Ninety-five percent of all office visits to physicians are for stress-related ailments. Stress is also linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, liver disease, and suicide. Okay so stress is a big deal. Got it. But how does that actually work? What's actually going on and how can I avoid stress? Well the answer is twofold: mind and body. And they really are inseparable. This week we will look at body and next week we will tackle the mind. Well, shall we?...
Okay so first off let's take a look at where our bodies should be. Allostasis. Allostasis refers to your body's process of constantly making adjustments to obtain optimal functioning powers, stability, and efficiency depending on the environment around you. These adjustments can be minute or major and stem from both predictable and unpredictable events from your surroundings. The process of allostasis is at work in you all the time. It requires constant communication between your brain and your body. Acute stress sets off an emergency alarm that disrupts allostatic balance.
Acute stress stimulates a powerful series of responses in your body designed to help you survive a threatening situation. This is allostasis at its most hardcore. It's called the fight-or-flight response. This survival mechanism provides a powerful, almost instantaneous reaction to an emergency that gets maximum energy to the parts of the body that need it most. This automatic response is hardwired into your brain to provide immediate protection from bodily harm.
Fight-or-flight is awesome if we are fleeing from a man-eating tiger in the bush, but it goes from being a friend to foe when it relates to work stress or unpaid bills. When we experience stress in today's world, our body sees it as a threat and starts up the survive response, flooding our system with stress hormones that help during a threat, but when kept on or used frequently for non-emergency situations can start to tear down the body and accelerate disease. In today's modern world, especially, we are experiencing change at an unprecedented pace, living a lifestyle that pushes us beyond our biological limits to cope. Stress researches today suggest our modern culture has learned to cope by methods such as social withdrawal, alcohol, and drugs. Thankfully studies have proven that our thoughts can overpower our emotions in this area, allowing us to choose how we live and how we respond to stress. Instead of medicating symptoms, perhaps it's time to get down to it to find the cause, understand it, and dislodge it from our lives.
Allostatic Load or Overload
So allostatic load is the result of the wear and tear your body experiences as it continually adapts to these changes, either physical or mental. It's the danger zone where our bodies begin to be damaged because we are not living balanced lives. Genetics and how your parents experienced and dealt with stress when you were young (or when your mom was pregnant with you) have now been proven to greatly shape how well your body can cope with stress. But so do the choices you make on a daily basis. The way you live and the things you do to manage your stress make a huge difference upon whether or not you experience allostatic load. Sleep deprivation, overeating or a rich diet, caffeine and alcohol consumption, lack of regular exercise, prescription or recreational drugs, and anticipation or anxiety can cause internal imbalances that make you more susceptible and less resilient to the effects of chronic stress. These various factors combine to have a direct impact on how your body reacts to stress and can contribute to inefficiency that leads to allostatic load.
And that's not all. Oh no. When our bodies are in allostatic load we hold onto belly fat! What?!? That's right. Cortisol, a stress hormone, replenishes energy supplies that are depleted by an acute stress response. It also converts food into fat and stimulates your appetite. An excess of cortisol also blocks insulin from stimulating the muscles to absorb glucose. Instead, the energy is converted into fat (especially around your stomach). And that abdominal fat is associated with insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and inflammation. Freaky people!!
There's no doubt about it, allostatic load is no bueno. But when your multiple internal systems are well coordinated to maintain allostasis, you thrive. Making life changes means you are taking ownership of your life and living intentionally. This can be downright freaky. Soo many people just want a magic pill from the doc to get rid of symptoms and make them feel better. But treating symptoms will never take care of the problem like developing healthy habits and creating balance.
Four Things To Combat The Effects of Stress on the Body
The best defense for a stressed out life is a balanced life. Re-look at what's going on in your life. Literally write out your schedule and what you fill your day/week with. Your life will run more smoothly if you simplify. Your health is more important than accomplishment. Find ways that bring you back to homeostasis. Perfect your deep diaphragmatic breathing, meditate, pray, get a massage, Pilates!!, learn progressive muscle relaxation, journal, check out reflexology, acupressure, or acupuncture. Connect with people! When you do, your opiod pathways kick in, and your stress response is quieted. The goal here is to quiet the mind. Think intentional moments where you are blocking out the constant stream of stress-inducing thoughts and worries. This is not easy! It will take practice and intentionality!
Get enough sleep! The average adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep every night, but that number varies whether or not you are active or sitting at a desk all day. You need to give your body time to repair and rest its system! It simply will not work without it. Remember deep sleep is the most critical stage of sleep, so if you are sleep deprived it's so important to go to bed early to get deep Non-REM sleep. Are you a bed-rager in the morning? That's because you're not getting enough REM sleep in the morning just before you wake up. Sleep an extra half hour in the morning to improve your mood.
Food is the fuel we use to keep our bodies kickin! Stress depletes the body of nutrients, so it makes sense for you to eat foods that are as rich in nutrients as you can find, and that will deliver nutrients in their most effective form. Only eat food that remembers where it came from. Today, many people are eating food that is energy dense, meaning highly caloric, and nutritionally empty or even harmful because of additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. So instead replace processed foods with fresh, whole, organic, local food whenever possible. Drink hordes of water. Cut down on fats and sugars. The more low-quality food you eat, the more you will want to eat. Also be forewarned that caffeine of all types has very adverse affects on the stressed bod. It directly affects your central nervous system, heart rate, and respiration as well as significantly reduces mineral absorption in your body. Watch your food and drink portions. Try keeping track of what you eat and how much you're eating. A fab tool is the app Lose It! that allows you to log what you eat and how much you are exercising, and then let's you know where you're at for your calorie count during the day. And lastly, don't freak out about food. Studies have shown that people who diet regularly are more inclined to overeat! Putting strict, rigid rules up for yourself is only going to guarantee failure. We're going for all-encompassing healthy eating that we can sustain!!
Without question experts agree increasing your physical activity is the most important thing you can do to combat stress and to age well. I've heard exercise described as the only real fountain of youth, and baby, that couldn't be more true. Just like nutrition, it's important to find a sustainable goal for physical activity. A great starting point is a half hour of moderate exercise a day most days of the week. After sustaining this for several weeks, then you can up this. Remember slow and steady wins the race. Consistency is the most important thing. As we mentioned before when we experience stress, our body triggers the fight-or-flight response. During your stress response there are more than fifteen hundred biochemical reactions. By-products of the stress response, like cortisol (stress hormone), continue to circulate in the body. Exercise removes the by-products of the stress response, because it provides the activity dictated by fight-or-flight. By using the energy produced by stress, physical activity allows the body to return to homeostasis faster and reduces the physiological impact of chronic, modern stress.
So important to remember reducing stress is a highly individualized process. What works for one person might not work for another. And like all good things this is going to take consistency! So pick a day to sit down and draw up a doable plan to bring a bit more balance to your life than last week. Start small. Doable plan, people! Once that is nailed, small steps will be tagged onto that. Really want to succeed? Invite a friend to go through the process with you or hold you accountable. Now we're talking! Success is eminent with a friend by your side! Next week we will look at our final segment: the psychology of stress. And then we will truly know how to keep it together!
McClellan, Stephanie, M.D., & Hamilton, Beth, M.D. (2010). So Stressed. New York: Free Press.