Stress to me is such an elusive concept. There’s no real way to define it – kind of a subjective spectrum of ‘AH MY LIFE IS A PANICKED EXCLAMATION POINT’ to ‘I am tolerating existence’ to ‘sigh of relief I just meditated and it feels like my brain got a massage and my whole body is just a giant exhale.’
So how can it be defined? And is it sometimes a good thing? And (perhaps most importantly) are there scientifically proven ways to attenuate its symptoms? The answer is yes. Read how below!
In the most robotic way of speaking, stress is a necessary biological response. It promotes adaptation and survival of neural, cardiovascular, autonomic, immune, inflammatory and metabolic systems, basically all the ways your body works. All of these systems interact with each other and support short-term adaptation, as long as they’re turned on when needed and off when no longer necessary ( 1 ) and ( 3 ). During acute, or short-term, stress, the brain releases transmitters, peptides, and hormones through the body in order to return to a state of normalcy, and back into balance ( 2 ).
Stress can actually be helpful if it’s related to something you need to learn. In fact, one study found that stress facilitates memory if there is a similarity between the stressful experience and the content of what is being learned ( 2 ).
Chronic stress, however, is repetitive and ongoing and leads to dysregulation of certain body and brain pathways, affecting health, emotion, and cognition ( 1 ) ( 2 ) ( 11 ). The chronic overstimulation can lead to decreased energy due to increased output of stress hormones ( 11 ). Over time, the “feedback mechanisms between the brain and the hormone-producing organs begin to erode, depriving all of the body’s functional components of vital chemicals and energy” ( 11 ). Adrenal syndrome results, leading to a deficiencies in cortisol, DHEA, and other hormones, in turn compromising your ability to be healthy and recover from disease ( 11 ).
This also means that the immune system is suppressed as the body is focusing more energy on a more swiftly beating heart, deeper breathing, and increased blood flow, leaving you more susceptible to pathogens and foreign invaders ( 7 ). Stress and inflammation can lead to a host of things like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, poor memory, Alzheimer’s, and polycystic ovarian syndrome ( 7 ). Stress also alters the way fat is deposited. One study showed that stress stimulates the production of betatrophin, which is a protein that blocks an enzyme that breaks down body fat ( 7 ). Overall, systems of the body become compromised ( 11 ).
This chronic state of stress is defined as “allostatic overload,” and includes neurotransmitter response as well as behavioral changes like poor sleep, eating or drinking too much, smoking, and lack of physical activity. They can be as varied as “grief, radiation, food allergies, lack of (or too much) exercise, substance abuse, parasites, molds, heavy metals, injury, keeping late hours, or chemical exposure” ( 11 ). These behavioral changes have physiological repercussions, leading to increases in cortisol, sympathetic activity (fight or flight guy), and pro-inflammatory cytokines, with a decrease in parasympathetic activity (rest and digest guy).
The brain is the main conductor of stress, determining threats and controlling behavioral, physiological, and lifestyle responses. It directs health-related behaviors such as caloric intake, alcohol, smoking, sleep, and exercise, all of which contribute to or help with physiological dysregulation, and so plays a key role in either helping or harming stress ( 3 ).
Stress is actually capable of changing the brain, and those who reported chronic stress for 20 years actually had a decline in grey matter volume in the hippocampus and frontal cortex, which is responsible for memory and learning. Cortisol affects the hippocampus, and excess cortisol in the brain can slow nerve impulse transmission and can lead to the death of a brain cells. It also inhibits a brain process critical to memory function ( 11 ).
Kind of a downer. BUT there are ways to combat stress. Way easier said than done, but having a positive outlook on life paired with good self esteem appears to have long-lasting health consequences. Furthermore, good social support is a positive influence on stress measures ( 1 ). Having just 3 regular social contacts is associated with lower stress scores. Positive affect is associated with lower cortisol production and higher heart rate variability (which is a sign of good parasympathetic activity – rest and digest stuff).
Resilience is defined as “achieving positive outcome in the face of adversity” and “the ability of your body to rapidly return to normal, both physically and emotionally, after a stressful event.” It’s about recovering from bad experiences and allowing for more flexible outcomes. Not only are resilient individuals able to recover after a stressful event, but they can also sense when stress is coming. They closely monitor signals from their body, indicating rising panic, and therefore reducing their desire to overreact ( 7 ).
Addressing critical lifestyle areas like nutrition, sleep and exercise as well as eliminating offensive foods and eating to stabilize blood sugar can help to stabilize both brain chemistry and mood ( 11 ). Choosing foods with low glycemic load, good sources of protein, ample fiber, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and omega-3 fats also help. Saturated fats have important antimicrobial properties (protecting against harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract) as well as needed for the proper utilization of essential fatty acids, protect the liver from toxic effects of alcohol and certain drugs, and contribute to cells’ integrity ( 11 ). Choosing organic, chewing food well, eating balanced meals and snacks, drinking enough water, avoiding overeating, sleeping well, and exercising the right about (not too much, not too little) are also crucial ( 11 ).
Ways to decrease stress:
- 4-7-8 breathing: exhale completely, breath in for four counts, hold your breath for seven, then exhale completely through your mouth for 8 counts. Repeat for a total of four times. This exercise stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, in turn serving as a pseudo tranquilizer. This is also helpful when trying to fall asleep.
- Reach for foods like wild salmon and shrimp (omega-3s – populations who eat the most fish have the lowest rates of depression), cherry tomatoes (lycopene helps prevent the formation of pro-inflammatory compounds, and contains iron, tryptophan and vitamin B6, what your brain needs to produce regulating hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) and watermelon (contains citrulline, which helps the brain get rid of ammonia, which damages neurons. Also helps guys get to bonerville because it activates the same mechanism as Viagra), chile peppers (capsaicin cools the body and prevents inflammation by blocking the same pathways as aspirin and ibuprofen. Endorphins are also released when eating spicy foods – similar to exercise), beets (contain folate which is crucial for good mood, memory retrieval, processing speed, and lightning reflexes), and garlic (promote healthy arteries, ensure proper blood flow to the brain, contain chromium, which is needed for a proper response to insulin. They also lower blood sugar, which is important to stabilize mood. Others: apples, butter, cod, lentils, garlic, lamb, sardines, sprouts, yogurt ( 13 )
- Get friendly! Having just 3 more more regular social contacts is associated with lower allostatic load (stress) scores.
- Improve sleep quality and quantity – buy a new pillow, turn your screen on night mode after dark, read before bed, take a Magnesium supplement like Natural Calm, smell essential oils.
- avoid smoking
- engage in regular moderate physical activity – regular physical activity (walking an hour a day, 5 out of 7 days a week increases hippocampal volume in previously sedentary adults – fit adults have large hippocampal volumes than sedentary adults) ( 3 )
- Start using adaptogens like cordyceps, reishi, rhodiola rosea, maca powder
- Cordyceps (I use FourSigmatic hot chocolate mixes!) help lower glucose, which in turn assists with stress response, since those with poor glucose regulation had reduced hippocampal volume and poor memory function. Cordyceps also inhibit oxidative damage and reduce inflammatory cytokine levels, both of which are raised or happen as a result of stress. ( 4 )
- Rhodiola Rosea (I use GAIA herbs supplements!): In a study of physicians who worked the night shift, some physicians were given rhodiola over a test period and both groups were then asked to take 5 different tests. Those who took the adaptogen had statistically significant improvements in the tests during the first two weeks period, suggesting that rhodiola can reduce fatigue under stressful conditions ( 14 ). Another study found that rhodiola “increases mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and de- creases cortisol response to awakening stress in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome.” ( 15 ).
- Ashwaganda (I use GAIA herbs supplements): The treatment group that was given Ashwagandha root extract exhibited a reduction in scores on all the stress-assessment scales on Day 60, relative to the placebo group. Cortisol levels were also substantially reduced compared to the placebo group. This study concluded that Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life. ( 12 )
- Reishi (I use FourSigmatic hot chocolate mixes!): Ganoderma lucidum (reishi mushrooms) contain approximately 400 different bioactive compounds that have a number of effects including immunomodulation, anti-atherosclerotic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, chemo-preventive, antitumor, chemo and radio protective, sleep. (8) They promote antibacterial, antiviral (including anti-HIV), hypolipidemic, anti-fibrotic, hepatoprotective, anti-diabetic, anti-androgenic, anti-angiogenic, anti-herpetic, antioxidative and radical-scavenging, anti-aging, hypoglycemic, estrogenic activity and anti-ulcer properties.
- Maca (I get the powder from MRM and use it in smoothies): Maca improved cognitive function, motor coordination, and endurance capacity in middle-aged mice, accompanied by increased mitochondrial respiratory function and upregulation of autophagy-related proteins in cortex ( 5 ).
- Start meditating! (I used Headspace app)
- In one study, brief mindfulness meditation training reduced self-reported psychological stress reactivity, showing that brief mindfulness meditation training buffers self-reported psychological stress reactivity. This may indicate that “brief mindfulness meditation training fosters greater active coping efforts, resulting in reduced psychological stress appraisals and greater cortisol reactivity during social evaluative stressors.” ( 6 )
- Try progressive muscle relaxation: The PMR group had the greatest decline in somatic anxiety, lending some support to the cognitive/somatic specificity hypothesis (9). Progressive muscle relaxation is effective in controlling anxiety, decreasing cortisol levels, reducing pain, regulating physiological processes, and increasing overall quality of life ( 9 ).
- Tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and you relax them as you breathe out. First, focus on the target muscle group, for example, your left hand. Next, take a slow, deep breath and squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for about 5 seconds. It is important to really feel the tension in the muscles, which may even cause a bit of discomfort or shaking. In this instance, you would be making a tight fist with your left hand. Try to ONLY tense the muscles you are targeting, isolating muscle groups. After about 5 seconds, let all the tightness flow out of the tensed muscles, and exhale. Muscles should feel loose and limp. The goal is to focus on and notice the difference between the tension and relaxation. Remain in this relaxed state for about 15 seconds, and then move on to the next muscle group. Repeat the tension-relaxation steps. Try foot (repeat on other side), lower leg and foot (repeat on other side), hand (repeat on other side), entire arm (repeat on other side), butt, stomach, chest, neck, shoulders, then forehead.
- Do yoga. Following a 10 week intervention, stress, anxiety and quality of life scores improved over time with yoga practice. In fact, yoga was found to be as effective as relaxation in reducing stress, anxiety and improving health status, and even more effective than relaxation in improving mental health. Yoga, therefore, appears to provide a comparable improvement in stress, anxiety and health status compared to relaxation. It also improves sleep and immune function, as well as reduces food cravings. (10)
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( 2 ) Schwabe, L., Joels, M., Roozendaal, B., Wolf, O.T., & Oitzl, M.S. (2011). Stress effects on memory: An update and interration. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.07.002
( 3 ) McEwen, B.S., Gray, J.D., & Nasca, C. (2015). Recognizing resilience: Learning from the effects of stress on the brain. Neurobiology of Stress, 1), 1-11. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2014.09.001
( 4 ) Song, J., Wang, Y., Liu, C., Huang, Y., He, L., Cai, X., Lu, J., Liu, Y. & Wang, D. (2016). Cordyceps militaris fruit body extract ameliorate membranous glomerulonephritis by attenuating oxidative stress and renal inflammation via NF-kB pathway. Food and Function, 7, 2006-2015. doi: 10.1039/C5FO01017A
( 5 ). Guo, S-S., Gao, X-F., Gu, T-R., Wan, Z-X., Lu, A-M., Qin, Z-H., Luo, L. (2016). Preservation of cognitive function by lepidium meyenii (maca) Is associated with improvement of mitochondrial activity and upregulation of autophagy-related proteins in middle-aged mouse cortex. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. doi: 10.1155/2016/4394261
( 6 ) Creswell, J.D., Pacilio. L.E., Lindsay, E. K., & Brown, K.W. Brief mindfulness meditatin training alters psychological and neurodendrocirne respones to social evaluative stress. Psychoneuroendorcrinology, 44, 1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.02.007
( 7 ) Mercola, Dr. (2016). How stress affects your body, and simple techniques to reduce stress and develop greater resilience. Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2016/04/10/how-stress-affects-body.aspx?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=twittermercola_ranart&utm_campaign=20161216_how-stress-affects-body
(8): Sanodiya, B.S., Thakur, G.S., Baghel, R.K., Prasad, G.B., Bisen, P.S. (2009). Ganoderma lucidum: A potent pharmacological macrofungus. Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 10(8), 717-742.
(9) Rauscha, S.M., Gramling, S.E., & Auerbach, S.M. (2006). Effects of a single session of large-group meditation and progressive muscle relaxation training on stress reduction, reactivity, and recovery. International Journal of Stress Management, 13(3), 273-290. doi: 10.1037/1072-5245.13.3.273
(10) Smith, C., Hancock, H., Blake-Mortimer, J., Eckert, & K. (2007). A randomised comparative trial of yoga and relaxation to reduce stress and anxiety. Complimentary Therapies in Medicine, 15 (2), 77-83. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2006.05.001
(11) Timmins, W.G. (2011) The Chronic Stress Criss. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.
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( 13 ) Ramsey, D. & Graham, T (2011). The Happiness Diet. New York, NY: Rodale.
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