How does stress affect your health?

Stress. We know that stress is not good for us, and it’s certainly not fun to be stressed, but what exactly is stress?

Stress is our bodies response to pressure. More specifically it is hardwired survival technique built into your body as a means of protection and was essential for survival in hunter gatherer times. When triggers arise, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) signals the “fight or flight response”, which mobilises you to take action and avoid danger.

In our modern society there are many stressors such as work-related anxiety, financial obligations, and so on. The problem is your body doesn’t know the difference between being chased by a lion or work-related anxiety. A stress response is perfectly healthy when there’s a real emergency, such as being chased by a lion, but if your body is constantly getting stress signals for everyday issues, such as work-related anxiety, this can lead to health issues.

The Nervous System

To understand the stress response we need to understand where it comes from, the nervous system. Within your nervous system you have the autonomic system, a control system that, as the name suggests, acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions. This is made up of two parts:

  • The sympathetic nervous system (SNS): the fight, flight, freeze zone
  • The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) : the rest, digest, reproduce, repair zone

The sympathetic nervous system turns on the “fight or flight response,” the parasympathetic nervous system turns it off. The parasympathetic nervous system helps the body conserve energy and rest. The ability to go from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” is critical for your well-being.

The Body and Stress

As mentioned earlier, the body’s initial response to a stress trigger is heathy. The health problems arise when your body is subjected to constant stressors. Firstly an extended release of stress hormones has adverse effects on your body, lowering your immunity defenses and making you more susceptible to illness₁. Some examples include:

  • Mood issues, including anger and depression, lack of energy, and sleep issues
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate, higher cholesterol, and risk of heart attack
  • Increased fat storage and disrupted hunger cues
  • Aches and pains in the joints and muscles
  • Reduced ability to fight and recover from illness due to lowered immunity
  • Stomach cramps, reflux, and nausea
  • Loss of libido, lower sperm production in men, and absent or irregular menstrual cycles in women
  • Lower bone density

We are all different and stress manifests itself in different ways for different people. Personally I suffer from stress headaches, and if I’m chronically stressed for a long-period of time it shows in my skin (see picture to above where I look like a recovering drug addict with leprosy). In severe cases when left unaddressed, stress can lead to burnout and / or breakdown.

How Stress Can Affect Your Diet

Stress typically affects the diet in two ways:

1. It affects our behaviours around food, driving what and how much we eat. Stress has a major impact on the types of food you tend to seek out and you’re much more likely to choose these types of comforting foods or snacks. High-sugar foods provide a quick source of energy that the body needs when it is stressed as it prepares for “fight or flight.”

In addition to this, when we eat our brain releases a chemical called dopamine. If you think about it, food is necessary for survival so the body’s ability to produce, dopamine, the feel good hormone, when we eat makes evolutionary sense. The problem arises when we seek out food for a dopamine hit because we’re emotionally stressed. This can create addictive-like or compulsive-eating behaviours that become difficult to control

2. It creates the perfect scenario for fat storage and promotes an obesogenic state. Stress is linked to an increase in weight, in particular around the belly region – a major risk factor for things like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Techniques to Combat Stress

Unfortunately, given today’s fast-paced society, a return to relaxation doesn’t occur naturally for people. While we’re all running around in panic mode from our everyday worries, chronic stress is disrupting the natural balance required for optimal health, speeding up the ageing process, and increasing the body’s susceptibility to illness. Finding ways to activate the relaxation response is vital.₁ Here are some suggestions:

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  • Practice calming activities like meditation and light movement, such as tai chi.
  • Organise your work and living spaces to be clutter-free, peaceful environments.
  • Take “me” time.
  • Prioritise your tasks and focus on one thing at a time. Delegate tasks whenever possible if you feel overwhelmed.

Hopefully by understanding what stress is, why we have it, and some of the ways to manage it, you can take some action to live a less-stressful life. If you’re having problems with stress, think it’s affecting your diet, or are feeling burnt out and don’t know where to start, please feel free to reach out and contact me or book a free consultation, I’d love to be able to help.

Hope you have a stress-free day!

Love Emma x

References:

  1. Institute of Integrative Nutrition, Stress and the Body, 2021

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