Stress is a big problem in modern life. Research in 2018 found that 74% of UK adults had felt so stressed over the year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. In addition, it was found that 81% of women said this compared to 67% of men.
Left unchecked, long-term stress can lead to a myriad of mental and physical health problems.
In this article I’m going to look at what happens to our brains & bodies when we experience stress and some things you can do to relieve it.
When we experience stress, our body goes into the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-flight response is our body’s natural reaction to danger. Our ancient ancestors developed this response as a tactic to keep them safe from genuine threats. Thousands of years later, we may have evolved as a society but as a species we have evolved little, so the fight-or-flight response is still very much alive. The problem now is that it gets triggered when the threat is perceived but not real; when there is not an actual threat to our lives.
Let’s explore this phenomenon on a more cellular level
After the amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for dealing with our emotions) gets activated, it sends out a distress signal which activates the sympathetic nervous system.
The system responds by sending signals to the adrenal glands, which sit right above your kidneys. The adrenal glands pump out epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, into the bloodstream, which sets off a series of physiological changes that allow our bodies to act quickly.
This results in our heart rate increasing, oxygen flowing to major muscle groups (often making our hands and feet cold), our pain perception drops, our digestive system slows down, hearing sharpens, pupils dilate to allow more light in and help you see better, and your skin produces more sweat. This is all to prepare us to either fight or run away.
After this initial surge of adrenaline, the brain activates a second stress response system, regulated by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (aka HPA axis). These three parts of our bodies work together to keep you on high alert, releasing cortisol until the danger has passed, and the parasympathetic nervous system can kick in to relieve the HPA axis of its duties.
The problem we have today is, much of the ‘fear’ is not real. We are not facing animals which are a potential risk to our lives. Instead, our brains and bodies can overreact to stressors that are not life threatening, like traffic jams, work pressure, family difficulties, or a looming deadline. The problem is, the nervous system responds the same way it would if a lion were running toward us.
When in a state of fight or flight, the physical activity of fighting or running away would discharge the energy that the body has created. When the danger is over, the body would calm down via the relaxation response. In our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, leaving the stress hormones in our bodies which cause the damage.
Chronic stress occurs when the brain cannot relieve the HPA axis and put the brakes on the stress response.
When the HPA axis is activated for too long, too often, your body pays the price. High levels of constant adrenaline can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising risk of heart attack or stroke. Elevated cortisol levels deplete energy stores, which can inadvertently contribute to fat tissue buildup and lead to an increased appetite.
Fortunately, there are ways to counter that stress and improve our wellbeing.
Limit these foods to better cope with stress
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 slows down when under stress, it’s better to eat foods that are easy to digest.
Reduce your intake of refined white carbohydrates like white pasta, bread and all cakes and biscuits.
Stay away from full fat dairy and rich sauces, as these are also difficult to digest.
Avoid stimulants such as alcohol, sugar and all fizzy drinks. These items will put pressure on the adrenal glands.
Foods to include in your diet to fight stress
We want to help our digestive system as much as possible 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 food that contain the nutrients which can help reduce stress and help the digestive process such as:
- Dandelion greens
Consume more omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy essential acids reduce stress and anxiety, boost concentration, and improve mood. They are found in seeds such as hemp, pumpkin, sunflower, flax and chia. You can also find them 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 effect 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, barley grass and spirulina. Take wheatgrass shots on their own. Add barley grass and spirulina to smoothies. And ensure you are getting plenty of magnesium, which is depleted when we are under stress.
Other ways of calming our minds and bodies
Calming the mind and body when under stress is really useful. Breathing techniques, mindfulness, meditation and yoga are all excellent ways to destress.
Equally, any kind of movement will also help combat the effects of stress. Going for a walk when we are stressed can calm us down. Exercise, dancing, music and sex are also great.
Being in nature has an extremely calming effect. Try to get into nature at least once a week to balance any stress caused in your week.
I work with women who want to improve their physical and mental health, energy levels and vitality so they feel and look amazing. Please get in touch if you would like help with the best ways of coping with stress and leading healthier, happier life.