Originally meant to give you an adrenalin boost when faced with immediate physical danger, the body’s cave-man “fight or flight” stress response involves adjustments in the cardiovascular, immune, and endocrine systems. Stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol increase the heart rate and blood pressure, breathing becomes more rapid in order to pump oxygen into the muscles, and the immune system braces for injury. After an episode of acute stress, such as a trip to the dentist, the body calms and reverts back to its normal settings.
The problem today is that this cave man response has not evolved to adapt to the everyday stresses of modern life. Non-life threatening events such as arguments with your spouse, an ongoing dispute at work, or daily sirens and traffic jams elicit the same physiological response that often lasts over an extended period of time. Prolonged stress weakens the immune system, puts pressure on the heart, damages memory cells in the brain and deposits fat at the waist, says Dr. Bruce S. McEwen, director of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at the Rockefeller University and the author of ”The End of Stress as We Know It.” Stress has been linked to aging, depression, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, diabetes and mental disorders.
In people with prolonged life stresses such as unemployment or family problems, studies show increased illness and likeliness of contracting the common cold and flu. The body’s main stress hormone cortisol releases amino acids from the muscles, glucose from the liver, and fatty acids into the bloodstream during times of stress to ensure body cells receive a burst of energy. In our sedentary lifestyles, the body does not adequately use this extra energy and the elevated hormones continue to release even more stress hormones in an attempt to elicit a physical response to the “energy burst”. The extra glucose results in fat deposits at the waist – increasing risk of heart disease and cancer just to name a few. Over an extended period of time the cortisol jolts aggravate the body even more, causing high blood pressure, tissue destruction, muscle loss which slows the metabolic rate, bone loss, impaired immune function and brain shrinkage. Cortisol overproduction has been shown to shrink nerve cells in the hippocampus and stop the formation of new hippocampus neurons, which can cause aging and memory problems. High cortisol has also been shown to reduce the production and action of cytokines, which initiate an immune response.
The following may be helpful in reducing cortisol levels:
Early bedtime – try to be in bed by 10pm, inadequate sleep is a stressor that causes excess cortisol. Melatonin is a natural sleep aid that can be effective for jet lag and re-setting your sleep cycle. Hypnosis can also be very effective at inducing sleep and a sense of well-being.
Eat frequently – your cortisol levels rise after 5 hours without food.
Eat breakfast containing protein – protein helps to rebuild glycogen reserves, which are needed to feed your brain. Your brain is particularly depleted after sleeping.
Eliminate sugar and processed foods – eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to ensure you have vitamins to boost your stress resistance. Vitamin C, B1 and B2 are especially important, see below.
Eliminate caffeine completely – caffeine directly stimulates stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Caffeine is a diuretic; it depletes your body of water and vitamins, contributing to bone loss. Caffeine can also interfere with the quality of your sleep.
Drink water – dehydration induces a stress response which raises cortisol levels. Drink water before you go to bed and when you wake up.
Minimize prolonged intense physical activity – after an hour of exercise your body’s testosterone levels decline and cortisol begins to rise. Keep workouts to under an hour and do not train more than 2 days in a row.
Practice relaxing activities such as massage therapy, having sex, and laughter.
Stress can cause over or under-eating and trigger depression which can lead to a low metabolism and inactivity. Stress can also increase bad habits such as smoking and drinking, which tend to lead to bigger health issues such as cancer and heart disease. Stress hormones such as cortisol actually deplete the body of vitamins B, C, A and magnesium, which get used up during stress responses as the tensing of muscles and the rise of blood pressure. During times of anxiety we are in special need of B vitamins, which help maintain our nerves and brain cells. If calories consumed during stressful times don’t come from nutritious foods, vitamins will be depleted even more quickly. Even a slight vitamin B deficiency from a few days of consuming empty calories such as chips and soda can upset the nervous system and compound stress, according to Elizabeth Somer, R.D., an Oregon-based nutritionist. During times of stress try to consume bananas, fish, baked potatoes, avocados, chicken and dark green leafy veggies which are all great sources of B vitamins. Click here for some stress fighting foods and supplements.
Scientists began to discover the mechanisms behind the mind and body link in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. According to an article in the NY Times, nerves were found that connect the brain with the spleen and thymus, organs used in immune responses, and it was established that nerve cells could affect the activity of infection-fighting white blood cells. Today I don’t think the mind-body link can be disputed. Take into account how great you feel both physically and mentally after an hour of yoga, a run in the park, or a few days in the sun.
Here are some other tips to help increase your sense of well-being:
Retrain your thought patterns – this goes beyond trying to always see the bright side of things. The mind can exert a direct influence on the immune system. ”The brain has the capacity to modulate peripheral physiology,” says Dr. Richard J. Davidson, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, ”and it modulates it in ways that may be consequential for health.” Books such as Stillness Speaks and the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle discuss new methods of thinking that can de-clutter the mind and encourage stillness, peace and what he calls “the joy of Being.”
Exercise – low impact activities such as walking and rollerblading are enough to stimulate endorphins without inducing stress on the body.
Fresh Air – give your mind and body a break from sitting and staring at your computer screen. Make an effort to get outside at least once during the work day.
Deep breathing – a shallow or irregular breathing pattern caused by stress can disrupt the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. During time of stress, you can help to expel excess carbon dioxide by breathing out for 5 long seconds and then let your lungs refill naturally (do not consciously inhale). Do this for 5 breaths in a row with a closed mouth and you should feel a sense of calmness. Regular deep breathing may prevent illness, as the more stale air you exhale, the more fresh air you can inhale, which gets deeper into the lungs and does not give all the little creepy crawlies a moist, damp environment in which to multiply.
Reduce your morning commute – studies show higher cortisol levels in people with longer morning commutes. Using public transportation instead of driving can reduce stress induced by traffic jams. Other habits that may help make your commute more fun include carpooling, music, and choosing a slightly longer but less congested route.
Hypnosis and self-hypnosis – stress hypnosis can be very effective at inducing a state of relaxation and can also be used as a natural way to induce sleep. Once you have practiced hypnosis you can learn the various calming phrases and repeat them to yourself to clear your mind and induce yourself into relaxation and possibly sleep.
Advanced Hypnosis Center of New York City
Rob Hadley, Vancouver, Canada
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