Stress can cause disease, promote weight gain, decrease our immunity, and inhibit fertility. It’s incredible to think that just a couple of late nights at the office, a sick relative, or moving house can have such a huge impact on our health. So how does stress actually lead to this assortment of tribulations?
Traditionally we understood the relationship between stress and poor health to be based around an abnormal adrenal response where the adrenal glands secreted excess cortisol into the blood. This was believed to have a follow-on effect of weight gain, muscle loss, depression, disease, and/or impaired immune function. However, new research suggests that the concern is more with the cortisol receptor sites on cells, instead of an increase in cortisol production.
A recent study by Cohen et al has found that overtime chronic stress dulls cortisol receptors to resist cortisol, a condition also known as glucocorticoid resistance (1). Cortisol is supposed to turn off inflammation when it reaches the cell. But if the cell is resistant to cortisol, the inflammatory response isn’t turned off, and subsequently inflammation remains, or in some instances leads to chronic inflammation. This is important to know because inflammation is the number one cause of sickness and disease, whether we’re talking about cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, or allergies.
What this could mean for the average cold and flu is that it will take longer for someone who is chronically stressed to recover than a person who manages their stress levels well. For the body building or gym-goer, chronic stress will inhibit the swift repair of muscles after a work-out. For the woman wanting to become pregnant, it could upregulate her hormones and promote anovulation.
The key point is that we all experience stress from time to time, but it is how we choose to manage our stress that has the greatest effect on our health and wellbeing.
Ideas for Managing Stress
Breathing – research shows that using your diaphragm to breathe has the direct opposite effect on the body as stress. Remind yourself often to breathe well – breathe in for three counts, expanding your diaphragm, hold for one count, and finally exhale for three counts retracting your diaphragm. This can make a world of difference.
Relaxation – choose to partake in something every day that makes you feel relaxed. This might be yoga, a gentle evening stroll, listening to jazz music while cooking dinner, having a bath before bed, or practising breathing with your diaphragm a number of times a day.
Perspective – in some instances all we need is a change of perspective. A great question to ask yourself during the peak of perceived stress is, “What is the worst that could happen?” Sometimes the worst is not all that bad. Sometimes... Another question to ask yourself could be, “Is there another way I could think about this?” If you are feeling rushed to pick your son up from school and this is causing a surge of adrenaline through your veins, perhaps you could tell yourself that he will be fine to wait another 5 minutes for the sake of you driving safely and getting there in one piece.
Nutrition – processed and sugary foods quicken the release of glucose causing energy bursts that in some circumstances can increase feelings of stress. If you are winding down, avoid these stimulating foods and manage your blood sugar levels well throughout the day. Instead, enjoy a wholefoods diet with adequate protein, numerous vegetables, and quality fats.
Whichever way you choose to manage your own stress, daily prioritise this practice to reap the benefits of a long and healthy life.
Feed, nourish, value yourself.
Cohen, S. et al. "Chronic Stress, Glucocorticoid Receptor Resistance, Inflammation, And Disease Risk". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.16 (2012): 5995-5999. Web.