Stress Management

Stress is a wide spread and constantly growing problem. From ever increasing demands at work and hectic family-lives, to money worries, relationship worries, and constant exposure to technology meaning we never properly switch off, chronic stress can have serious implications for our health and happiness. When we are stressed we are in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Stress hormones flood the body and have a number of physiological effects, evolutionarily developed to keep us safe. Chronic stress however, can lead to long-term alterations in many bodily processes. This can have a number of knock-on effects to our health, which many people don’t realise. From bad skin to trouble sleeping, take a look at ways stress could be affecting you.

Bad skin - Stress has long been assoicated with many common skin conditions, and can be both the cause of their onset or an aggravator. Stress hormones used as costisol are thought to trigger the release of inflammaotry compounds by skin cells, contributing to consitions such psoriasis, atopic eczema, alopecia, roscea and acne, which can effect confidence and be a source of further stress in themselves.

Lowered immunity – Cortisol (our stress hormone), suppresses immune cells, meaning our ability to fight off germs, viruses and other foreign invaders is reduced, leaving us more susceptible to infections when we are stressed. The pressures of modern living lead many to experience stress on a chronic basis, and this chronic depression of the immune system can have serious consequences. High stress is a big risk factor for the development of autoimmune conditions, where the immune system becomes confused and incorrectly starts to attack parts of the body.

Food intolerances – Food intolerances can manifest when the cells lining our digestive tract become damaged, allowing larger food proteins to cross into circulation (known as “leaky gut”). This confuses the immune system, triggering an inflammatory response when certain foods are eaten. Stress not only disturbs our protective cells within the gut, but has also been shown to contribute to the development of leaky gut, increasing the risk of food intolerances.

Insomnia – Despite often feeling tired throughout the day, many highly stressed people have difficulty getting off to sleep or staying asleep through the night. Getting a second wind of energy just as you should be going to bed is a classic sign that our adrenal glands (which control are stress response) are struggling. Stress hormones can cause hyperarousal, upsetting the balance between sleep and wakefulness. This creates a vicious cycle, as stressful situations are much more difficult to cope with when you are tired, leading to further stress.

Anxiety/Depression – Both anxiety and depression are positively correlated with high stress levels and particularly stressful periods are often a trigger for panic attacks and low mood. Stress reduction and being gentle on yourself therefore plays a key part in managing mood disorders. Chronic stress can also affect our memory and concentration, as cortisol reduces activity in the hippocampus part of our brain (responsible for memory) and increases activity in the amygdala (almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe) making us feel more panicked.

Low Libido and reduced fertility - Stress can be a real passion killer for a number of reasons, but not least because it can interfere with your sex hormones. The stress hormone cortisol, is made from the same building blocks as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. If the cortisol pathway is up regulated, our sex hormone pathway will be down-regulated in order to cope with the increased demand. This is also why stress can also have such a negative impact on fertility.

Perhaps you’ve recognised some similarities to how you’re feeling or noticed your body
reacting this way  but you’re not sure what steps to take to tackle stress. You might not have even
realised you were feeling stressed. Why not try some of these simple suggestions to help you unwind,
reduce stress and ultimately help look after your health.

Balance blood sugars – Cortisol (our stress hormone) and blood glucose levels are intimately linked. When we are stressed, we are more likely to skip proper meals and instead crave sugary foods and refined carbohydrates. This can send our blood glucose on a crazy rollercoaster of peaks and troughs, which in turn releases more cortisol! Avoiding sugary drinks and snacks and eating regular meals, containing complex carbohydrates and good quality protein each time you eat, is therefore one of the best things you can do to see yourself through a stressful period.

Gentle exercise – Despite feeling tired, many highly stressed people tend to exercise intensively as a form of stress relief. However, over-exercising in times of high stress can do more harm than good. Physical exercise is yet another stress on the body and activates exactly the same physiological responses as psychological stress. Gentle exercise such as walking, jogging, swimming, and yoga is much more beneficial during stressful periods.

Still your mind – When we are stressed and worried it can be difficult to switch off. Whilst life can be busy, it’s important to set aside 10 minutes each day to breathe deeply and focus on quietening the mind. This could be going for a walk around the park on your lunch break, downloading an app which offers short guided mindfulness meditations, going to a yoga class or simply doing some sun salutations when you wake up in the morning. 

Avoid stimulants – Stress can leave us feeling exhausted and in need to unwind. However, reaching for stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol is a bad idea. Caffeine has been shown to amplify cortisol production, even hours after drinking it and alcohol and other drugs can affect our mood by interfering with our neurotransmitters and reducing absorption of important nutrients (which we need more of in times of stress).

Increase fruit and vegetable intake – Our adrenals are tiny glands which sit on top of the kidneys and regulate our stress response. When our adrenals are under pressure, they have an increased requirement for certain nutrients. These include the B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium. It’s therefore important that we get more of these through our diet. Eating a rainbow of brightly colour fruit and vegetables is the best way to do this. Especially important are leafy green vegetables, so make sure you include at least 1-2 portions every day. Or why not take part in our 30 a week challenge. Find out more here.

Get a good night’s sleep – When we are tired, our coping mechanisms are reduced making already stressful situations 10 times worse. However, when we have had a good night’s sleep, we have improved memory and concentration, we are better able to make decisions and less likely to lose our temper. Ideally phone, computer and tv screens should be avoided for at least an hour before bed, and apps which filter blue light can be used to reduce exposure at other times of day. Don’t eat too late and get into a routine which includes a regular bedtime and some time to relax, such as reading a book or taking an Epsom salt bath.

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