Most of us are all too familiar with the feeling of being stressed — your heart races, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, your blood pressure rises and your hands become cold or clammy as blood flow is directed to your limbs to prepare for escape. But most of the time there is no escape, as we sit in front of our computers or trapped in traffic.
This is our initial response to stress, otherwise known as an adrenalin rush or sympathetic nervous system response. The parasympathetic nervous system response, or relaxation response, is just the opposite; your breathing slows and deepens, your muscles relax, your blood pressure lowers, your pulse rate slows and blood flow is directed to the organs of digestion and elimination. If you always feel tense or anxious, your body will remain in a constant state of heightened arousal. Chronic stress, particularly psychological stress, is quite detrimental to our health.
The effects of chronic stress
Whether it’s physical, emotional, mental or environmental, real or imagined, when we’re under chronic stress our bodies release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands when we’re under prolonged stress; they release a different hormone, adrenalin, as an immediate response to stress. Both cortisol and adrenalin are necessary in small amounts, but in excess they can be harmful.
The effects of chronic stress on our bodies can include:
- High blood pressure and increased cholesterol
- Increased weight gain around the abdomen
- Suppressed immunity and increased susceptibility to infections
- Insomnia or sleep disruption – waking too early or between 2am and 4am
- Damage to the area of the brain responsible for memory
- Increased risk of type-2 diabetes and insulin resistance
- Increased back pain and tension headaches
- Decreased sex drive
The high cost of stress on the brain
Mental or emotional stress is the most harmful to us because it is not followed by a relaxation response, whereas most physical stress on the body is followed by a period of rest. As long as the perceived stressful event remains in our head, we remain in a state that is always just a notch above a healthy resting, balanced state. This can lead to permanent physiological changes.
Not to add to your stress level, but accumulating research indicates that continuous or intense stress may sometimes negatively influence the brain and its function. Studies have found evidence that severe stress could alter brain cells, brain structure and brain function. As a consequence, memory problems and the development of some mental diseases, including depression, can result.
What can you do?
The solution to stress is multifaceted and includes sleep, a balanced diet, the right supplements, a positive attitude and an effective exercise plan. Here are five tips to help protect your brain and body from the negative effects of stress:
1. Take a high-potency fish oil: DHA fish oil has been found to help protect the brain from the negative effects of elevated cortisol. I recommend two to three capsules twice daily with food.
2. Do deep breathing exercises while driving: Taking deep breaths tricks your body into the relaxation response. Make your drive to work more enjoyable by listening to motivational CDs.
3. Practice mindfulness in your day: If you start to feel stressed or overwhelmed, concentrate only on what is happening to you in your surroundings. Get a nice-smelling hand cream to keep at your desk — use it as a reminder to keep you centred and calm when you need to step back from things during your day.
4. Relora blocks the release of cortisol: Consider using a Relora supplement if you are under continuous stress. It is also particularly beneficial for stress-related weight gain around the abdomen. Take two capsules every evening and one upon waking for at least one month.
5. Get a massage: Massage reduces cortisol and may actually help you lose weight — along with a good night’s sleep! Your brain cells will thank you for it.
Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique.