How well do you deal with your stress? Stress is a constant factor in most of our lives, whether it is from financial worries, career dissatisfaction, relationship problems, pain, illness, or unhappy home life. Stress is a modern day epidemic, which will eventually make us sick if we do not deal with it.
Many of us will turn to alcohol or other recreational drugs at the end of a busy and stressful week, however these habits can wreak havoc on our hormones, depress the central nervous system, and very often lead to dependence.
When stress is long lasting or chronic, it can impact on our health in many ways, for example, it can lead to weight gain, poor digestion, poor sleep, fatigue, depression, inflammation, and hormone imbalances. All of these factors can eventually lead to more serious health problems; therefore it is crucial that we learn how to manage our stress.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that can become dysregulated (too high or too low), and research has shown it to be implicated in many disease processes, including cancer (1), heart disease (2, 3), and diabetes (4).
Relaxing activities such as walking in nature, yoga and meditation, have positive benefits to our health by regulating our cortisol levels. These activities can assist the body into a more relaxing parasympathetic nervous system state, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system state, which is brought on by the ‘fight or flight response’. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, our digestion works more effectively, we sleep better, and we are more able to deal with stressful situations in a calm manner.
Our diet has a big impact on our health, and a poor diet is another factor that causes the ‘fight or flight response’ to be activated. Similarly, poor blood sugar control also causes high cortisol. It is important to eat well-balanced meals at regular intervals. Feeding the body the nutrients that it needs is key to good health.
1. Consume an Anti-inflammatory Diet
As inflammation is implicated in almost all disease processes, an anti-inflammatory diet is the cornerstone of nutritional therapy for chronic disease management. In fact, it is not only in disease that we should be eating well; we should be eating this way all or at least most of the time.
Infections from bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, yeast, mould, and toxin exposure can all cause inflammation in the body, but inflammation can also come from stress, and high cortisol.
Anti-inflammatory foods include: vegetables and fruit (preferably organic), nuts and seeds (in moderation), healthy fats such as oily fish and olive oil, fermented foods, and herbs and spices.
A nutritional therapist can help to tailor the right diet according to your health needs.
2. Gentle Exercise such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Swimming, or Walking
Regular exercise helps to reduce overall cortisol levels and therefore may reduce some of the more negative effects of stress on the body (5). It is important to take some time for yourself every day. As it is important to manage your body’s response to stress, relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and gentle exercise such as walking and swimming are highly recommended (6,7). However, while moderate exercise is beneficial to health, please bear in mind that over-exercising without sufficient rest, may also have detrimental effects on the adrenal glands, ultimately causing a depletion of the hormones cortisol and adrenalin, otherwise known as adrenal insufficiency or adrenal fatigue (or burnout) (8).
3. Meditation/Breathing Techniques
Studies show that meditation and mindfulness, when practiced regularly, improve wellbeing, and decrease symptoms of stress and anxiety (9). Even a few simple breathing exercises can very quickly calm us down when we are stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. Spending as little as 10 minutes a day practicing meditation can have far reaching health benefits. There are many apps such as Headspace, Calm and 10% Happier that can help if you are new to meditation. Give them a try if you feel overwhelmed by life.
4. Get out in Nature – Biophilia
It is well known that connecting with the natural world has a positive impact on our health and wellbeing, and this has been termed ‘Biophilia’, an inherent need by us humans to be affiliated with nature. It is thought that living in cities or mostly in indoor environments depleted of natural elements, may well have a negative impact on our mental health and wellbeing (10). Whereas, exercising in natural environments or ‘green exercise’ was found to significantly improve self-esteem and mood, and reduce stress (11). Studies also show that green exercise can alleviate workplace stress, so a walk outside in the park at lunchtime can be highly beneficial (12).
Adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, and fungi such as cordyceps, reishi, and chaga have been shown to effectively improve the body’s resistance to stress (13, 14). These plants have been used for centuries in both traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine from India, where they are used as tonics and believed to assist the body to find balance. They have now been accepted by modern science as effective interventions for stress-related health challenges. As their name suggests, adaptogens help the body to ‘adapt’ to challenging situations and environments. Generally, they are best taken as a course over a period of time. It is best to consult with a registered health professional in order to find the right remedy for you or your situation, as they are not suited to everyone.
6. Spend time with family and friends
Spending time with friends and those close to us can be fun and also beneficial to our physical and emotional health. Good relationships are well worth investing in, as friends can be not only fun but also supportive when trying to reach our goals; a shoulder to cry on when things aren’t going so well; or just a good listening board when we are burdened by choices and decisions. Being socially engaged and surrounding ourselves with happy positive people may help us to feel happier, reduce the stress in our lives, therefore resulting in better health and wellbeing.
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2. Chandola, T. et al., 2008. Work stress and coronary heart disease: What are the mechanisms? European Heart Journal.
3. McGuire, A.W., Ahearn, E. & Doering, L. V., 2015. Psychological distress and cardiovascular disease. Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management.
4. Wellen, K.E. & Hotamisligil, G.S., 2005. Inflammation, stress, and diabetes. Journal of Clinical Investigation.
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6. Grossman P, Niemann L, Schmidt S, Walach H. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis. J Psychosom Res [Internet]. 2004 Jul [cited 2014 Jul 10];57(1):35–43. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15256293
7. Li, A.W. & Goldsmith, C.A.W., 2012. The effects of yoga on anxiety and stress. Alternative Medicine Review.
8. KA, B., 2013. Overtraining, Exercise, and Adrenal Insufficiency. Journal of Novel Physiotherapies.
9. Carmody, J. & Baer, R.A., 2008. Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
10. Myers, O.G., 2012. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Environmental Ethics.
11. Pretty, J. et al., 2007. Green exercise in the UK countryside: Effects on health and psychological well-being, and implications for policy and planning. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.
12. Calogiuri, G. et al., 2016. Green exercise as a workplace intervention to reduce job stress. Results from a pilot study. Work.
13. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J. & Anishetty, S., 2012. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), p.255. Available at: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=3573577&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract [Accessed March 16, 2015].
14. Lakhanpal, T.N. & Rana, M., 2006. Medicinal and nutraceutical genetic resources of mushrooms. Plant Genetic Resources: Characterization and Utilization.