The past couple of years have been...stressful (to say the least). Finances, personal health, relationships, you name it, there seemed to be no fragment of our lives that was safe from the societal effects of COVID-19. New stressors were added to the laundry list of existing stressors for many folks.
We are already CONSTANTLY bombarded by media, calls, texts, emails, alerts, pings, and more thanks to these little supercomputers we carry around in our pockets called cell phones. Let me ask you: when is the last time you had a meal without watching a movie or show, listening to music, or streaming YouTube?
As negative a connotation we give stress, it is actually a survival mechanism humans have developed to stay safe! Yes, stress is NOT inherently bad. When we were still neanderthals, stress is what allowed us to escape from predators like sabertooth tigers and in general, helped us survive in the wild. Nowadays we have access to food 24/7 and don't have to run from any tigers (unless you own tigers or work at a zoo I guess), yet 55% of Americans say they experience large amounts of stress daily. So let's break down what happens during the stress response and why too much of it can harm us?
There's a part of our brain called the hypothalamus which is responsible for maintaining homeostasis (basically the body's baseline state) in the body. When the hypothalamus senses danger (stress) it activates the stress response throughout the body. A lot happens during this stress response:
Increased heart rate and respiration.
In order to pump more blood and oxygen to the essential organs, our heart beats faster and our breathing rate is increased.
Increased blood pressure.
This is a result of the increased heart rate. Our hearts are not meant to be working in overdrive all the time and can therefore lead to hypertension if increased heart rate becomes chronic.
Suppressed digestion, immune function, and reproduction.
None of these systems are crucial to survival in an emergency situation and therefore are suppressed during the stress response. This can leave us more susceptible to illness due to the immune system not working at full capacity. Chronic stress has also been shown to result in infertility in females.
Increased adrenaline and cortisol.
Most folks have heard of these hormones but in the case of chronic stress, they aren't good. Another name for cortisol is our "daytime" hormone because levels of cortisol are increased during the daytime hours. As it gets closer to night time, melatonin levels should rise in the body, making us feel sleepy. However this process is hindered in the case of chronic stress which can result in poor quality sleep. Cortisol is also a big driver in the suppression of the immune system.
Glucagon is the hormone that converts stored glucose (glycogen) back into a usable form of energy. If the excess energy produced by glucagon isn't required, we now have excess sugar flowing throughout the body. Over time, this raises the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.
Another response that isn't harmful unless chronic. We need inflammation in order to heal ourselves but chronic inflammation can result in decreased cognitive ability, higher risk for heart disease and obesity, joint pain, and much more.
I'd like to reiterate: stress is NOT inherently bad. It can actually improve cognitive and athletic performance in small amounts. The negative effects above are the result of long-term stress that the body is experiencing sometimes daily.
Now that we understand the importance of managing stress, here are a couple of habits you can start implementing to lower your stress levels:
Studies have shown that meditation can decrease certain negative affects on the body, even for those that have never meditated before. The power of meditation comes from simply clearing your mind. This essentially tells the body "Its okay, there are no pressing dangers and I am safe in the present moment", therefore reducing the stress response activated due to perceived dangers.
Start with just 1 minute per day if that's all you can handle at first and increase the time as you practice more frequently. 5 minute meditations can be done in your car, on walks, on your lunch break, or basically anywhere where you can close your eyes for 5 minutes and slow down.
Similar to meditation, breathing techniques force you to focus on nothing but your breath. The first is a technique by a guy named Wim Hof. If you have never heard of Wim Hof, a.k.a "The Ice Man", I highly recommend checking him out. He has completed multiple incredible feats with his body including being the first person to climb a mountain in their shorts (and nothing else)! He has developed a breathing technique that essentially pumps the body full of oxygen and induces a euphoric-like state, calming the mind and allowing you to fixate on your breath.
Another simple technique is the "Box Breathing" technique. This one has you breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, repeat. Much more accessible when out and about, this one would be a good one to start with if you are new to breathing techniques.
You ever thrown in headphones and just ran until you either forgot about your stressors or made peace with them? Or taken your frustrations out on a boxing bag? Let me tell you, it helps. Exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of stress-induced memory impairment and releases endorphins into the body, improving mood for an extended period of time after exercise. The best results come from aerobic exercise which could include walking, swimming, running and much more.
30 minutes a day 5-7 days per week is the recommended amount but start from wherever you are. If you're new to exercise, start walking. If you've exercised in the past but its been a while, maybe start with a light jog. The best form of exercise is the one you do regularly.
I bet you saw this one coming, but yes, nutrition plays a key role in the stress response. Eating a healthy, well-rounded, whole-foods diet improves the health of your gut microbiome (which we covered in another blog post). Your gut bacteria can not only modulate the stress response, but also improve your overall mood.
Proper nutrition will ensure the body is functioning well and keeping the brain sharp. Utilizing alcohol or highly palatable foods to manage stress can actually increase the negative effects from chronic stress. Try to utilize one of the stress management techniques above instead (unless you're craving spinach summer salads when stressed in which case, keep doing what you're doing). Working with a nutrition coach or dietitian can help to ensure you're getting in enough quality foods in the right amounts to keep you performing at your best.
Now that you've got some new stress management tools added to your nutrition tool belt, remember this: you can only control the things you can control. The great stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius one said...
"You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength." - Marcus Aurelius
Many of the things we stress about in our day-to-day lives are outside of our control and we have a choice in how we respond to such occurrences: with grace and patience, or with anger and rashness. You have more power than you may think.
Braeden Yacobucci, RDN/RD, LD, CF-OL1
Cara Barton, OTR/L, PN1, CF-L1
Amit Mohan, Ratna Sharma, and Ramesh L. Bijlani.The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.Mar 2011.207-212.http://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2010.0142
Loprinzi, P.D., Frith, E. Protective and therapeutic effects of exercise on stress-induced memory impairment. J Physiol Sci69, 1–12 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12576-018-0638-0
Annelise Madison, Janice K Kiecolt-Glaser, Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Volume 28, 2019, Pages 105-110, ISSN 2352-1546, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.011. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154618301608