Unfortunately, in today’s world, most people suffer with low energy, digestive issues such as acid reflux, constipation, inflammatory conditions and skin disorders. It’s quite normal in fact for many people to experience all of these symptoms at the same time. You only have to see the amount of pain relief, anti inflammatory and digestive medications at the supermarket to gauge the significance of the problem!
There’s one common word that is linked to these symptoms and that is, of course, stress. I thought it would be useful to write a two-part blog on the subject of stress – what it is and and how you can deal with it.
What is stress?
‘Stress results from pressure’
We may think of stress as inherently bad; anxiety around work, paying the mortgage, relationship issues, etc. are all common ‘stressful’ examples. However, stress is not always necessarily bad and in fact we need stress to survive and adapt to our environment.
Stress can be categorised into six sub-divisions (see figure 1 below) all of which have good (green) and bad attributes (red). The body has several interconnected systems that manage these stressors; our body’s main purpose is to maintain balance or homeostasis.
It’s all about balance – the good and the bad of stress
To help you understand that stress is not all bad, lets take a look at the 6 types of stress and give examples of good and bad stressors:
- Physical stress
The good: Movement and exercise is the most obvious form of physical stress. Without gravity, your musculoskeletal system wouldn’t need to adapt and would become weak, which is exactly what happens to astronauts in space without the stress of gravity. Regular functional movements such as squatting, lunging, walking, pushing, pulling, bending and twisting are key exercises to carry out if you want your body to function well, exhibit a healthy metabolic rate and a healthy hormonal system.
The bad: As an Health and Lifestyle Coach, I commonly see people who over exercise. This normally occurs when their diet and sleep are out of balance, which does not support their ability to recover from exercise. In particular, too much exercise can lead to over burdened adrenal glands, immune suppression and over training presenting symptoms like chronic aches, fatigue niggles, pain and injury.
2. Chemical stress
The good: Your body is full of naturally produced chemicals that allow your body to produce energy and power hormones to do their job. Your biochemistry and hormones are altered by exposure to sunlight, which produces Vitamin D and Cortisol.
The bad: Consumption of processed foods from non organic farming and exposure to environmental and household chemicals and pollutants all put pressure on the liver and detox pathways. Your liver has to digest and eliminate these disruptive chemicals, which can upset a the finely balanced ecosystem that comprises your body.
3. Electromagnetic Stress
The good: The most obvious good electromagnetic stress is the beneficial affect the sun plays on our hormonal cycle – in particular the hormone cortisol. In fact our 24-hour circadian rhythm is largely dictated by sun and light exposure.
The bad: We’ve all been sun burnt; too much or too little sun can be stressful.
Often overlooked is the extremely low frequency (ELF) pollution emitted by electronic devices such as computers, mobile phones and towers, WiFi routers, microwave ovens, electric motors, your TV, and even electric blankets and heaters. Too much exposure can lead to dysfunction in your nervous and hormonal systems.
4. Psychic or Mental stress
One of the key messages to take away is that every thought has a physical or hormonal response. Because of the way our brains have evolved, any perceived threat triggers a survival response, even if the actual threat is not real! For example, getting frustrated or angry over something menial has the same fight or flight response as being kicked in the leg!
The good: When we live with purpose and meaning and are clear on what’s important in life our physical and emotional health are normally in a good state, and tend to be resilient to daily pressure.
The bad: People living in accordance with other people’s beliefs and values cause by far one of the most common stresses I see as a Health Coach, that and the way people speak to themselves. It’s typically not what happens to us that’s stressful, it’s the stories we create.
5. Nutritional Stress
The good: Food is more than just energy, it carries information and literally becomes who we are. Eating organic, free-range food where possible is therefore good practice if you want to experience wellness. Balancing sugar levels and eating intuitively are also key examples of good dietary stress.
The bad: When we skip meals, eat poor quality processed foods and eat ‘on the run’ our digestive and immune system becomes compromised and, long term, this can lead to an unbalanced hormonal system, which results in the inability to shift excess weight.
6. Thermal stress
The good: The cells in our body work optimally when our body temperature stays around 37 degrees. Being exposed to hot and cold environments encourages a resilient nervous system.
The bad: Being exposed to extreme temperatures especially for long periods of time can shift our core body temperature away from the fine balance of 37 degrees. Shifting just 1 or 2 degrees can send the body into a dangerously stressful state.
The see-saw effect and maintaining balance
The ANS has two branches:
The good news is, we don’t have to think about the physiological changes happening behind the scenes. A branch of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) takes care of that!
The ANS has two branches:
1. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responds to possible threats. Its job is to speed up reactions and deliver energy – fast. Bad stresses trigger the SNS, speeding up heart rate, blood pressure, constricting blood vessels, down regulating digestion and literally enabling us to ‘fight or flight’.
2. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the opposing side of the nervous system. A little bit like a break, it stimulates rest and rejuvenation, lowering heart rate, blood pressure and good digestion. This is why it’s common to see digestive, blood sugar and sleep problems when stress levels are high.
The ANS effectively swings between speeding up the system and slowing down the system to maintain balance. The accumulation of too many bad stressors over time will shift homeostatic balance towards inflammation and disease see figure 1.
In the next part of the blog I’ll be discussing:
- How stress builds up over time and how you can recognise the symptoms
- Simple lifestyle tips to help lower your stress levels naturally
- How to choose the right type of exercise and lifestyle choices when stress levels are high
Stay tuned and please share with others that are suffering from stress.