How Stress Affects Your Health
A Healthy Diet ≠ Optimal & Vibrant Health
Your diet isn’t always a direct correlation to your health. Yes, diet plays a big role in it, but it’s not the be all and end all of optimal health. Getting the nutrition right is part of the puzzle, but the lifestyle is just as important.
Take a ‘clean’ diet for example. If person A eats a dairy free, gluten free, plant-based, Paleo meal but is also stressed about a work deadline, worried about their mother’s upcoming house move and fearful he may ‘react’ to a food in the meal, person A won’t be digesting the meal well and may very well feel unsatisfied and bloated after eating.
Now take person B who eats a comforting, home-cooked meal with his family, cooked by his mother. Person B savours every bite because it’s been awhile since he’s seen his family all together and absolutely adores his mother’s cooking. Person B will be content, happy and digest his meal well.
If we compare only the two meals, from the outside Person A seems to be ‘healthier’. However, it’s all about the context.
Regardless of the ‘stress’, our body reacts the same way…
We all have different things that stress us out. Some of us get stressed with work deadlines whilst others thrive in that environment. Some of us stress and worry continuously over family and friends, whilst others are incessantly concerned of the state of their own health. These stressors I listed are more often than not, ongoing, not short lived, so we need to learn to recognise what stress feels in order to control and stop it.
Nervous System Overview
Sympathetic Nervous System vs Parasympathetic Nervous System
There are two main states of your nervous system – sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. When you’re in a stressed state, the sympathetic ‘flight or fight’ nervous system is in drive. Physical reactions include:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased respiratory rate – your breathing is faster and more shallow
- Appetite suppression
- Inhibited digestive capacity
- Stimulated colonic motility
- Suppression of the immune system
- Suppression of the reproductive system
These physical reactions allow you to ‘run from the lion that’s chasing you’ scenario. You don’t need to eat, to fight off viruses or make babies when you’re running from a lion. But running from a lion is short-lived though, and most of us have constant and ongoing stressors in our lives that keep us in this sympathetic overdrive which has detrimental effects over time.
On the flipside, the parasympathetic system is your ‘rest and digest’ system. When you’re in a calm, relaxed state, your physical reactions include:
- Conserve energy for later use
- Regulate body functions like digestion, reproduction and urination
- Heart rate and blood pressure decreases
- Breathing decreases – your breaths are slower and deeper
- Stimulates vagus nerve – which in turn reduces the experience of stress
- Influences the limbic system in the brain, where emotions are processed
How to reduce stress levels
There are various ways to manage and reduce stress in your life, and my main advice is to choose something that you enjoy and works for you. Below are a number of ideas to try:
- Spend time in nature. Go for a walk in the forest or a swim in the sea.
- Get a massage
- Practice meditation
- Deep abdominal breathing, or box breathing, helps to regulate the breath which in turn activates the parasympathetic system.
- Play with animals or children.
- Practice yoga or tai chi.
- Do something you enjoy, such as your favourite hobby
- Be around people who make you smile.
- Sing, chanting. This activates the vagus nervous which activates the parasympathetic system.
Keep your mind and your body healthy
- Exercise regularly.
- Limit alcohol, smoking or drugs.
- Get plenty of sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours each night.
- Eat a balanced diet. Include foods that nourish your adrenal glands, hormones and balance blood sugar.
- Attend to any underlying health conditions that put stress on the body. Remember, stress is stress whether it’s biological or emotional.
- Deal with any underlying trauma that’s keeping your mind or body in sympathetic overdrive.
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