7 Ways to Better Manage Stress
Updated: Jan 3, 2020
Stress is talked about a lot, and more so these days than ever, as more and more people are becoming aware of its negative impact on our health and mental wellbeing, and even on our waistline.
You can’t really avoid stress unless you can run away to live on a desert island and need or want for nothing! And in actual fact SOME stress is necessary and healthy for the body physiologically, but we must absolutely control its impact on your health.
It’s important to look at the load we place on ourselves in our day-to-day life, even the good things we take on that we enjoy, as well as looking at the things we DON’T do day to day, week to week – and then assess the overall load and how this might be impacting your health.
The more you take on the less time you have for things like planning and preparing nutritious meals each day, healthy exercise, a good sleep routine, relaxation and restoration; that we can tend to save for a 2 week holiday once a year!
But what exactly is 'stress'?
The term ‘allostatic load’, in scientific terms, means the cost of chronic exposure to elevated or fluctuating hormonal or nervous system responses resulting from chronic or repeated challenges that the individual experiences as stressful – aka your daily stress load! The greater the load the greater your need to implement a consistent health routine to help reduce the damaging impact stress can have on your body.
One thing I want to highlight is that the stress load on your body is a combination of physical and psychological inputs. Examples of stressors you can control/are aware of are things like a work deadline, managing a big project, a challenging relationship, exercise, being stuck in traffic, rushing to get to work or a meeting. Then there are others that are largely beyond your control like infections or pollution. Then we have stressors related to the diet and lifestyle you are choosing to lead such as high blood sugars, high blood pressure, sleep deprivation and the health issues that can stem from that, or nutrient deficiencies.
Stress changes our physiology, and the effect can be damaging. But by just making some simple changes to your nutrition and lifestyle habits you can do yourself the world of good.
Let’s first look at the physical impact of stress on your body
Stress can alter your memory and focus, your appetite, body composition (how much is fat and how much is muscle), your sleep, immune health, hormone balance, and your cardiovascular health.
In response to a stressor (whether physical or mental) multiple chemical messengers are released into the bloodstream by the brain, such as hormones and neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) including cortisol and adrenaline, however there are also numerous chemicals produced by your immune system designed to create a pro-inflammatory state within the body.
Now, in cases of ‘acute’ / one-off stress, all of this is fine and necessary. This is known as your body’s “fight or flight” response. In an acute stressful situation where you either need to flee the situation or stick around and fight it you need the increased energy, strength, speed, focus, and vigilance that the stress response provides, and the inflammation created by the immune system response is needed as your defence against injury in that moment.
BUT the problem is that today’s stressors are not acute or one-offs like they would have been in our caveman days when would come face to face with a tiger when out foraging for food and need to run for the hills to save our lives (or hang about and fight him but my guess is most people chose to flee!). Remember stressors are mental as well as physical and so a work deadline or dysfunctional relationship causes just as much of a stress response as being faced with a tiger or being hit by a car.
And so today, the length of time our bodies spend in this stress response state is getting longer and longer, aka we are in a ‘chronic’ state of stress versus short lived bursts here and there.
Yes we are designed to cope with stress, but not in the forms and amounts of it we place on ourselves today.
What happens if your stress load is too high?
Your nervous system needs balance between being switched on in a stressed state and being switched off in restoration and repair mode, something known physiologically as ‘homeostasis’.
During rest and repair mode your body will be doing things like digesting food, fighting infections, eliminating any damaged cells, detoxifying, rebuilding vital structures such as joints, blood vessels, gastrointestinal tissues, new brain cells and lean muscle).
So with less time for these processes to take place, optimally, chronic stress is associated with frequent injuries, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, slow healing, decline in cognitive function, mood issues, a decrease in muscle mass, an increase in fat tissue, digestive issues such as IBS, infertility, and deficiencies in key vitamins, minerals, macronutrients and antioxidants (because the stress response uses up a lot of energy and resources).
Another important aspect of stress to note is that it results in a high amount of something known as ‘reactive oxygen species’ or ‘free radicals’, and these are the by-products of activity in the body (such as exercise but also stress!). These free radicals are damaging to your cells, so can increase your risk of disease, and they also speed the ageing process (!!).
Experiencing a lack of focus, poor memory &/or increased anxiety?
In acute stressful situations such as being faced by something you need to flee from or fight to save your life, the stress response improves your focus and concentration, and adrenaline and cortisol will improve memory and cognitive function. BUT, when our stress becomes chronic the inflammatory chemicals produced by the stress response can damage your neurons (brain cells that release neurotransmitters/brain chemicals responsible for memory and emotions) and cause them to breakdown, and at the same time hindering the development of new neurons, not good!!
Where does cortisol come into it and how does it affect me?
If your stress load continues to be greater than the time you spend in rest and repair mode then negative physiological changes become chronic, and the hormone cortisol starts to fall out of its normal daily rhythm.
The normal physiological pattern of cortisol is that it’s highest at the start of the day/first thing in the morning (it’s also known as the waking hormone), it peaks again around midday, and then it gradually tapers off until the evening, where it’s at its lowest, and then melatonin (your sleep hormone) begins to take over.
This hormone pattern is known as your circadian rhythm. Chronic stress basically starts to disrupt this rhythm until soon it’s completely out of whack and your cortisol levels are low in the morning and usually high at night, which leaves you exhausted and groggy upon waking, and then ‘tired but wired’ at night, and sleep is disrupted, because melatonin cannot take over if cortisol is still hanging around.
As well as stressors I’ve already mentioned as examples, other things such as high caffeine intake, sugar, processed foods and nutrient depleted diet, blood sugar imbalances, too much and the wrong type of exercise, too little exercise, alcohol, too much blue light at night time (phones, TV, laptops screens), and lack of sleep all disrupt the delicate the rhythm of cortisol (they add to or exacerbate your stress load).
Here are some signs you might be overloaded...
Lacking Focus, Poor Memory & Increased Anxiety
Gut issues (such as IBS and all the symptoms that come with that)
Immune Health issues
Reproductive Hormone Health / Infertility
Low libido/loss of sex drive
Cardiovascular and Metabolic Health Issues/increased risk
So, "what can I do?" I hear you cry!
Here are 7 ways to supporting your body to deal with stress and protect yourself from it's negative affects:
1) Re-frame Stress & negative situations - Often our mindset and the way we see things can really let us down mentally and physically. It’s easy to look at a situation as terrible and even the end of the world and then we let negative thoughts about it ruminate in our minds all day and night, when the reality is that thing probably doesn’t even matter and we’ve allowed our minds to spiral and see the worst. Identifying things in your life, and in every day, to be grateful for can be really powerful to help you reframe situations. A 20-30 minute yoga nidra session can work wonders too ;)
2) Increase Nutrient Density in your food choices and say goodbye to the processed nutrient-void stuff - Look at what you’re eating like really look at it. Are you going for convenience versus really caring what you put into your nutrient bank account?
3) Increase Your Protein - Increasing your protein to anywhere between 1.2 - 2g per kilo of your body weight can help to mitigate the catabolic (muscle breaking down) effects of stress and so can help you maintain your lean muscle mass. Protein will also help to balance your blood sugar levels, which in turn regulates your appetite, hunger and cravings far better. It’s also key for the production and balance of your brain chemicals such as those responsible for mood, sleep and motivation.
4) Help Your Body Produce Good Serotonin Levels - Support your serotonin levels by eating plenty of tryptophan (an amino acid that’s a raw material for the production of serotonin) rich foods such as turkey, cottage cheese, bananas, and sweet potatoes. And ensure you have good levels of all micronutrients, especially the B vitamins, iron and vitamin D.
5) Schedule in down time (aka white space) just like any other important appointment - Give your mind and body time out at every opportunity in your day. This could be as simple as a few minutes of deep breathing (in the toilet cubicle at work!), yoga, a walk outside in a green space, meditation, relaxing music, talking through any overwhelm or sources of frustration with someone you trust, doing some creative hobbies you used to love (why do we let these things go?) or losing yourself in a good fiction book (a book, film, audiobook, or podcast).
6) Guard your sleep - Do everything in your power to get 8 hours and preferably 10pm – 6pm versus midnight to 8am…so you can do your best to keep your circadian rhythm (your body's natural rhythm of cortisol and sleep hormones in tact. Having a good evening wind down routine is key such as dim lights after 8pm, no screen time (TV, laptop, phone) at LEAST an hour before you plan to get into bed, and avoid exercising late into the evenings.
7) Consider Supportive Supplements (only once all of the above are in place) - High quality nutritional supplementation can be really supportive but do keep in mind that they’re not the solution. They can be used therapeutically whilst you re-balance your life, nutrition, and thought patterns. There are many that support energy output, put the immune system back in balance, reduce anxiety and improve the quality of your sleep. Work with a qualified Nutritional Therapist practitioner to get personalised recommendations of which nutrients and combinations are right for you, as well as best brands and amounts to use. I often help clients with certain supportive herbs and nutrients such as magnesium, L-theanine, medicinal mushrooms, and other high quality multivitamins and minerals.
If you'd like my help I'm here for you. Apply for a free exploratory call here and let's chat things through :-)