The Real Cost Of Stress
We can all thank Dr Hans Selye who, in 1936, defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”.
We’ve all experienced stress throughout our lives.
Moving out of home, the breakdown of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, financial pressures, health issues, work stress, dealing with family members.
To some extent, stress is a good thing – it motivates us to solve problems and rise to challenges, allowing us to develop and grow.
There are also health benefits to short term stress.
- Hormones such as adrenalin and noradrenalin are released which boost speed, alertness and performance
- We have a more narrow perspective – we filter out “noise” or unimportant things allowing us to concentrate our energy on the task ahead
- For short term periods, stress can stimulate the immune system, encouraging wound healing
- When experienced as part of a group, it can forge deep social bonds – this is why you may still be friends with people from high school
The problem arises when stress is ongoing (more than 3 months).
It then shifts from being called acute stress into chronic stress and there’s lots of evidence to suggest that chronic stress is to blame for a lot of health disorders.
This is because it suppresses cell mediated immunity (simply, it decreases your immune system), thereby increasing inflammation.
A Common Scenario
Think of it like this:
You are in a stressful work situation that you know will resolve in 2 months time.
Unfortunately, that deadline keeps getting pushed back. You are tired. You are staying up late, getting up early and what sleep you do get is poor quality.
On top of that your posture is bad and your diet is even worse, running entirely on sugar and caffeine.
As this happens your adrenal glands (these sit on top of your kidneys and are responsible for the output of adrenalin) begin to tire of pumping out so much adrenalin.
Cortisol levels also begin to rise.
When this happens, your body is more likely to hoard energy (making you put on weight), have issues with digestion leading to heartburn and reflux, and you may experience hormonal disturbances.
Most people associate cortisol with anti-inflammatory steroid drugs (used to reduce inflammation), and as anyone who has been on these drugs will know, short term, they are wonderful.
Long term, you run the risk of weight gain and thinning of the skin among other things.
The Science Behind It
Like everything in nature, there must be a balance.
You have two arms of the nervous system:
- Parasympathetic: responsible for resting and digesting
- Sympathetic: responsible for fight and flight
As you can see from the scenario above, the balance tipped from acute stress which the body is able to quite happily deal with, to chronic stress in which the sympathetic nervous system became too dominant.
This can result in what is known as “Adrenal Exhaustion”.
Stress and Blood Pressure
We’ve seen how hormones and the nervous system are activated during stressful periods.
One of the effects of adrenalin is to increase cardiac output, preparing our bodies to either fight or flee.
The result of this is an increase in blood pressure.
During chronic stress, there is more inflammation.
Many doctors now believe that it is this inflammation that occurs on a cellular level along the blood vessels, particularly in plaque that leads to cardiovascular disease.
A useful marker is CRP (C-Reactive Protein).
This can be tested through your routine blood tests and is incredibly useful for detecting inflammation.
CRP is produced by the liver in response to inflammation and can be used for a wide range of conditions – predicting not just cardiovascular disease, but auto immune conditions and even cancer.
A Harvard Women’s Health Study revealed that high CRP levels were “more predictive of coronary conditions and stroke in women than were high cholesterol levels”.
If you have high cholesterol levels and a high CRP reading, changing diet and lifestyle would definitely be of immediate concern.
Interestingly, another study revealed that CRP levels may play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes.
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
Like smoking, it’s never too late to quit.
In this case, quitting stress doesn’t mean quitting your job or living like a hermit in the middle of nowhere (although, that could be fun).
Rather than change your stress, you have the unique ability to change your reaction to stress.
So here’s some tips to help you cope:
- Start with your diet – move away from proinflammatory foods that are high in sugar and caffeine and move towards more greens
- Switch tea and coffee for green or herbal teas – if your stressed, chamomile, passionflower, valerian, and lemon balm are my favourites
- NO LICORICE – licorice, even as a herb has the ability to raise blood pressure, if you already suffer from hypertension, you may want to cut this out
- Deep breathing – changing your breathing patterns will enable you to intake more oxygen, refreshing your brain and has the added bonus of making you aware of your posture. Take 5 deep breaths and hold each for 5 seconds before slowly releasing
- Stretch – ensure that you stretch and bend throughout the day
- Nature – so many studies prove that being in nature reduces stress, if you’re at work, get some plants, look outside your window, have the window open, listen to nature soundtracks, have crystals on your desk
- Sound – have low volume music in the background to keep you going
- Smell – if you have your own workspace, maybe have a roller of your favourite essential oils – lavender and rose work very well, as do frankincense, myrrh and jasmine
- Exercise – set time aside for your body, splitting the difference between mental and physical stressors
- Water – keep hydrated!
- Me time – you’re not being selfish or inefficient if you take time out for yourself