• Erika

Relax, It's Good For You

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

Stress can have a major impact on our overall health and of particular importance in this current climate, our immune function. It can appear in many ways...

And can have many causes...

Our bodies are designed to deal with stress as a passing phenomenon. Something that occurs over the space of a few minutes or hours. This is known as an "acute stressor" which activates our fight-or-flight response via the sympathetic nervous system. When the system is functioning as intended, this stress response is a life saver. It primes our body to quickly escape whatever danger we might encounter or amps us up to “fight for our lives”. Adrenaline increases your heart rate to pump more blood to the muscles, while Cortisol prompts the liver to flood your system with glucose for the quick energy you need to fuel them. At the same time, less urgent bodily functions are put on the back burner. Digestion slows, libido and fertility aren't given a second thought. The body prioritises what it needs to survive in that moment. What does this mean for us modern day humans who no longer need to escape hungry lions? Instead, our sympathetic nervous system is constantly being triggered by daily stressors - job/bills/relationships/traffic. If this kind of stress continues over weeks, months and years (known as chronic stress) it can turn from a life saving process into a life threatening one...

That glucose release meant for a quick burst of energy turns into high levels of blood sugar over extended periods of time, increasing your likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes. Instead of a temporary elevation in heart rate, chronic high blood pressure (hypertension) is the result. Causing damage to blood vessels in both the heart and the brain, leading to possible heart attack or stroke. In the short term, cortisol can boost your immunity by limiting inflammation. Many of us have been prescribed (cortico)steroids to reduce swelling of an injury. Both work by restricting the production of prostaglandins, which create inflammation as part of the healing process. But too much cortisol in your blood over time will cause your body to become resistant to it's effects, decreasing this ability to regulate the inflammatory process.

Stress also decreases the body’s production of T-cells - lymphocytes that help fight off infection and play a central role in immune function. Killer T-cells are able to find and destroy infected cells that have been turned into virus-making factories. The less T-cells you have, the more at risk you are for viruses, including the common cold. Knowing all of this is one thing, but what steps can we take to reduce stress?

We need to start activating our parasympathetic nervous system more often. This is the "rest-and-digest" mode that helps us to relax and brings us back into balance. Meditation can be a great tool. But if that’s too ‘woo woo’ for you or you just ‘don’t have the time’, even taking a few minutes out of your day for deep breathing can be beneficial. Different types of breathing patterns have been shown to activate different regions of the brain. Quick breaths stimulate the amygdala, a region linked to fear conditioning. Whereas intentional paced breaths stimulate the insula, linked to compassion and self-awareness.

Get in some light exercise that doesn't trigger stress like going for a walk, or yoga. And I emphasise "light" here because we're focusing on ways to relax. A bit of heart pumping cardio can be beneficial every now and then, but it falls into the "acute stressor" category. Too much high intensity exercise will cause repeated stress on the body. So be careful not to over-train and make sure you keep it balanced with plenty of rest and recovery time. A healthy diet plays a crucial role in keeping your brain in good shape. Implementing even a couple of small changes such as reducing sugar intake and removing seed oils from your diet is a great start. Sugar can have a damaging impact on your mental health, while ketones (as discussed in this earlier blog post) can have the opposite effect.

Rest - literally! Make sure you're getting enough sleep. 7-9 hours for most adults is the ideal. I could write a whole new post about how vital sleep is for our health. And maybe I will, but please trust me when I say sleep needs to be higher up on most people's list of priorities...

And lastly, a change in mindset can have powerful effects. Switch your perspective to focus on the positive aspects of a challenging situation and what you can gain from it instead of the possible negative consequences - which are often rooted in our imagination, not reality. Turning things around like this can change the way your body reacts. The less stressful your mind views something to be, your body's stress response will equally decrease.

As part of this, do your best to limit negative self-talk. This is the inner critic that tells you you're not good enough. If those thoughts pop up, don't simply agree and leave it at that. Take a moment to challenge them. I hope it's clear by now that your thoughts are powerful and will manifest themselves in your body with ease. When someone creeps up on you and you get a fright, your heart will start racing even though you were never in danger.

I want to leave you with this quote from Eckhart Tolle;

"When you complain, you make yourself a victim. Leave the situation. Change the situation. Or accept it. All else is madness"

There is no point in dwelling on things you have no ability to change. You can't know why that person cut you off in traffic, and it doesn't matter!

These are just a few suggestions. Find what works for you. Laugh, play, smile. Just remember, decrease your stress for a healthy mind AND body.



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