Project 101 – Resilience – Stress

You would have to be living on a desert island in the last three months not to have noticed that the world has gone into a global meltdown and stress has permeated every layer of society and every age group.

Stress on the body and mind does not encourage a healthy immune system and also leads to other health issues that put you at risk.

Stress and the Heart

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to our heart health, as whilst there may be some factors beyond our control, our diet and lifestyle is usually our responsibility, as is the management of the stress in our lives.

One of the leading causes of heart attacks in men and increasingly in women is stress. It is a silent killer that lies in wait and pounces when you least expect it. It is not helpful that the stress that we experience is as unique as our own bodies.

What is Stress?

You need stress in your life, does that surprise you? Perhaps so, but it is quite true.

Without stress, life would be dull and unexciting. Stress adds flavour, challenge and opportunity to life. Too much stress, however, can seriously affect your physical and mental well-being. In recent years several high profile personalities have died suddenly and we recognise that most of them lived highly stressful lives, which finally took its toll. But how many times have we been surprised by the premature death of someone we know, a friend or family member, who on the outside seemed to be healthy and active with a good diet. Unfortunately, what is going on with major organs inside the body tell a different story. Stress is silent and can be deadly.

What causes a stress reaction?

Stress is the modern day equivalent of our ancestral ‘flight or fight’ mechanism that was necessary in the highly competi­tive and predatory world throughout our evolution. There may no longer be sabre-toothed tigers or mammoths in our world but the modern day alternatives can be just as daunting.

A threatening or tense situation triggers this stress response demanding that we take physical action. Unfortunately most modern day stress involves situations that we cannot run away from; such as relationship issues, a demanding job and boss and not forgetting the traffic jams on the way home.

There are two types of stress, Acute Stress and Chronic Stress, and both have very distinctive patterns.

Acute Stress is a short-term response by the body’s sympa­thetic nervous system and the response may only last for a few minutes or a few weeks. How many times have you said that your heart stopped or your stomach lurched during a moment of intense stress such as an accident? We have all heard stories of mothers and fathers who have been suddenly infused with superhuman strength and able to lift cars and other heavy objects off their trapped children. They are empowered to do this by the actions of their body in a moment of crisis.

Blood sugar levels rise and additional red blood cells are released to carry strength giving oxygen levels a boost. The pulse quickens, blood pressure rises and the digestive process stops to enable the focus to be entirely on regaining safety.

Chronic Stress is when this acute stress response is repeated on a continuous basis. Whilst the body, after a hundred thousand years, is well able to handle the occasional stress response and in fact uses it positively, if the response becomes a normal way of life, other parts of the brain and body become involved leading to long term damage.

For example, ongoing stress causes the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, which are the master controllers for the body, to release a chemical called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) which stimulates the adrenal gland to produce and release cortisol which disrupts sleep patterns leading to increased levels of stress.

Our bodies are simply not designed to live at high alert for sustained periods of time; it just wears it down leading to illness.

How can we manage this modern day stress that is going to be a part of our lives in one way or another?

A major challenge in this stress filled world today is to make the stress in your life work for you instead of against you. Stress is with us all the time. It comes from mental, emotional and physical activity. It is unique and personal to each of us because we all handle it in a different way. So personal in fact that what may be relaxing for one person may be extremely stressful to another. For example, my husband loves the challenge and rush of downhill skiing on the most difficult of runs. When I tried skiing I created so much stress and fear for myself that I lasted about two days. I was terrified and it made me feel physically sick.

Another example might be a busy high level executive who can find ‘taking it easy’ at the beach on a beautiful day extremely frustrating, non-productive and upsetting. You can be stressed simply doing nothing.

Too much emotional or mental stress can cause physical illnesses such as high blood pressure, ulcers and heart disease, whereas physical stress from work or exercise is not likely to cause these problems. The truth is that physical exercise can help you relax and to handle your emotional and mental stress. Following a healthy diet that provides you with all the essential nutrients to help your body manage stress is even more important.

Symptoms of stress can be subtle such as fatigue, insomnia, depression, headaches, back or neck pain, irritability and sudden weight loss or gain.

The less common but more damaging are heart palpitations, shortness of breath, diarrhoea, nausea, panic attacks, inability to concentrate and chronic fear.

Many people resort to stimulants such as smoking, alcohol or even drugs in the efforts to calm themselves down but in fact they are merely stoking the fires and increasing the levels of stress on the body, which can lead to disease.

Others create stress for themselves and those around them. They love the drama it creates and they rarely know how damaging this behaviour is for all concerned. We have all had drama queens in our lives and knowing how to handle them to prevent a knock on effect on your own health is essential.

Here are some basic techniques to help you manage whatever stress you do have in your lives.

It would be a perfect world where we had absolutely no worries whatsoever but I am afraid there are only a few people who live in that serene an environment.

It is easier said than done, but you must find a way to relax that suits you. Think carefully about what makes you feel alive but calm, that gives you satisfaction and creates a feel good factor.

For you as an individual it could be skiing down a mountain or it could be walking along a sandy beach at sunset. For me it is sitting in the garden, in the sunshine with music.

As unique as the causes of stress are, so are the ways that we find to counteract the tension. It might be that you have several physical, mental and emotional activities that you find distracting and calming. Perhaps a game of tennis, followed by doing the Sunday crossword and then watching a weepy movie.

Certainly you will find it very beneficial to learn some deep breathing techniques. Counting to ten before blowing your top can actually be very effective.

You will find some excellent breathing exercises here that only take a few minutes at the beginning and the end of the day and you can find these in Part Two and Part Three of this series.

Exercise can help alleviate stress and in the past I have practiced Yoga and Tai Chi. I love walking and music and combining the two on a sunny day is very relaxing for me. Some people find that a massage with aromatherapy oils is the answer, and others perhaps a strenuous game of squash.

If you really cannot think of anything on your own then find yourself a professional advisor who can help you find your bit of space and peace. It is always a good idea to find someone who has been referred by a friend or family member but your G.P should also be able to recommend someone.

Keep to a regular sleep pattern, although people do need varying amounts of sleep the average is seven hours. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time even at the weekends. Lack of sleep is one of the leading causes of stress. After several nights of less than your normal quota you will begin to feel stressed and also very tired.

The key is to recognise that you are suffering from stress, identify if it is acute stress that you can work itself out in the short term, or if it is chronic stress what changes you need to make to lessen its impact on your life and health.

When other people are the cause of your stress.

I mentioned that others can induce both acute and chronic stress on you and your life. Sometimes it is difficult to manage if the person is someone dependent on you; an elderly parent for example. In my experience a lack of reaction is probably one of the best strategies in those circumstances, as a calm response is no fun at all! Walking away is not always an option, but if you are to remain both physically and mentally healthy you need to fix the situation or ask professional advice.

Diet and stress

A healthy diet is absolutely necessary whatever lifestyle we have but if we are under excessive levels of stress then it becomes critical.

Make sure that you are hydrated. Dehydration is a leading physical cause of stress and you need at least 2 litres of fresh, pure water per day and more if you are on holiday or living in very hot climates.

Seven good reasons to drink water

  • Your body consists of between 60% and 75% water.
  • Each day our body loses 2 litres of fluid through urination,
    Breathing and through our skin.
  • We require even more fluids in warm climates or if we have a higher activity level.
  • Not drinking enough fluids puts a great deal of stress on the body. Kidney function particularly will be affected and there is a danger of kidney and gallstones forming. Immune function is impaired leaving us more prone to infection.
  • Lack of water causes a number of problems that we tend to shrug off. Headaches, irritability (especially first thing in the morning and in children) aching legs, water retention, poor skin tone, circles under the eyes, dull and lifeless hair, lack of energy and poor emulsification of fats.
  • Drinking water helps prevent water retention. Your body knows that it will die very rapidly without fluids so it tends to keep as much as it can in reserve.
  • If you are taking regular medication basis you need to make sure that you flush your system daily to ensure that there is no build- up of toxins in your cells, kidneys and liver.

There are some vitamins and minerals which the body needs to handle stress especially as during a stress interval the body will use up additional reserves of many nutrients. Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables are necessary and here are a few of the particular nutrients that will help you handle the stress in your life.

Vitamin A mops up the toxic residue of elevated stress hormone levels. (Liver, fish oils, butter, cheese, Free range eggs, oily fish and Beta-carotene that converts to Vitamin A from carrots, green leafy vegetables such as asparagus and broccoli, orange and red coloured vegetables such as apricots)

Vitamin B1 improves your mood and is vital for nerve function. (Whole grains, seeds, peas, beans and nuts.)

Vitamin B3 helps you regulate your sleep patterns. (Liver, brewer’s yeast, chicken, turkey, fish, meat, peanuts, whole-grains, eggs and milk.)

Vitamin B5, better known as Pantothenic Acid, controls the action of the adrenal glands, which play a vital part in the stress response. (Liver, yeast, salmon, dairy, eggs, grains, meat and vegetables.)

Vitamin B6 is essential for the manufacture of the brain chemical serotonin, which is also called the feel good chemical. (Potatoes, bananas, cereals, lentils, liver, turkey, chicken, lamb, fish, avocados, soybeans, walnuts and oats.)

Vitamin B12 is necessary to help produce brain chemicals such as serotonin (dairy, eggs, meat, poultry and fish, for vegetarians in Miso and Tempeh both fermented soybean products)

Vitamin C is one of those vitamins that is used up very quickly during a stress reaction and needs to be replaced immediately as a deficiency leads to increased levels of anxiety and irritability. Smokers should take in Vitamin C in their diet and under the supervision of a professional should also take supplemental Vitamin C. (found in all fruit and vegetables but best sources are blackcurrants, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, cherries, grapefruits, guavas, kiwi fruit, lemons, parsley, peppers, rosehips, potatoes, tomatoes and watercress.)

How does stress affect weight gain and loss

I understand after all these years, that my relationship with food has always been dependent on my stress levels. It is learned behaviour. As a child our parents or older family members did not just reward us with sweets and food if we had been good. They would also indulge us if we skinned our knees, banged our heads, were frightened by next door’s dog, and had an earache. How many of us have run off, lost sight of our mother or father, been in panic mode, been found and given a great big hug, lots of attention even if it meant being scolded, everybody so happy to see you. “Come on we will all have an ice-cream. That will make it feel better”. How many times have we seen the toddler, working up a head of steam, stamping feet, getting red in the face being appeased by a cuddle and some food?

What I want to illustrate is that we are not just at the mercy of outside stress we also are quite capable of working ourselves up into a frenzy and creating a physical response that activates all the same reactions. The expression “worrying myself to death” is firmly established in our modern language.

If you are mentally, physically and emotionally under pressure, being concerned about the food you are putting in your mouth seems to take a back seat. Just give me chocolate!

Also when hormones like cortisol which have normal, daily functions in the body are being secreted all the time, some of your maintenance systems are affected. Cortisol should be at different levels at certain times of the day – highest in the morning and lowest last thing at night. This makes sense as it helps maintain a healthy blood pressure, raising it early in the morning as you wake up and decreasing it as you go to sleep.

You can imagine how confused the body is going to get if you are pumping cortisol into the system at increased levels throughout the day in response to your stress triggers. Cortisol is also necessary for metabolism or the fats and carbohydrates that we eat for that fast hit of energy and also the management of insulin and blood sugar levels.

We all know that sugar high that we get after eating too many sweet foods and then the sudden drop that urges us to consume even more of the nectar…. And that is why diving into the chocolate biscuits or the tub of ice-cream when stressed is so predictable. Particular if this has been your learned response since childhood.

As I mentioned earlier during a stress response the digestive process stops. That may be fine for an hour or two but if you are stressed the whole time you are not going to be able to process any healthy foods that you do eat efficiently. Long term this can lead to nutritional deficiency syndrome that encourages your body to store rather that utilise fat.

So if you are on a weight loss programme and even if you are eating a wonderfully rich diet of unprocessed foods, if you do not get your stress levels reduced, you will find it difficult to lose the excess weight.

Stress can also lead to serious eating disorders and when the body detects a famine it will stop all functions is considers unnecessary to survival, and this includes the reproductive cycle. Bones lose their density as the minerals they hold are leeched out into the bloodstream to sustain the body and I have seen X-rays of teenage girls with the bone density of an 80 year old. Stress comes in many guises and can sources and our modern lifestyle and diet plays a big part in its success.

©Sally Cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2020

I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty-two years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.

If you would like to browse my health books and fiction you can find them here: My books and reviews 2020