You hear it all the time, probably out of your own mouth more often than not: “I’m so STRESSED!”
In fact, stress is so ubiquitous that it’s become our way of life. We barely notice it because we don’t know what it’s like not to be stressed. Being busy is hailed as a virtue, and productivity is regardless of the cost.
At the same time, we pursue plant-based diets and carve out time for exercise, rightly assuming these things will help our bodies be stronger and healthier. But there’s one problem:
Stress can sideline your health journey.
As with any health concern, the more you understand how and why stress is affecting your body, the better equipped you are to take steps toward healing.
What is Stress?
Google defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” It comes in two forms:
- Acute: “I’m changing lanes now and HOLY TOFU WHERE DID THAT TRUCK COME FROM?”
- Chronic: “I’m stuck in traffic yet again on the way to a job I hate, drinking my third cup of coffee and still feeling exhausted.”
In other words, acute stress spurs you to life-saving action, whereas chronic stress wears you down little by little in ways you may not even be aware of.
Some (Not So) Surprising Stress Statistics
- Job pressure
- Media overload
When asked, around 48 percent of people say their stress has increased in the last five years, and the same percentage also admit stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional lives.
The Stress Effect
Not surprisingly, 77 percent of people say they have poor physical responses to stress — although I would imagine the true number is higher because stress isn’t always considered as a culprit when you’re feeling out of sorts.
But stress is a powerful thing. When you come up against a stressor, you body reacts with a cascade of changes meant to give you a short-term way to deal with an immediate problem:
- Digestion and other non-essential functions slow down
- Cortisol is released
- Blood sugar and epinephrine rise
- Blood pressure becomes elevated
After the stressor has passed (you slam on the brakes, don’t hit the truck and arrive safely in the intended lane), your body’s processes are supposed to normalize as you come back down from the jolt of the acute response.
In today’s society, when we go from traffic jams and coffee to tedious jobs to smartphones constantly interrupting us with news we’d rather not hear, our bodies never have a chance to normalize completely.
Why? The main culprit is cortisol. This hormone, triggered through a cascade of chemicals from the brain and adrenal glands, prompts your body to break down stored glycogen and convert it to glucose for a quick source of energy during the stress response. Chronically elevated blood sugar decreases insulin sensitivity, meaning your body has to keep making more in order to get sugar into cells. Eventually, you could find yourself in the beginning stages of Type 2 diabetes as your cells simply refuse to respond or insulin production begins to drop off.
Cortisol can also break down proteins for fuel. Add to this a decrease in growth hormone production and problems dealing with stomach acid, and you could be at risk for muscle loss. Stomach acid is a key player in breaking down the proteins you eat, and if it’s not doing the job, your cells won’t get the protein they need.
And of course, we’re all familiar with the feeling of our hearts racing during times of acute stress. Blood pressure that stays high when it shouldn’t puts a strain on blood vessels, especially small vessels in areas like the eyes and brain. The heart itself is also affected as the body asks it to work harder than it’s meant to when you’re at rest. It’s little wonder some of the most common stress symptoms reported are fatigue, headache and muscle tension.
The other problem with cortisol? It’s a hormone. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it didn’t share some of the same precursors as other hormones you need — namely, sex hormones.
Your body has a specific and efficient process for making sex hormones. Part of this process involves pregnenolone, a hormone precursor normally used to make DHEA and, in turn, estrogen and testosterone. It’s also used to make progesterone and aldosterone through a different pathway.
When you’re not under stress, this process should work just fine, but stress “steals” your pregnenolone to make cortisol. As this continues to happen during chronic stress, important hormonal balances are disrupted and your blood sugar goes even further out of whack due to lower insulin sensitivity from a lack of DHEA.
Together, the effects of chronic stress can spell trouble for anyone, even those who practice healthy habits in other areas of their lives.
The Missing Link
Which brings me to my most important point in this post: Even if you have your diet on track and stick to a regular exercise regimen, you could be putting yourself at risk for some serious problems if you’re constantly under stress. A 2016 study provided a graphic illustration of this when it suggested stress has the potential to negate the effects of healthy meals by making the body react the same way as it would to a large influx of saturated fat, namely by increasing inflammation.
Just like the stress response, your body’s inflammatory cascade is helpful when it works the right way. It sends the proper immune cells and compounds to damaged areas to clean up and speed healing. That’s why you experience redness and swelling when you get an injury.
But what happens when the process becomes chronic? A constant state of low-grade inflammation appears to be at least one of the major underlying factors in heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases. One possible reason for this could be an increase in “adhesion molecules,” compounds that facilitate the formation of the arterial plaques associated with heart disease. Excess cortisol circulating in the blood can also lead to a less robust immune response, leaving you vulnerable to all manner of invaders and making it more difficult for your body to repair itself.
Smacking Down Your Stress: Techniques to Try
I don’t think I have to tell you how to know you’re under stress. As I said at the outset — just about everyone is! You may feel tired, apathetic or just plain “blah.” You may struggle with headaches or stomach aches with no apparent triggers. You’re probably not sleeping very well. And all of it is undermining your plant-based diet and the time you spend at the gym, running trails or whatever you like to do for exercise.
Identify Your Stressors
The first step in breaking the cycle and gaining control over your stress is to pin down the causes. To do this, grab a notebook and start a stress diary. Every time you feel stressed out, write down:
Over time, you’ll begin to see patterns. For example, if you look back at your diary for the week and see a lot of entries like,
“Boss called another last-minute meeting. Critical; everyone had to go. Got angry and fumed through the whole thing. Ate too much Chinese takeout for lunch.”
“Husband called ten minutes before kids needed to be picked up and asked me to get them. Essential; couldn’t make other arrangements. Didn’t talk to him all through dinner. Stormed around slamming things until I felt better.”
…you know you need to learn a better way to cope.
Rule Your Stress
Fortunately, you don’t have to do anything fancy or mystical to bust stress. You don’t have to go on a retreat and do nothing except sit next to pools of calm water and listen to yourself breathe (unless you want to!). Here are some of my favorite simple, calming activities that I suggest to clients and have seen work for friends and family:
- Reading favorite books
- Adult coloring
- Crafts like knitting or sewing
- Stretching and/or restorative yoga
- “Unplugging” from devices and media
- Spending time with laid-back, supportive friends
- Having a cup of chamomile tea before bed
- Spending time in prayer, reading the Bible and connecting with God
You can engage in these activities any time during the day, but I recommend incorporating one or more into your evening routine. Stretching, fixing yourself a cup of tea and settling in to relax without your phone blaring push notifications at you every ten seconds helps you unwind from the day’s events and prepares you for a good night’s sleep — the ultimate restorative stress-buster!
You can’t escape all stress, but you can beat the stressors life throws at you every day. A stress management program is an essential part of staying healthy — without one, all the kale and burpees in the world won’t help you stay well!
Are you ready to get off the stress train and stop feeling “blah” all the time? Book a personalized 4-week package! I’ll walk you through the lifestyle changes you need to find relief and gain control over what’s stressing you out.