As a herbalist, around 70% of the health problems I see every month are either directly or indirectly stress related.
That sounds high and perhaps harsh but the modern world and its stresses and strains have led many of us into a stress spiral that is gradually resulting in a population of chronically unwell people. No matter how hard they try and how many medicines they take, they are just not feeling any better.
Knowing what stress does to the body and how to mitigate the effects can go a long way to improving our quality of life. If you’d like to sleep better, enjoy your food more and be able to relax, read on.
A life without any stress is not actually a good one. The complete absence of any kind of positive or negative stressors is actually likely to result in ill health and depression of its own origin so stress, in itself, is not a bad thing. The problem arises when we have no let up in the stress and do not turn it to our advantage.
What is stress?
Stress, known in medical circles as the General Adaptation Response, or GAS, is another way of referring to the fight or flight response.
An Hungarian endocrinologist and researcher called Hans Selye did some important work and formed the theory of stress where there are three stages: An “alarm state”, a “resistance state”, and an “exhaustion state”. These states result from the hyper excited states of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands.
In its most basic form this is the mechanism that enables us to reach safety quickly:
- woman sees bear
- her brain identifies threat
- the adrenal glands secrete adrenaline
- woman’s bowels and bladder void to reduce weight and facilitate running away
- immune system ceases protective activity
- heart rate increases
- digestion ceases
- blood is diverted to muscles and heart to facilitate running away
- woman runs to safety or fights bear.
The act of running or fighting uses up the excess hormones and the body returns to a normal state or what biologists call homeostasis.
When your stressor is unreliable childcare, an @33hole of a boss or unrealistic deadlines, the stress does not have a natural end and there’s no running or fighting.
The net result is an elevated cortisol level and what is often referred to as adrenal fatigue. In the course of the day under ideal conditions there is a normal cortisol curve.
Shortly after we wake up cortisol is secreted. This gives us a sense of wakefulness and wellbeing. The curve rises till just after lunchtime when there is a dip. Some people feel sleepy or actually have a nap then.
Shortly afterwards there is another spurt and our feelings of wakefulness and wellbeing increase again into early evening when they reduce allowing us to move into a normal sleep pattern.
A person under constant stress is unable to secrete cortisol in a normal pattern which means waking to a sense of exhaustion, being unable to summon energy and then finding at the end of the day they are unable to drop off.
Constantly elevated cortisol levels have been shown to contribute to central weight gain. When the digestive system is constantly being interrupted by bursts of stress hormones the nutrients have to go somewhere and the body lays them down as fat to protect against being unable to hunt or forage for food while fighting or running away from bears.
Those elevated levels will also, ultimately make you more susceptible to illness as they suppress your immune system. Many years of unmediated stress will, basically, make you fat and sick.
What to do about it…
So knowing all this, what can a wise woman do to improve her chances of a decent figure and reduce the likelihood of a lifetime of ill health?
Every time you exercise you help dissipate some of the stress hormones running around your body. You increase the strength of your heart and you stretch out the taught muscles. Exercise improves digestion and mood and generally improves quality of life.
Whether you take up kettle bells against your stress-oppressor or simply walk round the block twice a day, do your body a favour and get moving.
Mindfulness and meditation have been shown, in clinical research, to improve wellbeing. Increased theta wave activity in the brain, enhances a sense of wellbeing and reduces stress hormones. Immune function improves.
A small study at Nottingham University Hospitals showed that cancer patients who practised mindfulness three times a week had significantly better and more positive outcomes than those who did not.
People who practice yoga report a general sense of wellbeing and calm that carries over into their work. Generally these people feel more rested and happier than their counterparts who do not meditate.
High sugar levels have been shown to interfere with hormonal balances. Our hormones are, for the most part, made from cholesterol-building blocks. If there is a constant cascade of hormones, the amount of the right cholesterol will fluctuate.
Eat oily fish, good-quality vegetable protein from nuts, pulses and seeds and grass-fed, pasture-raised meat. Source your eggs from free ranging birds who have access to a natural diet. All these things will contribute to higher-quality nutrition, which leads to better endocrine and immune functioning
Your immune system does all its best healing, repairing and protecting work while you sleep.
Your brain reorganises your thoughts and files away your memories for future reference. Your muscles relax, fried muscle fibres heal and environmental pollutants are expunged from the body leaving it primed for best performance next day.
Drink enough water
Help your body flush out old, unwanted stress hormones and the toxic results of metabolism. Drinking enough water makes everything function better. Liver, kidneys, skin, heart and lungs all need water to work properly. It has even been shown that drinking a glass of water before bed can guard against a heart attack!
All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. Be sure to allow yourself a glass of wine (don’t drink to excess because that just washes nutrients out of your system and puts stress on the liver) if you enjoy it.
Have a couple of squares of great chocolate – the bioflavonoid complexes will help keep your heart and veins healthy so that when you need to run away from that bear everything is in great working order.
By contributing each day to a little self-maintenance you are guarding against the unhealthy effects of stress.
Stress is not always bad – excitement, intense concentration, running the race of your life and watching your child graduate from college are all forms of positive stress and they have the same effects as negative stress.
If you look after yourself properly you will be able to do everything you wish to and more and stay healthy.
For more advice on managing stress see this article from sell my house fast.