Life can unpredictable and stressful. If we are lucky, the stress we experience is short-lived. Too often, however, situations keep us stressed for days, weeks, or even months. This experience of unrelenting pressure can cause significant damage to our mind and body, and, therefore, to our overall health.
Stress contributes to
- Depression and anxiety
- The aging process
- Heart attack
- Damage to the brain structure and connectivity
- The spread of cancer
Stress management should be one of our top priorities if we want to stay healthy in mind, body, and spirit.
The Stress Response
Let’s take a look at the mechanisms of the stress response. Stress is caused by physical, emotional, social, economic or other factors that puts pressure on us to respond. The bigger the pressure, the more stress.
It is said that change is the only constant in life. If stress is associated with change, then stress can also be considered a constant. Luckily, the human body is designed to deal with stress. It does so by activating the secretion of the hormone cortisol, which initiates a cascade of physiological responses that allow us to deal with any immediate danger or challenge.
When the adrenal gland releases cortisol into the body, the hormone “turns off” many of our normal physiological mechanisms, while “turning on” temporary ones. This is the source of the “fight or flight” response. However, our metabolic functions return to normal once the emergency is resolved.
Unfortunately, if we are under constant stress, the adrenal gland does not get a signal to stop producing cortisol. This long-term production of cortisol can severely compromise our health and permanently alter our metabolic process.
So, what can we do about handling stress? Let’s look at some options.
While we may not be able to eliminate stress in our lives, we can take measures to give the body the relief from stress that it needs in order to prevent prolonged, long-term stress and stay healthy.
- Go to bed by 10:00 pm. Your body needs sleep. Over time, getting six hours of sleep a night, or less, can significantly increase cortisol levels. It takes a full 7 to 8 hours of good-quality sleep to give your body enough time to recover from the stresses of the day before.
- Practice a stress-reduction technique. Research has shown that the Transcendental Meditation® technique (TM) can lower cortisol levels. The lowering of cortisol is found even more in those who practise TM regularly. The longer people practise TM regularly, the more pronounced the effect. TM also shortens the time it takes for the body to return to normal functioning following stressful stimuli. This is significant, because, as mentioned above, high cortisol levels can create a self- perpetuating loop by disrupting the delicate feedback balance that tells the brain to stop releasing cortisol. Researchers conclude that since the Transcendental Meditation technique relieves the body of stress, including debilitating long-term stress, the body can respond more normally to short-duration stress stimuli.
- Try to exercise a few days a week. And if possible, exercise outdoors. Research shows that outdoor exercise is more beneficial for your heart and blood pressure and it feels less strenuous.
- Decrease consumption of caffeine and alcohol, both of which impact cortisol levels.
- Add more organic spinach into your diet. Spinach has magnesium, which helps balance your body’s production of cortisol.
- Eat more citrus fruits. Research has shown that citrus fruits like oranges and kiwis have a high content of vitamin C, which helps slow the production of cortisol.
- Make sure you’re getting enough healthy omega-3 oils in your diet. These healthy fats inhibit inflammation and help lower cortisol levels, thus reducing stress.
- Take more zinc. Research has shown that zinc helps inhibit the production of cortisol. Vegetarians can get zinc from cashews, pumpkin seeds, spinach, and beans.
- Good news! Dark chocolate contains antioxidants that help decrease inflammation and slow cortisol secretion. Just make sure that it’s at least 70% dark chocolate.
Results of Long-Term Stress
It is essential to put time and attention into managing our stress, as experiencing prolonged stress seriously affects our health. Here are some of the documented results of experiencing long-term stress:
- Weakened immune response, leading to heightened vulnerability to infection;
- Memory loss: Excess cortisol can overwhelm the hippocampus and cause atrophy. Studies of the elderly have indicated that those with elevated cortisol levels display significant memory loss, resulting from hippocampus damage. Luckily, the damage is usually reversible.
- Shortening of telomeres. The link between memory loss and stress may in part be due to shortened telomeres. The telomere is the outermost part of the chromosome. As we age, telomeres shorten. Recently, there has been an association between shorter telomere length and cortisol levels, indicative of exposure to chronic stress. If its telomeres get too short, a cell may die. Shortened telomeres are associated with risks for dementia and may be a marker of biological aging.
- An increase in abdominal fat. Researchers at Yale University found slender women who had high cortisol also had more abdominal fat. Abdominal, or visceral, fat is a key player in various health problems. For example, visceral fat is linked to metabolic disturbances and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In women, it is also associated with breast cancer and the need for gallbladder surgery.
- Systemic inflammation. Researchers have found that chronic stress changes the gene activity of immune cells before they enter the bloodstream, so that they’re ready to fight infection or trauma, even when there is no infection or trauma to fight. This leads to increased inflammation in the body. Problematically, systemic inflammation is known to cause elevated cortisol levels. Thus, chronic stress can create a vicious cycle wherein cortisol and inflammation feed each other. Chronic inflammation has been linked with various conditions, such as heart disease, depression, and cancer.
Arming ourselves with an understanding of the body’s stress response and taking steps to minimize the impact of stress on our minds and bodies is key to maintaining balanced health. This is why any responsible personal health routine must include attention to diet sleep, and the implementation of a stress-reduction technique, such as Transcendental Meditation.
Thank you to the health experts at The Raj Ayurvedic Health Centre for this information. The Raj offers authentic Ayurvedic spa treatments to cleanse and balance the physiology and to bring balance to mind and emotions.