A modern lifestyle is a perfect recipe for chronic stress. You work long hours, sat at a desk out of direct sunlight, looking at a computer screen while fuelling your body on coffee. Oddly enough, it is a similar story at home for many. You get home and sit down in front of the TV/ computer, indoors, with the curtains drawn to avoid the glare of the sun on whichever screen you have positioned yourself in front of. All this on top of common stressors which come and go from our lives such as relationship problems, money worries, loss of a loved one or having too much work and not enough time.
Physiology of stress
When we get stressed our body releases a hormone called cortisol which prepares the body for a stressful situation. In a nut shell, cortisol will:
- Increase blood pressure.
- Increases blood sugar levels.
- Stimulate the release of adrenaline.
- Inhibit histamine, which will suppress inflammation. This can reduce healing in the body if stress is chronic.
- Block T-cells from replicating.
- Prevent T-cells recognising interleukin signals.
- Causes atrophy of the hippocampus, which reduces memory function.1
All of the above offer benefits to acutely stressful situations, but has some nasty effects if the stress is chronic – prolonged high blood pressure/ blood sugar, slow wound healing, poor sleep, weak immune system and poor brain function are all hall marks for serious illnesses; and these illnesses are on top of the constant feeling of being stressed!
It can all be overwhelming, draining, and at best disheartening, at worst, depressing, so here I’ll go over a few simple diet/ lifestyle changes which research has shown can reduce the feelings of stress.
1. Work it out
Exercising is a potent stress buster, and the most effective are sprinting exercises, which are essentially any exercise which requires quick bursts of energy. Be it swimming, cycling, running, climbing or even push-ups; there is an exercise for everyone. You need to find an exercise which suits you, and do it to a level which you find intense a couple of times a week. These kinds of exercise not only lower stress, but lower the risk of stress related disease such as cardiovascular disease.2,3.
Hell, you’d be surprised how calming 10mins on a punching bad can be! Stress prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’ – both of which are sprinting exercises. Whether you run your fastest mile, or thrash a punch bag within an inch of its stuffing, you have satisfied your biological need, and it is calming!
2. Natural light
Exposure to natural sun light (not artificial light from standard lightbulbs) is strongly linked to feelings of stress. Natural light is a key regulator for the circadian rhythm, which plays a vital role in hormone production and mood. The more natural light you are exposed to is related to the amount of stress you feel (and how tired you are). If you work in an environment where natural light levels are low see if your employer will invest in ‘daylight bulbs’, which emit the same spectrum of light as the sun. Alternatively (or in addition) make an appointment each day to get outside. Go for a short walk and get the sun on your skin4, 5.
There are some supplements which can help combat the feeling of stress. Supplements containing golden root, or St Johns Wort have all demonstrated an ability to elevate stress, boost mood and reduce anxiety. These supplements have been reported to interact with certain medications though, so if you take medication and are considering these, it is worth consult your doctor about any possible interactions6,7,8.
4. Get out and about
Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology has shown that spending just 15mins outside amongst nature is enough to improve mood, and lower the amount of cortisol in the body. In Japan, this is called ‘Forest Bathing’, and in addition to improving mood, has also been shown to improve the immune system.
Go for a hike, forest stroll or even a weekend in the country every now and then. This kind of get-away will remove you from the stressful environment and offer you a bit of a mental break from it all. Detaching from a seat in-front of a screen and getting some fresh air can work wonders for your health and mood9.
5. Cut out vegetable oils
Getting the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is important. Vegetables oils, which are abundant in modern diets contain precursors to pro-inflammatory cytokines, which contribute to the stress response. Cutting these oils out of your diet, and eating more oily fish will help combat any imbalances of fats in the body, and normalise the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals. It will also help increase the amount of omega-3 in your diet, and allow the conversion of ALA to EPA/ DHA occur more readily.
6. Chose tea over coffee
Caffeine does have its health benefits, but it can also can increases feelings of stress and anxiety. Although tea still does contain caffeine, it contains less than coffee, and also contains a chemical called L-theanine, which inhibits the action of cortisol on the brain – reducing the feeling of stress. By swapping coffee with tea (or green tea) you will reduce the stressing effects of coffee, and increase the calming effects of tea10.
7. Get some magnesium
Magnesium plays an important role in managing the biological effects of stress, and levels in the body get seriously depleted if you are regularly getting stressed. If magnesium levels are low, the adverse effects of stress are intensified. If you don’t regularly eat foods high in magnesium such as leafy greens and nuts, you may want to consider a magnesium supplement to help your body cope with stress a little better11,12.
How stressed you are is not out of your control – you can get some magnesium/ fish oil supplements to help you be more biologically prepared for stress. If you do find yourself feeling stress, get outside, away from the stressor. Maybe go for a run or have a quick but intense gym session, then return for a nice relaxing cup of tea. I guarantee it will help.
1. Michael Randall. (2015). The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. Available: http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/fall-2010/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis#.VSaI8pNcDQo%29. Last accessed 15/4/15.
2. Peter Salmon. (2001). Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: A unifying theory. Clinical Psychology Review. 21 (1), 33-61.
3. Bernward Winter. (2007). High impact running improves learning.Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. 87 (4), 597-609.
4. Simon N. Young. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of psychiatry Neuroscience. 32 (2), 394-399.
5. Mustafa Kemal Alimoglu. (2005). Daylight exposure and the other predictors of burnout among nurses in a University Hospital.International Journal of Nursing Studies. 42 (5), 549-555
6. Butterweck V. (2003). Mechanism of action of St John’s wort in depression : what is known?. CNS Drugs. 17 (8), 539=62.
7. Ara I. (2009). St. John’s Wort modulates brain regional serotonin metabolism in swim stressed rats.. Pak J Pharm Sci. 22 (1), 94-101.
8. Sana Ishaque. (2012). Rhodiola rosea for physical and mental fatigue: a systematic review. Complementary and alternative medicine. 12 (70)
9. University of Rochester. (2010). Spending time in nature makes people feel more alive, study shows. Available: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100603172219.htm. Last accessed 13/01/2015.
10. Seelig MS. (1994). Consequences of magnesium deficiency on the enhancement of stress reactions; preventive and therapeutic implications (a review).. J Am Coll Nutr. 50 (5), 429-46.
11. Galland L. (1992). Magnesium, stress and neuropsychiatric disorders. Magnes Trace Elem. 10 (2-4), 287-301.
Image courtesy of torsten-reuschling