The stress response: what was once the body’s natural way of responding to (infrequent) danger has become a permanent feature of daily life. The speed at which we operate, the constant demands on our time, longer working hours, not to mention the big life events such as divorce, illness and moving house, all conspire to make our lives more stressful than ever. Hormones that were meant to be triggered by a one off event are now ever present, impacting on the quality of our life, preventing us achieving our health goals such as weight loss and, in the worst case scenario, making us ill. Studies show that a staggering 11.7 million work days were lost to stress in the UK in 2015/6. Identifying and managing your stress has never been more important.
The stress hormones
When the body perceives danger, it needs to make sure that the conditions are right to allow you to either to defend yourself or run away. This is known as the fight or flight mechanism. The nervous system will trigger the release of hormones (adrenalin, norepinephrine and cortisol) via the adrenal glands causing the heart to beat faster and breathing rate to speed up to get more oxygen out to the body. Muscles will tense up ready for impending action and sweating increases. In order to ensure that there is sufficient energy available, cortisol will activate the release of glucose into the blood stream.
This all makes perfect sense if the stressor demands a physical response for a finite amount of time like coming face to face with a tiger or having to hunt for your dinner, but the nature of the stress we face is rarely so. What’s more, our stress is ongoing rather than a one-off event meaning that we find ourselves in a constant state of heightened anxiety, with the body physically prepared for action that is often unforthcoming.
The consequences of elevated stress hormones are many but let’s look at some of the key ones:
Yoyo effect: as cortisol initiates the release of glucose into the blood that is not used for energy, insulin levels will rise in order to deal with it. Insulin’s job is to maintain correct blood sugar levels and it will act to store the glucose away. As stress levels rise once more, the cycle will be repeated. This is known as the blood sugar curve. Over time the body becomes less responsive to the levels of insulin being issued so more is needed to do the same job, potentially leading to type 2 diabetes.
Cravings: cortisol will encourage you to seek out high sugar, high fat foods which are energy dense and so ensure a good supply of quickly available fuel. These foods are calorific, generally quick to break down in the body and have little nutritional value.
Weight gain especially around the middle: as the body is consuming far more calories than it can deal with, the excess will be stored as fat. When we are stressed, it is likely that the fat will be stored around the middle and close to the liver so that it can be quickly converted back to energy. It is no surprise that there are 4 times more cortisol receptors in the abdominal fat cells. What’s more, cortisol wants to hold onto the energy stores making it much harder to lose fat.
Sleep: under normal circumstances, cortisol peaks in the morning to wake you up and tails off during the day and through to the evening when the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin kicks in. If cortisol levels are elevated at the wrong times, sleep can be impacted and with it, our body’s chance to rest and renew.
Low immune system: cortisol suppresses the immune system leaving you more exposed to infection and illness.
5 top stress busting strategies
- Find the root cause: it is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of stress preventing you from seeing and thinking clearly. Take time out from your normal routine and environment to identify and acknowledge where your stress is coming from. This is the first step to being able to deal with it. Make a list and for every stressor that you identify, aim to come up with a solution or at the very least, something that might help improve the situation. Your stressed mind will try and tell you there is nothing that can be done but there is. Think outside the box and don’t be afraid to call on others for assistance and support. As women our tendency is to think that we need to do it all or that no one else can do it as well as we can which is obviously true (!) but not helpful in dealing with stress and ultimately improving your health and wellbeing.
- Food choices: managing your blood sugar levels by eating some protein at every meal, choosing whole wheat
carbohydrates that take longer to digest (low GI), boosting your vegetable intake while limiting refined sugars and processed food as much as possible, and cutting down on alcohol will all make a difference.
- Exercise: the magic pill on so many levels. Not only does exercise help to release endorphins, the feel good hormones, but it also helps switch the mind away from the stresses of daily life. Aim to include different types of exercise such as cardiovascular, endorphin-boosting workouts like Zumba, swimming or jogging with more mindful ones like yoga, pilates or simply stretching and breathing. Making small changes to include and prioritise regular activity in your daily routine is the best investment you can make, not just in regard to stress, but to your overall health, quality of life and longevity.
- Sleep hygiene: creating a routine before you go to bed that includes a digital curfew, a dark room that is the right temperature, and rituals such as a hot bath, lavender oil on the pillow and comfortable bedding made of natural fibres will all help set the conditions for your body to de-stress and get the rest it needs.
- Self care: putting yourself first does not come easily to most women and yet it is critical to your health and wellbeing and ultimately therefore, that of your family. Do not be afraid to prioritise yourself and create time to do the things that bring you joy – daily. It’s no coincidence that mindfulness is increasing in popularity to combat stress and research has shown that done regularly, it can reduce anxiety by almost 40%. Having a social life, hobbies and interests, making time for a bit of pampering and simply laughing are all on the prescription. Learn to say ‘no’ – it works a treat!
Let me know how you get on!