How to cope with stress for better health and wellbeing

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Stress – it is something that seems inevitable in our daily lives. In fact, we may be so used to living a stress-filled life that it becomes part of our daily existence, not realising what an impact even mild stress can have on our overall health and wellbeing.

What’s Wrong with Chronic Stress?

Any level of stress that we experience – whether it is just for short periods of time in response to a stressful situation, or ongoing over a period of time – causes the same reaction in our body.

When stressed, our body secretes the stress hormone cortisol, which alters our physiological response. Cortisol helps us cope with acute stressful situations by; increasing our blood levels for energy mobilisation, increasing our appetite, converting fat to energy, suppressing the reproductive system, and stimulating our immune organs to cope with bodily injury.

Back in the caveman days, this stress response was necessary for survival – in order to run from a lion or a bear for example – but was usually something that only happened once in a while.

However, in our modern lives, we can experience stress once a day, or several times throughout. This means that the level of cortisol in the body is chronically elevated, which results in a number of negative and destructive effects, including: visceral fat deposits, memory impairment, insulin resistance, osteoporosis, mood swings, changes in sleeping habits, various digestive issues, and neuromuscular complaints as well as immune system impairment, leading to autoimmune disease and increased metabolic disturbances.

Besides making us much less able to enjoy life and much more unpleasant to deal with, chronic stress can cause a cascading series of physiological response in our systems that leads to serious health issues in the long run.

Use Nutrition and Herbs to Alleviate Stress

It is therefore important for us to find ways to alleviate stress. Whilst it might not be unavoidable, we can make simple changes to our diet and lifestyle that will help to reduce the effect of stress on the body.

In relation to diet, certain foods and stimulants can trigger increased sense of anxiety, making us more prone to stress. Others have the effect of soothing the nervous system, or helping to increase our body’s ability to adjust to stressful situations.

Here are a few ways to use nutrition and herbs to manage stress:

  • Use “nervine” herbs, which are soothing to the nervous system, to encourage calm and relaxation. Examples are chamomile, valerian, lemon balm and oats.
  • Use “adaptogens”, which condition the nervous system to deal with a broad range of stressors and quickly return to a state of balance once the stressor goes away, without robbing the body of vital nutrients and energy. These include ashwagandha, tulsi (Holy Basil), shisandra Berry, eleuthero/Siberian Ginseng, rhodiola and passionflower.
  • Amino acids L-Theanine and GABA can help relieve stress. Green tea contains theanine, while almonds, whole wheat, halibut, walnuts, lentils, brown rice, potato, spinach, banana and orange are high glutamate or glutamic acid, which forms glutamine in your body and is a precursor to GABA.
  • Calcium has a soothing effect on the nervous system. Increase intake of calcium-rich food (e.g. leafy greens, bone broth) – especially during dinner to help you wind down.
  • Reduce the use of stimulants such as caffeine. Explore coffee alternatives such as Yerba Mate, green tea, black tea, or Rooibos (African Red Bush) to avoid the caffeine jitters.
  • Reduce the intake of sugar and other processed and refined foods. Those can cause blood sugar fluctuations, increasing the chances of developing mood swings and anxiety, making you more prone to stress.

More Rest, Less Stress

One of the biggest lifestyle changes you can make to help manage stress is to get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can cause an increase in cortisol levels, further increasing the negative health impact that chronic stress has on the body.

If you find it hard to get shut eye once you hit the hay in the evening, then you might like to try these ways to ease insomnia:

  • Practicing a bedtime ritual can help you wind down and signal your body that it’s time to relax and get ready for sleep – e.g. turn off the TV, computer or any other screens at least an hour before bed; have a warm cup of chamomile tea, or read a book. The blue light from electronic devices can interfere with your ability to relax and fall asleep.
  • Start to wind down and stay calm starting an hour or two before bed.
  • If you tend to remember things or come up with ideas around bedtime, have pen and paper handy by the bedside so that you can do a “brain dump” before bed and not have to worry about not remembering when you wake up.
  • Sugar, caffeine and alcohol can all affect our sleep. Try to reduce intake during the day if you can, and avoid them altogether in the evening.

Relaxation Techniques

Finally, introducing some ways to relax into your daily routine can be extremely beneficial. Try incorporating these practices into your lifestyle:

  • Meditation and breathing exercises.
  • Yoga, which helps release hormones that are conducive to relaxation. It is also a way to encourage conscious, deep breathing. Hip-opening poses are particularly great for releasing stored stress and emotions.
  • Very closely related to yoga is stretching. Taking time to hold a stretch can help you slow down and re-focus your energy. Forward bends, whether seated or standing, are very soothing for the nervous system.
  • Exercise regularly – exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, releases endorphin, which is a feel-good hormone.
  • Stop multi-tasking – focusing on one thing at a time helps you become more efficient and focused.
  • Get Slow – slow down and smell the roses! Often when you stop running in circles, you find the way out!
  • Schedule quiet time everyday- even if it’s just five or ten minutes. Close the door, turn off the computer, silence the phone. Take these few precious minutes to do what feels good to you and recharge your battery. Cultivate the awareness of how you feel when you are about to get into a “burn out” state, and give yourself a break before you begin to get to that state.

Taking a holistic approach to stress is very important for your mental and physical health. If you still find coping with stress is difficult to manage, be sure to speak with one of our Spectrum Therapy specialists for more techniques that might help.

David Clarke