Getting Stress under control

Modern life is full of stress !

Work stress, financial stress, stress about relationships or kids, stress about your health.......these things can make you feel like you're under constant pressure.

In simple terms stress is your body's reaction to a threat. When your brain perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release two hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that act to energise your body to deal with the threat.

This is of course a very useful mechanism: if someone is attacking you with a knife, then you want your body to be fully energised very quickly to either defend yourself or run as fast as you can !

A knife attack is an example of intense or acute stress. The adrenaline/cortisol release is short term and when you have escaped the danger, these hormone levels return to normal.

The problem arises with lower level stress that doesn't come and go but is more persistent. Ongoing work pressure, worries about finances or about kids; persistent health concerns, that sort of thing.

This type of 'chronic stress' causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol (rather than adrenaline) on an almost ongoing basis - thus cortisol levels remain constantly elevated.

 

Common sources of chronic stress

Stress can come from many and varied sources:

  • Your job (getting work/life balance right is not easy)
  • Finances / money (even more so these days)
  • Your partner / spouse
  • Your kids / family
  • Your health
  • A separation / divorce
  • Moving house
  • Retiring from the workforce (either voluntarily or not)
  • The general  'state of the world'

Of course lots of people suffer from a combination of the above.

There are other 'lifestyle' factors that contribute to stress levels:

  • Inflammatory diet (high in sugar and fat content)
  • Too much alcohol or other drugs
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity - visceral fat (ie 'gut fat) can directly release stress hormones into the body

 

Does chronic stress have negative health effects ?

Unfortunately it has many ! Persistently high cortisol levels have a negative effect on:

  • Mental health - chronic stress can lead to depression, and other mental health conditions
  • Neurological health - it has been shown that chronic stress contributes to Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease
  • Immune health  - stress reduces T-cell function, which leads to increased viral infections and autoimmune problems
  • Digestive health - increases likelihood of IBS, leaky gut syndrome, microbiome imbalance
  • Cardiovascular health - chronic stress raises blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which in turn increase the likelihood of heart attacks, strokes
  • Metabolic health - blood sugar regulation is disrupted which over time can lead to Type 2 diabetes
  • Hormone balance - because cortisol is such a dominant hormone, excess cortisol supresses the production of other important hormones such as serotonin, testosterone (see also separate Blog on importance of Testosterone )

Persistently elevated cortisol causes inflammation, which in turn is associated with many chronic diseases.

 

The symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • Sleep disruption
  • Increased anxiety, irritability, low moods
  • Low energy, fatigue
  • Sugar cravings
  • Weight gain, especially gut fat. Visceral fat actually secretes more cortisol, so it become a vicious cycle
  • Lower libido and sexual dysfunction

These symptoms are not pleasant and can degrade your overall quality of life.

So it's really worth trying to get better control of your stress !

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ModerateStress-SS-Post

What can men do to manage their stress and reduce cortisol levels ?

The key is to “get the right basics” into your lifestyle, namely:

  1. Good nutrition - eat healthy foods (more on specific nutrients for stress control below), moderate your alcohol intake, control your weight. All these things have a major impact on controlling chronic stress
  2. Exercise and activity – stay active, don’t be sedentary; try to get movement and exercise into your daily life
  3. Get plenty of rest and relaxation - good quality sleep; find a relaxing hobby and allow time to chill out
  4. Consider taking up a mindfulness technique, such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga - more and more guys are doing so these days. Mindfulness, which amongst other things promotes 'staying in the moment' rather than always thinking about the past or future, has been shown to calm the nervous system and reduce chronic anxiety and stress
  5. Connect with nature - recent research is showing the importance of connection with nature as a means to reduce and manage stress levels. Spend more time outdoors, go for walks in the woods or parks. And really connect with the nature around you when doing so - don't be focusing on other things, checking your phone, etc
  6. Connect with people - social connection has been shown to be very effective in stress management. So spending quality time with family or good mates is a great antidote to chronic stress
Stress control model v2

Specific nutrients to help control stress

Research has identified five specific vitamins and minerals that contribute to better stress control : Magnesium, Zinc, Vitamins B5/B6, Omega 3, Vitamin C.

  • Magnesium - calms the nervous system, relaxes muscles. The main food sources of Mg include leafy greens (spinach, chard), almonds, cashews,  pumpkin seeds, and healthy fats (oily fish, avocados)
  • Zinc - reduces anxiety, reduces inflammation.  The main food sources of Zn include seafood (oysters), poultry, meat, eggs, chickpeas, almonds, cashews,  pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds
Magnesium foods
zinc 2
  • B Vitamins (esp B5, B6)- Vit B5 helps adrenal function and regulates cortisol production. Some evidence that Vit B6 can help lower anxiety. Main food sources include oily fish, meat, bananas, potatoes, avocados, legumes
vitamin-b6 foods
  • Omega 3helps reduce mental stress.  Main food sources of Omega 3 include oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), walnuts, avocados, olive oil, flaxseed
omega-3-fatty-acids
  • Vitamin C - has been shown to help clear excess cortisol. Main food sources are citrus fruits, berries, bell peppers, leafy green vegetables (eg spinach, chard)
Vit C foods

Adaptogens:

In addition to these specific nutrients, found in many common foods, several herbs have been identified as potentially helping control chronic stress. The most promising seem to be lemon balm, ashwaghanda, rhodiola and ginseng. Green tea has also shown some beneficial effects.

The scientific literature is sometimes inconclusive regarding herbal treatments, and there are conflicting results in relation to these herbs. Nevertheless some studies have reported positive effects

 

To conclude, lowering chronic stress is vital to good health and well-being. 

If you feel stressed too often, then it's really worth trying to get it under control.

Make time to relax properly, try to spend more time outside in nature and more time with family and good friends. Think about taking up a relaxing hobby or mindfulness technique......and boost your diet with the five key nutrients ! 

Ready to find out more?

If you would like to discuss any of this further, book a free 20-minute telephone consultation with me. There is no obligation - just a chat about your health priorities and how I might be able to help