Did you know that a whopping one in five Americans experience “extreme stress,” which includes shaking, heart palpitations and depression? If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by stress, you are not alone.
April is National Stress Awareness Month–the perfect time to take a step back and assess you and your family’s stress status. Sponsored by Federal Occupational Health, the campaign encourages Americans to take time to unwind, emphasizing, “Stress happens. Sometimes it’s unavoidable; at times it’s unbearable.”
Stress is actually a normal psychological and physical reaction to life’s constant and ever-increasing demands. No one is completely immune to stress–we all experience it, though at varying times and extremes. However, if you continuously ignore your stress and do not actively manage it, it can wreak havoc on your body. For example, your elimination organs, such as your colon and liver, start to hold onto toxins and waste rather than expelling them, paving way for illnesses and diseases.
The good news is, while some form of stress is inevitable, it is also manageable.
Take a look at some alarming stress statistics from the American Institute of Stress:
- Stress increases the risk of: heart disease by 40%; a heart attack by 20%; a stroke by 50%.
- About 40% of stressed people overeat or eat unhealthy foods.
- Over the past 20 years in the workplace, a 60% increase in productivity combined with stagnant wages equates to people working harder for less pay.
- Stress-related ailments cost Americans $300 billion every year in medical bills and lost productivity.
What is stress?
Stress is your brain’s response to change–whether it is positive or negative, big or small. There are three categories of stress:
- Acute stress, otherwise known as short-term stress, is your body’s immediate reaction to a change. Essentially, it’s your fight-or-flight response. The stress can come from a positive change (the nerves and excitement on your wedding day) or negative change (stress from an argument with a relative). Acute stress can actually be good for you, too, as it gives your body and brain practice for developing the appropriate responses for future stressful situations.
- Episodic stress is frequent, repeated acute stress, and it is commonly found in people with Type A personalities. People with episodic acute stress generally suffer from longer periods of intermittent depression, anxiety disorders and emotional distress as well as constant worrying and persistent physical symptoms related to acute stress.
- Chronic stress occurs when acute stress is unresolved and begins to increase or lasts for longer periods of time. The same stress hormones that are released to defend your body in a fight-or-flight situation can be detrimental to your health if you’re experiencing constantly high levels of the hormones in the long term. This may lead to high blood pressure (and a greater risk of heart disease), muscle tissue damage, weakening of the immune system and mental health issues.
How your body reacts to stress
When you’re stressed, the brain’s sympathetic nerve system stimulates the body’s fight-or-flight response. Your muscles immediately contract, your metabolism speeds up to provide more energy and your digestive system begins to shut down to redirect energy and blood to your muscles.
Meanwhile, your brain signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. The primary stress hormone, cortisol, then signals the liver to produce more glucose (blood sugar), which gives you that extra boost of energy to fight the perceived danger.
Your respiratory system might also kick into high gear as you experience faster breathing, shortness of breath, and sometimes, hyperventilating. Your cardiovascular system is put to work, too, producing a faster heartbeat and increased blood pressure levels. Your muscles tense up to protect your body from injury. If stress is short term, your immune system could actually get a boost, helping to fight infection more quickly.
Here’s a breakdown of the stress hormones and their tasks:
- Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.
- Cortisol increases blood sugar and also alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system and growth, as well as other non-essential processes during a fight-or-flight situation.
The health consequences of too much stress
Once the perceived threat is gone, other body systems act to restore normal functioning as stress hormone levels decrease. However, if the response goes on too long (for example, if the source of stress lingers or the response continues after the danger has passed), your body will continue to produce stress hormones. At constantly high levels, stress hormones can have detrimental effects to your health, and may play a key role in health issues such as:
- High blood pressure
- Heart problems
- Obesity and other eating disorders
- Skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis and eczema
- Permanent hair loss
Chronic stress can also exhaust the adrenal glands. According to Dr. Michael Murray, N.D., author of Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, “A low glycemic diet is the foundation of healthy adrenal glands.” Refined carbohydrates (foods high in sugar) elevate your blood sugar levels, causing hypoglycemia and impaired mental function. Studies show a link between frequent hypoglycemic episodes and depression, which is often a prominent underlying factor in stress.
Another issue that may coincide with adrenal exhaustion is low thyroid function. Hypothyroidism, marked by an iodine deficiency, is, according to Dr. Steven Langer in the book Solved: The Riddle of Illness, associated with cognitive impairment, memory loss, depression, slowness of mind, anxiety, suicidal tendencies and a variety of psychiatric disorders.
Nutrients to eat to help alleviate stress
You can help support the body’s adrenal system by including the following nutrients in your daily diet, all of which significantly decrease in the adrenal gland during times of stress. You also want to focus on nutrients that deliver a steady dose of serotonin, the “mood-boosting”chemical:
- Complex carbohydrates – found in whole grains, beans, seeds
- Omega-3 fatty acids – flax seeds, chia seeds, winter squash
- Vitamin C – found in dark, leafy vegetables, bell peppers, citrus fruits and berries
- Pantothenic acid – found in avocados, broccoli, kale, mushrooms and lentils
- Vitamin B6 – found in sunflower seeds, pistachios, bananas, avocados
- Zinc – found in spinach, mushrooms, cashews and beans
- Magnesium – found in dark, leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, soybeans and avocados
How to manage your stress
There is no way to eliminate stress completely from your life, but chronic stress is all-around unhealthy. Whether you are genetically predisposed to stress or life experiences, especially traumatic ones, have altered your ability to deal with stress in a healthy way, there are numerous strategies for managing stress levels. Here are five tips to help you combat stress:
- Reconnect with your spirituality. Maintaining a close, ever-growing relationship with God is fundamental to reducing stress. A spiritual connection with the Lord is the absolute key to stress relief, as it provides you with an unending sense of peace, faith and hope. When you find yourself in a stressful situation, it is realizing that He is in control that provides comfort and brings peace. Whether it’s attending service or singing your most cherished hymn, we all have our own ways to strengthen our bond with the Lord, but always make sure to dedicate time to prayer.
- Eliminate stress-causing foods. The worst foods for stress generally include items that are devoid of nutrients: fast/processed food, butter, cheese, meat, shellfish, soft drinks, energy drinks and alcohol. According to Dr. Murray, “Even small amounts of caffeine, as found in decaffeinated coffee, are enough to affect some people adversely and produce caffeinism – a medical condition characterized by symptoms of depression, nervousness, irritability, recurrent headache, heart palpitations, and insomnia. People prone to stress and anxiety tend to be especially sensitive to caffeine.” As for sugar, it can seriously impair your immune system especially if there are concurrently more than three teaspoons the bloodstream. Although sugar does boost your serotonin levels instantly, you will experience a drop shortly after. Resist the fleeting joy from eating a donut and make a delicious, nutrient-rich stress-busting smoothie instead (like the one at the end of this article)!
- Destress your environment. Although what we eat has a direct effect on our bodies, so does our environment. Automotive exhaust, chemicals in our cleaning products, water and cosmetics, environmental pollution, insect repellents, prescription drugs and UV radiation can all contribute to psychological stress by throwing your body off balance.
- Tune in to your body’s responses to stress. Do you experience a lack of sleep, suffer from digestive issues or tend to eat unhealthy foods when you’re stressed? When you make yourself aware of your stress tendencies, you might be able to solicit a different response in future stressful situations.
- Stay seriously healthy. This includes eating healthy foods, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep! Eat a majority of fruits and vegetables to keep your energy levels up and stress levels down. Plus, a raw foods diet will ensure your body is getting the important nutrients like vitamin C, zinc and magnesium, which are even more needed during times of stress. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “(exercising) regularly–just 30 minutes per day of gentle walking can help boost mood and reduce stress.” And sleep… your body needs rest, especially after a period of stress, in order to resume normal functioning.
- Schedule time to relax. Chronic stress and its related ailments occur because your body and mind don’t relax and rejuvenate after times of stress. Life is full of ever-increasing demands that bring about stress, so it’s important to take regular breaks and breathe. You can even incorporate relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises into your daily routine to help you destress.
- Ask for help. Develop your own stress support system by talking to your family and friends and accepting help if you need it. You can also speak with a mental health professional or take a stress management class. But remember, above all else, God is your #1 support: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not onto your own understanding.” –Proverbs 3:5
RECIPE: Try the Stress Buster Smoothie!
This Stress Buster Smoothie keeps you full (and away from tempting snacks) with its luxurious base of almond milk and almond butter powered by omega-3 powerhouse flax oil. Add in the vitamin B6 from bananas and the vitamin C from strawberries for the perfect anti-stress meal.
- 1 banana
- 1/2 cup strawberries
- 1 1/2 cup almond milk
- 2 1/2 Tbsp almond butter
- 2 Tbsp Flora DHA Flax Oil
- 2 Tbsp B-Flax-D
- Mix in a blender and enjoy!
Have you found a successful way to manage everyday stresses? Tell us in the comments below!