Condition - Dealing with stress
An estimated seven million people in the UK are living with anxiety problems and approximately 415,000 people in the UK suffer from stress levels that are making them ill. Coping with threats, injuries and stressors is necessary to maintain normal functioning of the body, allowing us to grow and develop and alerting us to potential danger around us. However, chronic long-term stress can interfere with our day-to-day functioning and have a very detrimental effect on our health. In fact, stress can be a major factor in all kinds of disease and imbalance.
Symptoms of chronic stress may be physical, behavioural, emotional or cognitive and can include: anxiety, irritability, inability to concentrate, depression, inability to relax, sleeping too much or too little, muscular aches and pains, headaches, digestive problems, elevated heart rate, heart and circulation problems, poor immunity, weight problems, glandular imbalances, addictive eating and drinking, drug, alcohol and nicotine dependence and so on.
The term ‘stress’ was first used by the endocrinologist Hans Selye. He researched the effects of stress and found that all animals presented a very similar series of reactions, broken into three stages, which follow the same sequence as a physical injury or infection and the body’s reaction, involving inflammation and protection. He described this universal response to the stressors as the General Adaptation Syndrome, or GAS.
Alarm is the first stage of ‘fight or flight’, where the threat, attack or stressor is identified and the alarm system of the glands and autonomic nerves cause the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, cortisol, DHEA and other hormones. Adrenaline raises blood sugar and activates the brain and nervous system. Cortisol also raises blood sugar, reduces inflammatory pain and immune reactions, withdraws protein from the digestive tract and allows the body to concentrate its resources on fight or flight. DHEA is a precursor of sex hormones and helps to maintain balanced energy and immunity. Other adrenal hormones control the balance of minerals and functioning of the kidneys, and also stimulate the immediate reaction to physical injury or infection – inflammation and protection. As a result, more oxygen, sugar and nutrients are available to our brain and muscles so we are more alert (even ‘high’ on adrenalin) and ready for action.
Adaptation is the second stage. Unable to overcome or escape the stressor, we must adapt to its strains or demands. Bodily fight or flight is cancelled, while our minds try to cope with the situation. The body’s alarm processes are still turned on – blood sugar is high – but there is no muscular action to use it and so other hormones, like insulin, are required to reduce it again. Cortisol levels are high, reducing the inflammatory response, and DHEA levels begin to fall as the body attempts to rebalance. The body cannot keep this up indefinitely.
Exhaustion is the third and final stage in the GAS model. At this point, the adrenal hormones are depleted and the body is unable to maintain normal blood sugar balance, energy and function. Cortisol and DHEA levels fall. Insulin and other hormones are depleted because they are required to rebalance blood sugar. There is little ability to cope with stress.
Long-term stress can have a detrimental effect on our body, including: suppressing the immune system, slowing down the digestive system, depleting the body of nutrients, slowing down the body’s rate of repair and having a negative effect on thyroid, pancreas, liver, kidney and brain function. Mental/emotional problems; such as depression, anxiety and cycles of addiction; become prevalent.
Good nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting your body during times of stress. Eating good quality protein such as fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, lentils and beans is essential, not only for repair and maintenance of body structures, such as the digestive system, but also for the amino acids tyrosine and taurine. Tyrosine is needed to produce adrenal hormones and taurine is important for maintaining a calm and relaxed state of mind. Both can be boosted by supplementation. Fish oil, nuts, seeds and flax oil are sources of omega 3 essential fatty acids, low levels of which have been associated with an insufficient stress response. Slow-releasing sugars help to maintain blood sugar balance, while refined sugar becomes an addictive response to stress. Many people who are stressed or anxious immediately go for sugar and refined white bread, white pasta, white rice, cakes and biscuits, but this is a temporary lift to energy, which is causing blood sugar to become more imbalanced. Instead, choose wholegrain alternatives such as oats, brown rice, wholemeal bread and wholemeal pasta. Nutrients such as chromium and B vitamins help to balance blood sugar levels through the hormone system.
The main requirements for producing adrenal hormones are vitamin C, B complex, particularly pantothenic acid (B5), and magnesium. The hormones are all made starting with cholesterol and using these vitamins and minerals to make the conversion in a ‘cascade’. In chronic stress, the sex hormones and mineralocorticoids are depleted in favour of cortisol and the whole body is affected. Excess cortisol has a negative effect on our intestinal flora, so a probiotic supplement may be useful.
Caffeine can effect blood sugar levels and elevate stress hormones, so is best reduced. Green tea is a good alternative to black tea and coffee as it contains theanine, a calming and relaxing amino acid. Stress and anxiety can disrupt our sleep cycle and are the two main causes of insomnia. Magnesium is known as a calming and relaxing mineral, so eating green, leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds may be helpful; and a real food supplement is a more concentrated source. Supporting serotonin pathways with nutrients such as 5HTP may also be helpful. Certain plants, such as rhodiola, ashwagandha, ginseng, passion flower and lemon balm, may help support the body’s resistance to stress and anxiety and generally help maintain physical and mental functioning. Regular exercise can also help to reduce chronic stress and bring blood sugar and hormone cycles into balance. Tai chi, yoga and meditation promote relaxation and help the body and mind cope with our perception of what is stressful, as well as reducing the alarm stage and improving our adaptation to stress.