One of the major health buzzwords these days is stress and stress-related illness. Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it’s a subjective experience. This means that although there are definitely situations or circumstances that most people would find stressful, not everyone has the same triggers of stress or even experiences stress the same way.
What we do know is that the acute stress response is supposed to act almost like a protective mechanism—when our ancestors needed to run away from a bear, or hunt for food, their physiology changed to better prepare them for action. Activation of the acute stress response helps us focus, helps us alert, and is at the core of our survival instincts. Perhaps more relatable now, when we go for a run or have to do a big presentation, the acute stress response is effectively turned on. There are thousands of little physiologic and hormonal processes that occur during this time. Here are a few things that happen in our body during the acute stress response:
• Heart rate increases
• Breath rate increases
• Blood pressure increases
• Pupils dilate
• Blood flow is reverted from organs to muscles
The acute response is only meant to be active for a relatively short period of time before your body goes back into “rest and digest” mode. However, due to the modern pace of life, so many of us can’t shut off the acute stress response and then enter periods of chronic stress. The effects of chronic stress come from constant stimulation of the “fight or flight” or acute stress response. Imagine what running daily marathons with no rest days would do to your body. This is essentially what many of us are doing in North America! Between work, kids, relationships, socializing, etc., many of us are barely even able to eat healthy meals regularly, let alone get good sleep, stay fit, and so forth. Eventually, we crash hard, mentally and physically. Here are some ways that chronic stress may be expressed (1):
• Sleep disturbances
• Digestive issues like constipation or diarrhea or both
• Emotional changes
• Constantly worrying or feelings of anxiety
• Inability to concentrate or poor memory
• Frequent colds/flu
Does this list sound familiar? Perhaps these symptoms are things you can “deal with” for the time being. However, by continuing to ignore the earlier signs, you may start to develop (or worsen) conditions that really affect your ability to function (2):
• Mental health concerns: depression, anxiety
• Cardiovascular/respiratory: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, angina, other heart diseases, migraines
• Hormonal: diabetes, hypothyroid, hyperthyroid, menstrual irregularities
• Skin: eczema, cold sores
• Digestion: irritable bowel syndrome
• Musculoskeletal: chronic pain (ie. fibromyalgia), tension headaches, poor muscle recovery, tight/tense muscles
• Immune: autoimmune conditions, frequent or nagging colds/flu
Unfortunately, stress cannot be completely avoided in our day to day lives. Luckily, there are a number of things that you can do to help reduce the effects of chronic stress!
1. Get enough sleep. There is a ton of research that shows that those who do not get enough sleep are more likely to have poor health outcomes. Besides fatigue, conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and depression are more likely to occur in those who have poor sleep habits (2). Try to sleep and wake at the same time daily, and remove anything that might disrupt your sleep (ie. phones, TV, excessive caffeine intake).
2. Exercise regularly. Exercising is one of the most important things you can do for your overall health. We know you know this already, so we won’t get too much in detail. It’s a protective factor against cardiovascular disease, mental health concerns, obesity, diabetes, and so many other conditions. Even if you only have 15 minutes a day to get your heart rate up, it’s important to make it a priority!
3. Meditate. Meditation has a ton of solid research around it in improving sleep, improving focus, and improving mental health outcomes (3). It’s easier than you think and there are tons of apps out there that can help you get started! Start with just 5 minutes a day to get the hang of it.
4. Eat lots of colourful veggies and fruit. Include lots of dark leafy greens, beets, carrots, berries, etc, in your diet on a regular basis. These foods contain lots of vitamins and minerals and you need a variety to hit them all. Certain foods also contain high amounts of antioxidants, which help protect your cells from oxidative damage that occurs with chronic stress. You’ll also get more fiber in your diet which can help keep your digestion system functioning optimally.
5. Take your vitamins. If you know you are going to be under significant amounts of stress for an undetermined amount of time (or if you have been for a while), it may be a good idea to supplement your diet with some extra stress-helping vitamins and minerals. For example, B vitamins are super important in a wide range of processes in the body including energy, hormones, liver metabolism, and brain function. Vitamin C is important in connective tissue health, immune system function, and adrenal health. The adrenal glands are your primary stress response organs and secrete adrenaline.
When your adrenals are exhausted (ie. in chronic stress), your body is likely to start breaking down in other ways. Magnesium comes in many different forms but is important in brain function, cardiovascular function, and so forth. There are also a number of herbs and nutrients that can be helpful—check out Platinum Naturals Easymulti Stress for a high quality formulation. Consult with your healthcare provider to see which vitamins and minerals might be helpful for you!
To sum it all up, stress is inevitable and sometimes necessary for relatively short periods of time. Even before you start to see some of those early signs of chronic stress, it’s time to consider things that will help to manage your stress.
1. Mariotti A. The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future Sci OA. 2015;1(3):FSO23. Published 2015 Nov 1. doi:10.4155/fso.15.21
2. Duric V, Clayton S, Leong ML, Yuan LL. Comorbidity Factors and Brain Mechanisms Linking Chronic Stress and Systemic Illness. Neural Plast. 2016;2016:5460732. doi:10.1155/2016/5460732
3. National Sleep Foundation: How Excessive Sleep Can Affect Your Metabolism https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-excessive-sleep-can-affect-your-metabolism
4. Black, D., O’Reilly, G., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. and Irwin, M. (2015). Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances. JAMA Internal Medicine, [online] 175(4), p.494.