding essential oils on hand to use when you’re feeling stressed can also activate the parasympathetic nervous system reducing anxiety, mood swings, headaches, and improving sleep.
The best essential oils for stress reduction include:
2. Eat right
When we are stressed we tend to make irrational decisions – especially around food! The increased energy output can leave us feeling drained and therefore craving high sugar / high carbohydrate foods and/or caffeinated drinks for an instant ‘quick fix’ energy release. Eating too much sugar or too many stimulants when we’re stressed adds another yo-yo effect to our existing hormonal fluctuations as they both initiate our sympathetic nervous system, adding on (rather than eliminating) the damaging effects of stress.
Eating whole foods for sustained energy release rather than snacking on processed foods will not only reduce the risk of sugar cravings, but it will also give your body the nutrients and antioxidants it needs to reduce inflammation, increase immune function, and replenish the vitamins and minerals being used by the body during stress. Foods such as avocados, dark leafy greens, good fats, lean protein, and plenty of vegetables is ideal. Furthermore, introducing plenty of fermented foods into the diet such as sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kombucha will ensure you are keeping your gut health on check. Our bodies use up a lot more water when we are stressed – we sweat more, urinate more, sometimes cry, and often have digestive or bowel discomfort. So ensuring your H20 levels are up is also crucial.
3. Learn to Say ‘No’
Much of the time, being stressed is associated with us simply saying ‘yes’ too often. Overcompensating our time and our energy and feeling totally used up. When we feel we have no time for ourselves, we can get anxious and small issues feel completely overwhelming.
Learning to say ‘no’ and to set aside time for yourself is crucial in managing our stress response. Whether it be reading a book, going for a walk, sitting in nature, or simply lying on the couch… scheduling in YOU time to do nothing else might feel wasteful at first, but will benefit you so much in the long term.
4. Move in the right way
When we are stressed, the last thing we need is to over do it on the exercise regime. High intensity exercises such as boxing, sprinting, HIIT training, and cross-fit, all stimulate our sympathetic nervous system. Whilst exercise is also a great way to release pent up emotions and trigger the release of happy endorphins, we have to be careful not to burn the candle at both ends.
Adjusting your exercise routine to suit your lifestyle can help your body to find the down time it needs and moving your body in different ways can help in stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system to kick into gear.
So perhaps try mixing up your high intensity exercises with some yoga, pilates, or a long walk. Swap some early morning classes for afternoon ones to allow your body a full night’s rest and listen to when your body is saying “enough”.
5. Work with a professional
Long term stressful overload and/or going through and managing emotional or physical trauma not only affects your body psychologically, but it also affects our bodies on a physiological level depleting it of many essential micro-nutrients including B Vitamins, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Magnesium, and Zinc, just to name a few. The depletion or affect stress has our gut health, can also mean that our gut flora is not where it should be and having a good quality pre and pro-biotic may be needed to bring the biodiversity back.
At times of depletion it can be important to supplement with high grade vitamins and minerals and work with a natural healthcare professional to set your diet and lifestyle routine up in order to give your body the best chance of healing and repair. Testing for adrenal fatigue, vitamin and mineral deficiency, and bacterial inefficiencies can all be possible through working with a nutritionist or naturopath.
To enquire about working with me on a one-on-one basis, feel free to email me here.