Sick and Tired of Stress
Stress! Stress! Stress! How many of us wake up each morning to an alarm, swig down some black coffee, rush out the door, grab food on the run, fly into a meeting, rush back out, text someone, call someone, hire a new nanny, speed to our kids school play, grab a chocolate bar for energy, take work home, drink caffeine to keep going, meet deadlines, go to bed late, get up early....Rush. Rush. Rush.
Maybe life isn’t always this hectic but many of us tend to live very busy lives. Even our children have a schedule with school, clubs, homework, play dates and birthday parties. With every minute accounted, our health and wellbeing may eventually be negatively affected. In January, The Independent ran an article ‘Millions of Brit’s feel overwhelmed by life pressures’ and stated that many feel a constant sense of dread caused by the stress of their day-to-day lives.
Stress can be both emotional, such as anxiety, fear, tension, anger and excitement and can also be physiological such as pain, injury, illness and infection. Everyone feels some sort of stress at times, however the problem arises when the stressor(s) are continual and the prolonged stress responses in the body result in illness. For example, if you are running for your life your body’s response mechanisms are primed to act on a short term emergency. Then they return to normal until the next crisis. However, when we are worried and stressed about something for a long period of time, such as our relationships, work, paying the bills and other life pressures, we actually turn on the same physiological stress-response mechanisms in our body as if we were running for our lives! This chronic activation can eventually lead to illness.
When a stressor continues we produce a hormone called cortisol from our adrenal glands. Cortisol is a strong anti-inflammatory hormone which does its job wonderfully if needed for a short period of time and helps the body recover. However if cortisol keeps being produced in the body, it puts pressure on our adrenal glands. This can negatively influence other hormones and overtime have a harmful impact on all other systems in the body.
Constant stress, or even what an individual perceives as stress, can cause symptoms such as compromised digestion and tummy problems, sleep issues and insomnia, fatigue and tiredness with difficulty at ‘getting going’ on waking, brain fog, hormonal issues such as compromised fertility, irregular periods or hair loss, over or under-eating, increased blood pressure, immune function problems (easily pick up colds and viruses), cold sores and skin issues, as well as problems with adrenal and thyroid health which help with metabolism. The problem is that when the body is in stress mode, the other systems will shut down. What is the point in digesting food or fighting a cold when your body is ready for fighting another battle or a perceived threat!
So, how do we know whether our symptoms come from stress? You can test your cortisol levels to see whether they are either too high or low and outside what is normal. A very good test that I would recommend is to take a 24 hour cortisol saliva test to assess adrenal function. This requires saliva to be taken at various times of the day and night, and it is then analysed. It will show you your cortisol output over a 24 hour period and then you can put into place nutritional and lifestyle changes to help normalise cortisol levels and the stress response. I would always advise that you speak to a registered nutritionist to see if this is the best test for you and analyse the results of the test before making any dietary and lifestyle changes.
And what can we do if we are stressed? The majority of focus should be on calming the stress response down through making appropriate and realistic lifestyle changes.
Physical activity can play a part in this. Reducing high intensity cardio (which can stimulate cortisol) and doing more weight-bearing with ‘short-burst’ cardio in a routine may be effective, as well as exercising outdoors with nature around you. A recent paper in Behavioural Sciences (2018) showed that outdoor exercise has been reported to be more stress-reductive and restorative than indoor exercise, with significantly decreased cortisol levels in participants. So get into your local park for your next workout!
Try meditation. There is some interesting research around meditation and the positive effect it has on our body as a whole. There can often be lots of pre-conceived ideas about meditating, but it’s really worth trying. It can be slotted into your day for just a few minutes. A small study in 2013 showed that mediation lowered cortisol levels in the blood, suggesting it may lower stress and reduce the risk of stress-related diseases. There are numerous apps and books about meditating. The Headspace and Calm app get excellent reviews. Give it a go and see how it makes you feel.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may also be appropriate. If you feel completely overwhelmed with what you have on your plate and feel that stress is negatively affecting your health, it’s absolutely vital to speak to a professional who can help replace ways of living that currently don’t work well and give specific actions and goals to help take control of your life. It is a well researched therapy with very good results.
Treat yourself to a massage or some reflexology. Taking that time out for you to properly relax and allow your nervous system to slow down can be extremely healing to both body and mind and reduce anxiety caused by stress.
Sleep can be affected when the mind is stressed and can result in difficulty shutting-off thoughts and emotions, which may make it difficult falling asleep or cause wakeful episodes during the night. This is probably to do with imbalanced cortisol levels, which can reduce the production of the hormone melatonin, which is released to promote sleep. It is therefore important to try activities in the evenings which calm down the mind such as turning off electronics at least 1 hour before bed, having a bath with relaxing essential oils, lowering lights and making your bedroom a calm space.
When you are stressed, your digestive system shuts down. Therefore it is very important to be mindful when you are eating meals and snacks. Rather than shoving a quick sandwich down before that important meeting, try to allow time to sit and mindfully chew your food. So many digestive problems arise from ‘eating on the run’. When you consider the food you are about to consume your mouth releases saliva which in return allows digestion in the gut to begin with the release of stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Chewing your food properly, relaxing while eating and enjoying your food will help you get the most out of it nutritionally.
B vitamin support:
Stress not only has psychological and physiological symptoms but also may cause nutrient depletion in the body, which again negatively impacts on various systems working effectively and can result in numerous stress symptoms. Nutrients such as B, C and E vitamins may be depleted during stressful periods, as these nutrients are released to fight inflammation and eradicate free radicals caused by stress. B vitamins also play a major role in a healthy nervous system and energy promotion and are utilised in the body when cells respond to stress. If supplementing, I would always recommend taking a B vitamin complex which contains all the B vitamins rather than just taking one particular B vitamin, as they work cohesively in the body. I really like the brand Innate Response Formulas B Complex, as it is made from whole foods rather than a synthetic formulation. Also increasing foods high in B vitamins such as whole-grains, beans, peas, nuts and seeds are beneficial.
Magnesium is involved in many functions in the body and has a calming and relaxing effect on muscles and the nervous system. As stress may deplete this essential nutrient it is important to eat a magnesium rich diet. Foods such as dark chocolate, leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, avocado, bananas and whole grains contain good levels of magnesium. Adding Epsom-salts to your bath may also increase your magnesium levels, as it is absorbed well through the skin. Increasing magnesium levels in the body may also help with a better nights sleep.
When the body is under stress, stored glucose is released from the adrenal glands which may increase circulating sugars in the bloodstream. It is therefore important that we are not consuming processed and sugary foods that may increase these levels further. Unfortunately sugary snacks and meals are what many of us reach for when feeling stressed, anxious or having dips in energy. Try to eat a nutrient-dense diet and make every calorie count - filled with vegetables, fruits, lean meats and other whole-foods that keep blood-sugar balanced whilst optimally supporting the body to repair and heal. Cinnamon is also beneficial to balancing blood-sugar levels - so add into porridge, sprinkle on fruit or yoghurt and mix into casseroles. You can always give yourself extra support by including the supplement Chromium Picolinate which has been specifically shown in studies to lower blood-glucose and may help balance sugar cravings and support energy.
Foods to avoid or reduce:
They are the likely culprits that you are probably already aware of! Reducing intake of processed foods, white sugar and flour, artificial sweeteners, soft-drinks (even the zero sugar kind), caffeine and alcohol. These all impact circulating blood-sugar and don’t support your adrenal health, which releases cortisol. Try avoiding or reducing one thing at a time, as you don’t want food avoidance to make you more stressed!
There is a great book called ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers’ by Robert Sapolsky. It’s a fantastically written book by a renowned biologist who highlights the science of stress with brilliant insights into our nervous system, our stress response and ways of controlling these responses. It contains excellent research, lots of humour, as well as practical advice. Take this to bed with a relaxing Pukka Night Time Tea, turn off your phone and enjoy the read.