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Understanding stress and how it affects our health

It is very well recognised that many people globally are affected by stress. They may have high levels of anxiety, sleep issues or are just generally feeling in a low mood.

Our bodies, under stressful conditions are usually very adaptable. Normal healthy stress responses are beneficial to mental and physical health; it challenges us, encourages change, creates adaptation and makes us stronger, both emotionally and within our bodies.

However, when faced with extraordinary stress that modern life can sometimes inflict upon us, our stress response can become too much for the body and can cause flare ups of old health symptoms we may have had or lead to more of the major chronic health issues of modern life[i].

So how does stress affect us?
We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response – this is a normal response to a stressful situation.

Stress activates primitive regions of the brain. These areas are responsible for emotions, survival instincts, memory and control eating etc. When we are not facing a major stress like being attacked by a large animal or having to run away from a bully at school and responding to a minor stress of everyday life, the same surge of stress hormones that are released during major threats are released. Long term this is dangerous.

Stress sets off communication between the hypothalamus and the pituitary and then the adrenal glands kick in by producing dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. The body only needs small changes in these stress hormones to significantly affect health.

These stress hormones that are released chip away at the immune system, opening the way to viruses, infection and disease. Stress hormones released by stress can cause issues with the digestive tract and lungs, and can promote ulcers and asthma. Stress hormones can weaken the heart, leading to strokes and heart disease.  If the body is producing stress hormones daily over long term, they can act like a slow poison.

So, what can we do to get on top of our stress?

Tone down the media
One of the reasons there is increases in stress is because we are listening to all the mainstream media everyday…. sometimes multiple times a day and we all know that the media tends to focus on the negative. Good news does not sell newspapers! The more we engage in this information from all our devices, the greater the chance that we won’t get a good night sleep and then this is when it starts to affect our health. Just listen to one update per day or have one free news day per week. Check up on the news every second day. If you can’t do this then just set limits, ideally do this in the morning and don’t do at night. Once it is done turn it off for the rest of the day. Also, most of us know to minimise our phone and laptop screen time at night. Limit caffeine after 2pm each day and make sure you darken your room so that you can get quality and quantity of sleep back in your life again.

Sleep has a huge impact on our physical and mental health. We spend a third of our lives sleeping. We can go without food for 8 hours a day or even fast for day, or exercise for 8 hours however we can’t go without 8 hours sleep!

Studies have shown that one-night lack of sleep can cause anti-social behaviours the next day[ii]

Sleep is one of the most nutritious foods that we can consume! Studies have shown just one night of lack of sleep dramatically compromises the ability of the brain to clear the lymphatic system. In one study the activity of the amygdala (the fear centre of the brain) impulsiveness is dramatically enhanced by 60% by not getting a good night sleep. Lack of sleep increases inflammation and can increase cortisol. Lack of sleep can activate the fear centre of the brain and at the moment this is not what we want to be doing.

You have probably noticed that most of our supermarket shelves are currently devoid of processed food and luckily, we still have an abundance of fresh foods, which means that now is a great time to start focusing on nutrition. It is so important to ensure your body has enough nutrients as our brain chemistry can be affected by the nutrients in our diet[iii]. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, all play a role in stress response, and are determined by nutrients available to the body[iv]. Amino acids from proteins, vitamins such as vitamin C and B complex, and minerals all play an important role. Unfortunately, when we do stress our body can become deficient in vitamins and minerals which can result with imbalanced neuro-chemistry.

When it comes to diet and nutrition, here are some quick tips that can make a dramatic improvement in your well-being:

  • Reduce or avoid all forms of sugar
  • Reduce or avoid all refined carbohydrates
  • Get your colourful vegetables back on the table as rich in antioxidants and nutrients
  • Make sure you drink good quality water – limit chlorinated water use

Increase foods like broccoli, cruciferous vegetables, green tea, and turmeric. All of these food help calm inflammation in the body.

It’s all about the gut
Stress can cause a flare up of pre-existing conditions [v] as well as chronic stress increases inflammation, which is normally regulated by the gut or intestinal microbiota[vi]. Intestinal microbiota refers to the live microorganisms, such as bacteria, that live in the small and large intestine.  These microorganisms are a mix of beneficial, neutral, or potentially harmful organisms to our health. When all of our organisms live in harmony, the gut is in homeostasis or balance. This balance is ideal for health. When the number of bad bacteria dominates it can lead to a loss of beneficial bacteria and then the harmful bacteria can take over which then suppress our immunity.

Now, more than ever we need to make sure our gut immunity is working well. One of the quickest ways to help with gut function is to eat right and take a probiotic. There are over 100 publications demonstrating Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis strains support a balance of intestinal microbiota[vii].

Also, our food choices play a huge role in our diversity and functionality of our gut bacteria, so a good diet and nutrition now, more than ever is vital.

One last note
Now is the time to not go back to default eating – be really careful of your habits, be an observer of your habits so that you can replace the ones that are not serving you with healthier habits.

Now is the time to adopt a new rhythm in our lives. Quality sleep, good nutrition, activity & exercise and staying in the present moment will all serve us well in not only handling stress however strengthening our immune system.

With increasing flexibility in the workplace, including being able to work more from home, we have more opportunity to control how we structure our days. It’s the perfect time to commit to a new daily routine that helps you get closer to what you are wanting to achieve in life – a new routine that replaces the mindless TV binging. A time to turn inward with and to start focusing on not only your health but your personal growth also. Use this time to really uncover what you want most out of life, and how you’ll take action to get there.

In Summary
Modern life can cause a great deal of stress to a huge amount of people worldwide and long term, stress is very damaging to our health. Fortunately, there are some easy things we can do that produce profound positive effects on our mental health:

  • Limiting the amount of mainstream media, we are consuming
  • Get enough quality sleep
  • Good nutrition
  • Focus on gut health
  • Control the mind and how you perceive this time


[ii] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10802-018-0480-0

[iii] Mujcic R et al. Evolution of well-being and happiness after increases in consumption of fruit and vegetables. Am J Public Health. 2016;106(8):1504-1510

[iv] Singh K. Nutrient and stress management. J Nutr Food Sci. 2016; 6:528

[v] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18004186?fbclid=IwAR0GDlNhJKeq1WwYWFtk5jzv9UphDS55ZiaBGLHprrQkCNLzil8NvEjnAWw

[vi] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31112792?fbclid=IwAR0GNujkZqOxgizhzn_ejD2o2coFBj1R8b9u7ISrx-OMwn9GKoxUwr_jpLY

[vii]  Ringel-Kulka T et al. J Clin Gastroenter. 2011; 45:518-525

Leyer GJ et al. Pediatrics. 2009;124(2): e172-179


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