Stress: the bearer of bad news
A wise woman once revealed to me that 10% - 20% of our lives may be (true) reality, while the rest (80% - 90%) is how we choose to react to it.. While we all experience different levels of stress every single day in this very fast paced western society, it comes down to how we choose to react to it on a mental or emotional level. It also comes down to how well we treat our physical body.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Believe it or not, in small amounts, stress can actually be good for us. It makes us stronger both emotionally and biochemically by challenging and encouraging change and adaptation in our bodies. However, nowadays, we seem to be living in a society which exposes us to stress nonstop; we constantly challenge our body’s natural stress response, and when it becomes chronic, when we feel it is out of control, it can puts us on the path to not only pathological conditions such as depression, anxiety and cardiovascular disease, but also Insulin Resistance, diabetes, weight gain and obesity.
Although technology around us is growing at an extremely fast pace, and continuous exposure to it alone can be one of the main reasons why we are stressed, our body’s biochemical functions today are still working the same way they have been thousands of years ago. Back then people’s daily stresses revolved around gathering and hunting for food supplies or escaping from wild animals.
The stress response, known as the ‘flight or fight response’, is created when a stressful stimuli or physical danger (like being chased by a wild animal) or psychological/mental stimuli (like road rage or worrying about how you’re going to make your next mortgage payment) activates stress centres in the brain. Bucket – loads of noradrenaline and adrenaline is then stimulated to be released throughout the body via our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This increases our cardiovascular performance which causes the heart rate to go up, blood pressure to increase and more blood to circulate throughout the body including our brain, to enhance our ability to deal with stress (designed to help us fight the predator or take off and escape). At the same time, large amounts of cortisol are being released via the HPA axis from our hard working adrenal glands.
Cortisol - naughty or nice?
Cortisol is a hormone. It is very well behaved when our stress response is healthy, i.e. when we are feeling well balanced, getting plenty of good quality sleep, looking after our health with good quality wholesome food, and taking time to nurture our delicate nervous system by practicing yoga, meditating, having regular massage or doing any other relaxing activities that can help the body restore balance (and drinking alcohol doesn’t count!).
When Cortisol plays the nice guy, it acts as a potent anti – inflammatory. When our Nervous System is healthy, The Para Sympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) will bring more calmness to us as it sends Cortisol away to rest.
Cortisol can turn a bit naughty though when we suffer continuous stress which is not resolved. When there is too much of it around cortisol becomes an insulin – resisting hormone: by resisting insulin, it increases the levels of sugar and fatty acids in the blood. This is how it services our ‘Flight or Fight’ response; helping create enough instant energy to ‘fight’ the animal, your boss, the idiot that cut you off on the GC Highway, or ‘fly/take off’ – in other words, run away from danger.
This ‘fight or flight response’ is very beneficial when we need to increase our physical performance or mental alert to deal with stress. In a perfect world, and in well balanced individuals, once the stressors have passed, the body slips back into normal function. Unfortunately though, although no immediate life threatening situations are generally a threat for us, many tend to live in an unhealthy adaptive state of stress day in, day out.
Can stress make us fat?
Continuous or unresolved stress can encourage our body to pack on the kilos.
Stressful and busy times alone can lead many of us straight into Mackers’ or KFC drive throughs, and contribute towards making unhealthy food choices.
In a chronic state of imbalance, when we are constantly stressed, the body can produce excessive amounts of cortisol. Due to its effect on insulin and blood sugar levels, many find themselves looking for highly refined (sugary or processed) food or alcohol; everyone is different, and they say the way stress affects you will determine your cravings: if it makes you depressed you may go for savoury snacks like chips for example or if stress makes you tired or anxious, you may be reaching for sweet treats like cake, chocolate or lollies.
Cortisol is also an energy – storing hormone. It encourages our body to store energy in the form of fat for a rainy day – just in case you will, one day, need to physically run away from a stressful situation or a wild animal.
What can we do to protect our body and waistline?
Getting involved in any type of physical activity we enjoy can certainly be a good start. Believe it or not, many highly stressed individuals can be SNS dominant and when it comes to fat loss, will not respond well to high intensity cardiovascular exercise. Once their stress hormones levels are back to normal though, they notice their bodies can become a lot more responsive. Reducing caffeine and alcohol intake can certainly help there too, as both are Sympathetic Nervous System stimulants. Yoga and meditation can also more than help regulate our stress response and keep us calmer and slimmer as it brings our PSNS back to life.
There are also certain micronutrients which can really help us combat the effects of stress on the body.
Take the mineral magnesium for example, also known as the ‘anti - stress mineral’: It’s a natural tranquilizer as it relaxes skeletal muscles as well as smooth muscles of blood vessels. Including different foods like almonds, raw cacao, whole grains, figs, cashews, eggs, cod and seeds in our daily diet can boost magnesium levels.
Including wholegrains as well as a variety of fresh fruit and veggies is extremely important as stressful times can deplete us of most of our B vitamins. Our adrenal glands will also be grateful when we consume more foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruit, tomatoes, kiwi fruit, broccoli, capsicum, strawberries and kale as the adrenals rely on this essential vitamin for fuel.
Vitamin B6 is another important nutrient; it improves mood and reduces stress not only by helping the body produce Serotonin (the ‘happy’ brain chemical) but it is also needed to help maintain normal cellular levels of magnesium. By having more foods like avocado, banana, carrots, oats, mackerel, tuna, salmon, lentils and sunflower seeds, we can really boost our B6 levels. Any females who suffer with PMT related stress or irritability can more than benefit from taking it daily too – happy wife, happy life!