We all deal with small amounts of stress in our everyday lives, however, when this becomes chronic stress, it can lead to significant health problems. Long term stress can negatively affect your body and brain so it's important to find ways to manage your stress daily.
How Hormones Play a Role
Hormones are a big factor in your body’s response to stress, driven by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis which ties the endocrine system to the nervous system. Adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are released as part of the fight or flight response. High levels of cortisol can lead to adverse health events, as this hormone draws out glucose from various organs to provide the body with energy. Continuous increases in glucose can lead to insulin resistance and weight gain. Elevated cortisol levels can damage the communication between the axis and the immune system, leading to increased risk of chronic fatigue, depression, and diabetes. The immune system is further compromised because there is decreased activity of T cells, specifically killer cells. These cells fight viruses and cancer growing cells, so stress can increase the risk of a tumor.
Stress and the Gut
Stress triggers bloating and discomfort in the gut, increases or decreases appetite, and is linked to disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. Additionally, stress affects the microbiome which can have rippling impacts throughout the body and brain. influences the brain’s ability to think and send signals to sleep. Changes to the microbiome can weaken the intestinal barrier, allowing bacteria, parasites, and unwanted food particles to enter other parts of the body causing inflammation and triggering inflammatory diseases.
Stress and The Brain
Memory and learning are also affected by stress. The conversion of short term memory to long term memory occurs in the hippocampus, which is also where the primary stress response occurs. The hippocampus contains many receptors for cortisol, so extended periods of stress can cause structural and functional changes to this part of the brain. Memory and neurogenesis disorders can occur, making it harder for neurons to form and your brain to retain information.
So what can you do to mitigate the effects of stress? Below are some of my top tips for actively managing your stress:
Relaxation techniques: Something as simple as taking a few deep breaths can help you relax and feel more at ease. When you breathe through your nose, your parasympathetic nervous system is activated to counteract the sympathetic nervous system that is induced by stress. Set aside time each day to meditate or breathe deeply. Sit up in your chair with your feet flat on the floor and hands on top of your knees, and breathe in and out slowly and deeply for a few minutes.
Talk with a friend: Connecting with others right now is so important. Try calling or FaceTiming a friend to talk through what;s bothering you or to just take your mind off things. Sometimes, just hearing another perspective or encouraging comment can help you think outside of your stressful mindset.
Eat well: Diet is a big contributor to our mood and emotions. When we’re stressed, we high calorie highly processed foods, but refined carbs only cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash, increasing stress levels. Instead, incorporate foods that stabilize blood sugar such as healthy fats, protein, and complex carbs. Vitamins and minerals found in those foods will reduce symptoms of stress. For example, Vitamin C boosts the immune system, lowers cortisol levels, and stabilizes blood pressure. Herbs and teas can help relax you as well. Mint induces calmness and relaxes the GI system. Barley tea relaxes the body and increases tryptophan, an amino acid that regulates sleep and mood. Lastly, passionflower tea treats sleep disorders, nervous tension, anxiety.
Exercise: Studies have shown that a moderate ten minute walk can improve your mood and blood pressure. University students who walked or did moderate exercise regularly had lower stress levels than those who did not exercise or exercised strenuously. Walking releases endorphins, hormones that relieve stress and pain, and reduces blood pressure. It also gives you the chance to get some fresh air and clear your head which also improves mood.
Cognitive behavioral therapy: CBT is a type of therapy that allows you to develop personal strategies that change the way you think and cope with situations. It helps you assess the thoughts, actions, and circumstances surrounding the stress in your life. We cannot avoid most stressful situations, but we can change the way we approach them and find better ways to cope.