Before reading this post I’d just like to put out a little disclaimer that I’m not a medical professional and if you feel unsure then of course consult your doctor. Personally I’m a huge fan of self-healing and the power of exercise and nutrition to heal from within, at the source. I feel it’s really important to do research, open up discussions and understand ourselves better. I would never advise anyone to come off medication because I’m not a doctor but I do advise you to ask questions and get to know your own body. So, back to the post…..
To fully understand how to relax it’s good to know what’s actually going on internally rather than just being told you need to decrease your stress and sleep better. If you understand ‘why’ then it really helps with ‘how’. Actually understanding your body better can really help with all walks of life and that’s what I aim to do through my training techniques. I find people are far more responsive once they know why they are doing something and how it can positively impact their life.
What is stress?
Stress is a part of life and the stress response of ‘fight or flight’ is totally natural and very useful in dealing with challenging situations. However, when stress becomes chronic, it can have serious negative effects on our health and well-being. Chronic stress can lead to a variety of health problems including anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease and even auto-immune disorders. The ‘whys’ behind all this should become clearer as you read on – it should also help you to realise that there is so much you can do to help protect your future self. In this blog post, I explore the dangers of stress and provide some tips on how to reduce / manage stress.
Stressful situations not only relate to work environments and work load but also home life, partners and children as well. On top of that are illnesses, infections, poor diet, alcohol, and even strenuous exercise. All of these can create stress in the body.
The Dangers of Stress
When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) automatically kicks in and our brain sends a signal to our adrenal glands (located at the top of the kidneys) to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is designed to help us cope with short-term stress – the ‘flight or fight’ response. It prepares your body if you need to escape from a situation or stand and defend yourself and is an evolved survival reaction mechanism. It does this by triggering the liver to increase blood sugar levels (glucose), suppressing the immune system (an important point to note) and therefore providing the body with the energy needed for the situation.
The problems arise when there is perceived on-going stress and the reaction mechanisms don’t switch off to allow the system to calm back down and go into a healing state. When stress becomes chronic, our adrenal glands are constantly releasing cortisol, which can lead to adrenal fatigue and a variety of negative health effects as listed above. I’d like to note that adrenal fatigue isn’t a medically recognised condition but symptoms include trouble falling asleep or waking up, general tiredness, body aches, nervousness, sugar cravings, digestive problems etc – personally I think a lot more research is needed because this applies to many many women. One other thing I feel is important to note here is that the adrenal glands take over the production of oestrogen in menopausal women (instead of the ovaries). If the adrenal glands are busy producing cortisol during chronic stress then they will produce less oestrogen and all menopause symptoms will be exacerbated even more….. not to mention the fact that oestrogen plays a key role in modulating the stress response in women. Just thought I’d pop that in there because it’s something us ladies need to be aware of, especially if struggling with menopause symptoms – there just isn’t enough research on this. Maybe because it doesn’t affect men? Apologies, I digress……
When the SNS is activated, our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and our bodies go into a state of heightened alertness both physically and mentally. This state is useful in short bursts, but when it becomes chronic, it’s a problem.
Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
The PNS is responsible for the “rest and digest” response to counteract the SNS and allow the body to heal. When the PNS is activated, our heart rate slows down, blood pressure decreases, and our bodies enter a state of relaxation. This state can help to counteract the negative effects of chronic stress. Being able to access this more relaxed state is increasingly important in the world we live in. You’ll find you can sleep better and handle situations more calmly. You’ll find your anxiety improves along with your digestion. One other thing to note is that the PNS plays a critical role in regulating the immune system. When activated, it stimulates the release of anti-inflammatory molecules, which can help reduce inflammation and promote healing. On the other hand, when the SNS is activated in response to stress, it can suppress the immune system and increase the risk of infection. This is pretty important right? Does anyone constantly catch colds or struggle to recover?
The Importance of the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body and provides the primary control for the PNS – the ‘rest and digest’ counterpoint to the ‘flight or fight’ response. It starts in the brain and extends to the colon, sending signals to various organs and tissues throughout the body, including the heart, lungs, digestive system, and immune system. The signals are information pathways between the brain and body, aiding in digestion and feeling full, regulating the immune system / reducing inflammation, controlling the heart rate and blood pressure, helping to modulate sleep and wakefulness, and assisting with speech and swallowing. It helps to promote relaxation, digestion, healing, and other bodily functions that occur during times of rest and recovery. It’s a very important system that is key component of your body and it’s very useful to be aware of it. We need our vagus nerve to remain healthy and do it’s job properly so that we feel calm and our bodies can function optimally, allowing us to rest and digest. Anyone prone to panic attacks? Researchers are becoming increasingly interested in the potential therapeutic benefits of vagus nerve stimulation for a variety of conditions including depression, anxiety and inflammatory conditions.
Overall, the vagus nerve is an important component of the PNS, and plays a crucial role in regulating many of the body’s involuntary functions.
How can we help ourselves?
There are a number of things you can do to help yourselves and bring down your anxiety / inflammation / stress load. It’s not rocket science and you’ll have heard these before but, as explained above, it’s really important to me that you understand why you are doing things. That way you are far more likely to stick with them and that’s the key to change. Long term changes need consistency.
- Exercise is, of course, important because it improves your overall function – you can efficiently convert food into energy and maintain stable levels of blood sugar, insulin, and other hormones, which decreases the amount of stress on your system. Our muscles naturally decline over time and it’s really important that we reverse that – lean muscle increases your resting metabolic rate and improves cellular function. Now I’m approaching 50 I’m not doing crazy cardio all the time and adding more stress to my body but am all about building lean muscle to improve my metabolism, improving my joint health, working on balance and stability and increasing my ranges of strength through mobility. Everything to keep stable, strong and mobile through the years. You don’t need to go crazy with exercise – focused workouts and consistency are key to improving, which is why my challenges work so well! Walking is also brilliant – stride out and swing those arms!
- Diet and alcohol intake is a huge topic and I’ll do a separate post on this but it can be key to adding stress to your body. Personally I think cutting out sugar is fundamental to health as we get older. Eating sugar causes your blood sugar levels to rise, which increases the release of insulin; this triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which adds to your body’s stress response and those chronic stress levels. Try it for 3 weeks and see how you go. Cut down on gluten too if you can, I don’t know anybody who hasn’t seen benefits from this. Try to limit processed foods and always eat when you’re hungry. Starving yourself is stressful too. Trust and listen to your body – we ignore our needs too much. If you’re often hungry then increase your protein intake through the day. Ignore calories, there’s way too much emphasis on that and don’t eliminate fat – healthy fats help to regulate hormone levels and mood swings, not to mention the importance for brain health. Very important for menopausal women!
- Breathing is important and something I talk about a lot in my workouts. If you pay attention to your breathing you may notice you shallow breathe and even hold your breath at times. Again, this is a stress response. Deep breathing is great for stimulation of your vagus nerve and PNS – try my breathing like a baby technique.
- Time out and nature – give yourself some space and be thankful. You’re pretty brilliant you know but I doubt very much that you acknowledge that. Stop beating yourself up and start telling yourself how good you are. I find that if I tell myself positive things when I go to bed then I get to sleep so much easier. You can even try giving yourself a little smile…. I probably look really weird lying in bed smiling and telling myself how great I am but who cares, it works! Your body listens to your brain so no more beating yourself up. Get activating that PNS with a positive mental attitude.
- Sleep is super important but I get annoyed when people say ‘sleep for 7 to 9 hours and you’ll feel great’! Yes, thanks for that……. The previous 4 points will help lead to better sleep patterns so focus more on those. Once your system calms down and chronic stress reduces then sleep should start to come.
- One last thing is your social circle. Just be aware of it. Are you spending your time with the right people who want the same as you or people that stress you out and make you feel bad? It matters. Positivity all the way.
Chronic stress can have serious negative effects on our health and well-being. Stress comes from many angles, not just work levels. Start thinking about what you’re putting into your body, try to relax and breathe and think about getting into a good, consistent exercise regime. My challenges are brilliant for this because they’re aimed at women over 40.
By activating the PNS, we can counteract the negative effects of chronic stress and promote relaxation. Try incorporating some of the tips above into your routine to manage stress and improve your overall health and well-being. Good luck and remember you’re awesome!
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