April is Stress Awareness Month. This has been running since 1992 to increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic.
We all have suffered from stress in our lives whether because of moving home, exams, work, bereavement, an illness, children, divorce, financial troubles or other.
In fact, we are so used to living with it that many of us are unaware of how much stress we are under, and what it’s doing to our mental and physical health. It’s just become an accepted part of our lives.
Unchecked stress can wreak havoc on the body, and in chronic cases, it can lead to adrenal fatigue, heart disease, weight gain, diabetes, mental and digestive disorders and many other illnesses. This happens because chronic stress changes our hormones, which can cause and increase in inflammation in the body.
Quick fixes to stress exasperate the problem. When under stress, many of us reach for coffee or high sugar foods to keep going and alcohol or other drugs in order to quickly relax.
The problem with this is when we are stressed, the digestive system shuts down so we are not assimilating any nutrients from our food. Adding toxic substances to this makes the body have to work harder and can lead to fatigue and other problems.
In this blog post, I talk about all the different measures we can take to avoid and lower stress.
Cortisol and stress: The science
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It’s released in response to feeling afraid or stressed. For our ancestors, this was important in a ‘fight or flight’ situation when the cortisol would be used as we either fought or ran for our lives.
Nowadays we seem to be more and more stressed, and the cortisol is not being utilised resulting in too much remaining in the body.
For instance, we may feel stressed out about our work load as we sit at our desk. This can lead to feeling tired, so we drink coffee to keep going. Our bodies produce more cortisol because of the stress and additional caffeine, but we are not exercising or moving to get rid of it.
Similarly, this shows up in younger people who game regularly. The adrenaline produced results in more cortisol in the body, and the static nature of gaming means that young people are not getting rid of it leading to a concerning amount of health problems.
So why do we need cortisol?
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. Levels are naturally high in the mornings and lower at night. This helps with getting us up and taking on the tasks in the day, they naturally drop off towards the evening as we prepare for sleep.
Cortisol regulates blood pressure, helps the body to utilise glucose for energy and send a message to the liver to release stored glycogen to fuel the muscles and the brain.
However, too much stored in the body can cause weight gain, anxiety, depression, mental illness, impaired memory and brain function and a lowered immune system.
How we can help our bodies deal with stress
It is how we respond to stress that causes problems. We can’t always control the circumstances which can lead to stress, but we can change how we react to them. There are changes we can make which will greatly improve our stress levels and reduce the impact it has on our bodies.
Foods to limit when feeling stressed
Cut down or avoid all caffeine. Stress can make us feel exhausted, so then we turn to coffee and other caffeine products for a quick fix. Too much caffeine actually encourages the body to produce more cortisol. If you are going to have a coffee, limit it to one a day and avoid other caffeine drinks.
Avoid red meat when stressed. As our digestive system struggles when under stress, it’s better to eat meals and foods that are easy to digest. Equally reduce your intake of refined white carbohydrates. Stay away from full fat dairy and rich sauces, as these are also heavy to digest.
Avoid stimulants such as alcohol, sugar and all fizzy drinks. These will put pressure on the adrenal glands.
Foods to include in your diet when feeling stressed
We want to help our digestive system when under stress. Try to cook everything fresh from scratch, that way you know what is going in your food. Avoid processed food and ready-made meals as these will contain unnecessary levels of sugar and salt, which puts more pressure on our body.
Consume food that is easier to digest like smoothies, fresh pressed juices, soups, mashed sweet potatoes, steamed fish and vegetables.
Include more ginger, cauliflower, kale, dandelion greens, broccoli, bananas, tofu, quinoa, millet, spelt, lentils and chickpeas. They all include nutrients which can help reduce stress and help the digestive process.
Consume more omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy essential acids are known to reduce stress and anxiety, boost concentration, and improve mood. They are found in seeds such as hemp, pumpkin, sunflower, flax and chia. Also in oily fish like wild salmon and sardines.
Try to eat everything baked, grilled or steamed.
Drink herbal teas. Warm drinks calm you down as they have a soothing affect and certain herbs such as nettle, and peppermint help with digestion.
If you want a treat, then choose small amounts of dark chocolate. It is rich in antioxidants and can also help reduce stress by lowering the levels of stress hormones in the body and releasing dopamine, the feel good hormone. When we feel good, we don’t feel stressed.
Include more superfoods into your diet like wheatgrass shots, barely grass and spirulina. Wheatgrass shots should be taken on their own. Barley grass and spirulina can be added to smoothies.
Other things you can do to help deal with stress
Exercise and yoga
Exercise is one of the best stress relieving activities there is , as it releases endorphins, the chemical in the brain that acts as the body’s natural painkiller.
Exercise also helps improve sleep, however, when highly stressed you want to do gentle exercise like walking or yoga.
Meditation is proven to decrease stress, worry and anxiety. If you are new to this, then there are plenty of guided meditations on YouTube or Spotify. There are also online meditation groups you can join.
Sex and intimacy
Sex can help you to relax, and take your mind off everyday worries and anxieties. During sex your body releases endorphins and oxytocin, and these feel good hormones create feelings of relaxation and intimacy.
Time in nature
There is nothing more powerful than the healing power of nature. It really restores, rejuvenates and heals the body, spirt and mind. If you are going through a particular period of stress or uncertainty and you need a break to clear your mind or find your purpose, then nature is your best friend.
Go for a walk in the park. Even a 30 minute walk can clear your head and put you in a good mood.
When we are stressed, we hold our breath or have shallow breathing which decreases oxygen to our body. Breathing exercises have long been used for stress relief, and they will have an immediate effect.
Here are some simple breathing exercises you can do.
Pursed lip breathing. Take a breath for a count of two. Then pucker your lips and exhale for a count of four. Do this for a few rounds.
Diaphragmatic breathing. Put one hand on your chest and other on your belly. As you breathe in deeply for two seconds, your belly should stick out a bit. Feel the air expanding your stomach and then breathe out slowly through the lips.
Yoga breathing. Place your right thumb over your right nostril as you breathe in through the left nostril. Then take your right ring finger and place it over your left nostril as you exhale from the right one. Then switch sides and repeat.
4-7-8. Inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven, then release it in a count of eight. Repeat this at least three times.
Breath counting. Take a few deep breaths, then settle into a pattern of “normal” breathing. When you exhale, count “one”. The next time count “two”. Do this until you have exhaled and counted to five, then start the pattern again.
I hope this has helped. I would love to hear about any other de-stressing techniques that have helped you in your life so feel free to get in touch.