In modern life, stress is all around us, so how can we avoid it, reduce it or remove it? What is the difference between acute and chronic stress? How is acute stress helpful, and chronic stress harmful? And how come they have opposite effects on our body shape?
Stress is a normal life state, not a disease like anxiety or depression. It provided a survival mechanism for our ancestors. In modern life, we are unlikely to have to run away from sabre-toothed tigers, but acute stress response helps us get over life’s challenges and achieve our daily tasks, However, modern stressors tend to be chronic, raising our cortisol, and over time, it can result in chronic diseases, like obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, depression, and dementia.
The most stressful jobs include military personnel, police officers, healthcare workers, firefighters, News reporters, event coordinators, and personal assistants.
We have been created to switch between two physiological systems – the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight and flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest response.
Your senses monitor your surroundings, and, with the emergence of a real or imagined threat, your body triggers the stress response.
The stress response stimulates two different layers of the adrenal gland. Acute stress activates the inner part, known as the medulla, to produce mainly adrenaline; however, stimulation of the outer layer (cortex) takes place during chronic stress to produce cortisol.
Acute and chronic stress
Acute stress helps to face a life challenge. Struggling to meet a work demands or deadline, approaching an exam may trigger acute stress. The stress response should turn off when the stressor is over.
Your body releases adrenaline during acute stress to help you stay focused, alert and fully resourced for optimal performance. This activates the cardiovascular system to mobilise energy stores to meet urgent needs.
Your heart beats faster and stronger, your blood pressure rises, diverting blood to your brain, heart, and muscles to fight or flee the danger, while shutting down flow to organs not involved, such as the gut, sexual organs, and skin. That is why gut symptoms like heartburn and stomach pain, and sexual dysfunction, are common manifestations of stress.
On the other hand, chronic stress is harmful and could be related to an obvious external stressor like increasing work demands, marital dissatisfaction, family conflicts, and social disputes. Triggered or exaggerated by a hidden internal stressor such as poor blood sugar control, nutrient deficiency, accumulation of toxins, high inflammation, or hormonal imbalance. That is why some people are more prone to stress.
Maintaining the fight-and-flight response for a long time is detrimental. The build-up of cortisol and adrenaline throws your physiology out of balance and damages your body systems, resulting in disease. You need to address the external as well as the internal components of your chronic stress. And support your adrenal gland, which works overtime before it starts to show signs of fatigue, exhaustion, or failure.
Employees with chronic work stress have more than double the risk of having a metabolic disease. One study found that, after 11.5 years of follow-up, women who experienced dissatisfaction in their marriage had a three times higher risk of developing metabolic disease. A high level of stress from daily activities was associated with a weight gain of over 10kg in middle-aged men.
Chronic stress means weight gain; acute stress means weight loss!
This is because they are triggered through two different pathways. Acute stress activates the sympathetic adrenal medullary system to produce adrenaline, whilst chronic stress activates the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis to produce cortisol.
In acute stress, high adrenaline suppresses appetite and activates a catabolic state, resulting in significant weight loss. I have met many patients who have lost a couple of stones within a few days, after a severe infection like pneumonia or a major surgical procedure.
On the other hand, chronic stress can lead to obesity and metabolic disease, through comfort eating, simple over-consumption and a preference for calorie-dense, palatable foods. It also mobilises body fat to be stored in the abdominal organs as visceral fat.
We do not spend this accumulated energy, resulting in an android (apple) body shape. Stress also breaks down muscles, leaving us with thin extremities. The classic stressed body shape is a pot belly and thin limbs.
In a University College of London study, 2,500 subjects had their hair analysed for cortisol – those with a BMI of 30 or more had exceptionally high hair cortisol.
How do I know I have chronic stress?
You have chronic stress, if you are always anxious and have difficulty relaxing, tense, irritable, with a short temper, are physically or verbally abusive, unable to focus, suffer mood swings, headaches, foggy brain, constant fatigue, chronic back and neck spasms, low self-esteem, difficulty falling asleep or getting up in the morning, rapid and shallow breathing, acid reflux, stomach pain, low sex drive, changes in appetite, unexplained weight loss or gain, and excessive use of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.
Chronic stress also causes frequent illnesses (weak immune system), and mild cognitive impairment (forgetfulness) that may progress to dementia due to the shrinkage of the brain’s learning centre (hippocampus).
Stages of stress
Stress passes through three stages:
Stage 1: You are aware of stressors. You feel under control and can stop the stress from getting to you to trigger a stress response.
Stage 2: Stress response has already taken place, but you are strong enough to control your response, restrain yourself, staying calm.
Stage 3: You have lost the ability to control your response so that you burst out in anger and frustration to relieve the tension, which leaves you with regret.
How to measure stress
Testing stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) and measuring blood pressure and heart rate may be relevant in acute stress. However, these fluctuate widely, and they may not be suitable for assessing chronic stress.
However, heart rate variability (HRV) is a simple, widely available technique to measure chronic stress. Low HRV is an accurate marker of chronic stress.
What is success?
Success can perhaps be defined as achieving your daily tasks without wearing out your adrenal gland, taking advantage of the morning cortisol peak to achieve most of them, and avoiding the chronic stress traps of modern life.
Work actively to stay calm and in control at Stage 1 or 2, but also strive to bring yourself back in control even when you reach stage 3.
Despite all efforts, stress can strike at any time. You should aim to reduce stressors, rather than put up with stress. Apply fast-acting strategies for an immediate result and follow these up with long-term strategies to prevent chronic stress.
Fast-acting stress-coping mechanisms, including deep or Wim Hof breathing, meditation, prayer, journaling, listening to or playing music, and practising yoga or Tai Chi. You can combine techniques such as repeating a mantra in your head whilst staying calm and relaxed and breathing slowly and deeply.
Going out for a walk relaxes you and relieves your stress in many ways – through gentle exercise, fresh air and mother nature’s peace and beauty.
Hug a loved one, your body releases the connection hormone oxytocin, known to lower blood pressure and stress hormones, relaxing you and making you happy.
Mindfulness keeps you at the moment, rather than letting your mind drift back and forth into the past and the future. The technique is simple – stay relaxed and pay attention to your senses.
Savasana, or progressive muscle relaxation, is best at bedtime – you tighten and relax each muscle group from head to toe while taking slow deep breaths.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), helps you dig deep into your subconscious mind and find out which thought, feeling, or belief has been violated to trigger stress. This will help you to understand and manage the stressor and to stay in control at lower stress stages.
The ultimate solutions will not be a surprise to you, my friends! Besides lowering your internal stress that often triggers and exacerbates an obvious external stressor. Achieve a stress-free state by eating a healthy, balanced diet (whole, organic, locally produced, rather than processed foods with few nutrients), drinking clean filtered water, enjoying enough restful sleep, exercising regularly, stopping smoking, and cutting down on alcohol and caffeine, honouring your positive relationships, practising a hobby and reducing EMF exposure – mobile phone, screen time, remove electronics from your bedroom and switch off your Rota at night.
– Be positive, and proactive, have a vision, and encourage positive self-talk.
– Have time for yourself, and spend time with your family and friends.
– Observe the circle of influence (accept things that you can’t change),
– Adopt a hobby, and focus on what makes you feel happy and laugh
– Spend time in nature, playing with your grandchildren and pets
– Stay connected, visit worship places, and express love and gratitude
– Have a massage and enjoy aromatherapy with essential oils such as Lavender
– Avoid unhealthy stress coping strategies like junk food, alcohol, and illicit drugs
– Balance work and home, work smarter, not harder, and good time management
– Focus on one thing at a time, set up SMART realistic goals,
– Be assertive, learn to say no, and delegate some of your daily jobs
– Standing desk or stand and move for a few minutes every hour
– Take breaks with your colleagues at work, take a holiday
– Have a mentor or a coach
A study demonstrated that 1,470 individuals continued to have healthy cortisol levels while staying connected and attending worship places for 10 years.
Foods that reduce stress
Almonds and chamomile promote brain health by reducing inflammation and increasing brain-pleasing and calming hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, or GABA, and regulating stress (HPA-axis). Kiwi fruits, citrus and bell peppers are rich in vitamin C. Flavonoid in blueberries, and dark chocolate has a neuroprotective effect.
Green tea is a powerful antioxidant and contains L-theanine, which relieves stress by increasing GABA, dopamine, and serotonin. Eggs are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin. Chia seeds contain protein and omega 3.
One study reported that eating Atlantic salmon, rich in omega 3, three times weekly for five months, reduced stress compared with eating chicken, pork, or beef. Another study showed that high consumption of nuts is associated with reduced stress.
Please support your adrenal gland, the chicken that produces the golden eggs (stress hormones). Your package should provide nutrients necessary for making stress hormones as well as those that support the gland to recover and heals. These include the following:
– Vitamin B5 (anti-stress factor), dose 500 mg, needed to make Cortisol.
– Vitamin C (adrenal fuel), up to 5 g daily, according to your bowel tolerance.
– Omega 3 – reduces inflammation; the clinically effective dose is 2 gram daily.
– Multivitamins and minerals – provide necessary nutrients like B vitamins, Magnesium and Zinc.
– Calming agents such as GABA, Theanine, and 5HTP – reduce stress and enhance sleep.
– High protein, Phosphatidyl serine, and probiotics.
– Adaptogen – supports adrenal recovery – like Rhodula, Ashwagandha, passionflower, Valerian root, and St John’s wart.
So, you can see, my friends, that stress is all around us in modern life, but that doesn’t mean we have to give in to it. I hope you can see how you can avoid it, and, if it does strike, how you can reduce and remove it. As always, please ask any questions in the Comment section below – and please subscribe to the newsletter so that you don’t miss further vital information. Thank you!
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