by Jennifer Novakovich
Stress is something we're all familiar with, it being ever so common in our 24/7 lifestyles. Although perceived stress is very individual, chronic stress, overall, increases risks for many chronic and mental diseases. Stress tends to also result in less time allocated to the necessities of good health—like healthy diets and sleep—which adds to the risks associated with stress and stress itself. Clearly a vicious cycle is present. Do you feel stressed often? Read on for more reasons and tips to lead a lower stress lifestyle.
Why do we stress? Stress is an important adaption that allows us to maintain an internal homeostasis through a number of body systems. Those systems include the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical system, autonomic nervous system (sympathetic nervous system), and immunity. Our internal systems respond to short term stress by increasing stress hormones. Adrenal glands release more epinephrine which results in blood vessel constriction and an increased heart rate. Increased cortisol, which is also released, results in higher blood glucose. These hormone changes will increase strength, speed, and endurance (e.g. 'fight or flight' response). This response was an important adaptation that allowed our ancestors to survive in the wild.
Although stress is important for homeostasis, long term stress can result in serious health effects. Long term stress results from long term use of stress hormones. If you remember their actions (blood vessel constriction, increased heart rate, and higher blood glucose), it makes sense that long term exposure may result in hypertension, poor glucose control, inflammation, higher risks for heart disease, and higher risks for diabetes. While short term stress provokes our internal systems to make rapid alterations for self-preservation, long-term stress may result in sympathetic over-activity. Who hasn't experienced long term stress? It's so common nowadays that many of us no longer think it's important to manage. Unfortunately for many, that's far from the truth.
Most body systems and functions are directly affected by stress. Metabolism decreases, inflammation increases, and endothelial function declines. As a result, stress directly increases risks for many health problems. There is a significant impact on gastrointestinal functioning, the heart, the immunity, and reproductive abilities, as well as musculoskeletal, neuroendocrine, and brain systems. Stress directly increases risks for many diseases including heart disease, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, depression, cancer, immune diseases, and gastrointestinal disorders. I'm sure you’re starting to see the picture of how bad long term stress is for you, but there's more!
Not only does stress directly affect your health and wellbeing, it also indirectly affects it. Stress influences health outcomes indirectly by provoking unhealthy lifestyles like unhealthy eating, inactivity, smoking, and alcohol or drug abuse. People under stress tend to make choices that interfere with the reward systems in the brain. This interruption results in feelings of pleasure, making appetizing food, alcohol, and smoking that much more appealing. Eating more appetizing foods (more salt, sugar, and fat) often leads to higher body weight, blood lipids, and blood glucose. Another important component is the “lack of time” that many of us feel. Not only will we tend to choose the quickest (often unhealthy) food choice, sleep and exercise is also reduced. All around, chronic stress indirectly raises risks for just about any disease or disorder out there.
What can you do about stress? First step would be facing the problem head on. What is causing you stress? Is it work? Your significant other? Financial problems? Next, how can you resolve these problems? This step is highly individual and depends on the resolutions that you are willing to make. The best step to beat stress is to eliminate the stressor, which is obviously not always practical. So what else can you do? Aromatherapy (with lavender), acupuncture, yoga, laughter, new hobbies, and healthy lifestyle changes are seen to be powerful ways to reduce stress. Lifestyle modifications should include more fruits, veggies, sleep, and exercise with fewer refined foods, less sugar, and less (if any) meat. These lifestyle changes help to reduce the oxidative stress, endothelial dysfunction, and reactive oxygen species increases that arise from stress.
Change doesn't need to be dramatic; maybe start small. Try adding one or so servings of fruit and vegetables a day and reducing your daily desserts (or whatever your downfall is) to just one per day. Pick up a new activity; head over to your local college and perhaps enroll in a group fitness class (aquafit is lots of fun!) or maybe try something a bit more daring (rock climbing anyone?). Consider also picking up some lavender from your nearest health store; a whiff of that may help reduce your stress. Taking little steps to de-stress goes a long way in the grand scheme of things. Although everyone likes to think they can do it all (myself included), “me time” is a vital part of your day-to-day life!
And that marks the end of my article! Hopefully you now have a better idea of why it's important to reduce your stress and how you can do it!
D'Andrea W, Sharma R, Zelechoski A, Spinazzola J.(2011) Physical Health Problems After Single Trauma Exposure : When Stress Takes Root in the Body. doi:10.1177/1078390311425187 Lucini D, Pagani M. (2012) From stress to functional syndromes: An internist's point of view. doi:10.1016/j.ejim.2011.11.016. Toda N, Nakanishi-Toda M. (2011) How mental stress affects endothelial function. doi:10.1007/s00424-011-1022-6. See this and other articles on Jennifer Novakovich’s website JennovaFoodBlog.com
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