High expectations and busy lifestyles set the scene for high stress levels within our life. Stress is a growing global crisis and is maintained by constant deadlines, demands and striving to maintain a sense of self identity is making it increasingly difficult to maintain a work life balance. The more I learn the more I realise just how amazing our body is and the way it has evolved over the centuries to adapt to these growing demands.
HOWEVER, one thing has always stayed the same…….. Our ‘fight or flight’ response.
Back in the day it served the mighty purpose of keeping us alive. Picture this! You are being chased by a lion and all of a sudden the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalmus, triggering a complex cascade of physiological events to occur within your body. In the past, this would help save our lives from a lion attack or even a famine. Our ‘fight or flight’ response would kick in, prompting the brain to send a message to the adrenal glands, ordering them to release adrenaline (the big initial rush), and cortisol (to keep us on high alert). Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands to wake us up in the morning, keeping us alert during the day and helping us manage any dangers or threats that come our way. It also has an important job to keep us alive, so it’s pretty damn important!
Over the years our bodies have evolved and adapted in many ways, but our stress response is exactly the same with the same psychological and physical symptoms.
- Mood swings
- Agitation and irritability
- Worrying or racing thoughts
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Loss of concentration and focus
- Feeling emotional and tearful
- Muscle tension
- Increased heart rate
- Changes in appetite
- Disturbed sleep / insomnia
- Increased blood pressure
- Sleep disturbance
- Changes in blood / sugar balance so that your muscles and cells have the energy to run or fight
- Suppression of other systems to conserve energy
Unfortunately we only have ONE stress response and it has a mission to keep us alive.
Put simply, our bodies react as if we’re being attacked and we might die. This is great if you are actually being attacked. Not that helpful if you’re just feeling overwhelmed!
Our brains is the most complex organ in the body, governing every emotion, movement, memory and thought that we have. However it cannot distinguish between a real danger (lion) or a perceived danger (traffic jam). These days there are not so many lions but plenty of modern day stresses like demanding bosses, deadlines, relationship issues, traffic jams, kids, money worries, the list goes on….
Our Stress Response can become Problematic;
- The stress response is only designed to be temporary. Once you have escaped or killed the lion you rest in your cave and recover. However it can seem that escaping from unrelenting modern day stresses is not that simple and there is no rest & recover time. This leads to chronically high levels of cortisol being circulated within our body.
- The stress response mobilises sugar into cells to make energy to fight or run from your source of stress. If this sugar is not being used up as energy, it gets stored as fat cells, usually around the middle. This may mean it is more difficult to lose weight and cause many weight related health conditions.
- Cortisol has priority over almost everything else in your body. When you are in danger, all your reserves are diverted to survival mechanisms. If stress is not managed effectively it can result in:
- digestive difficulties
- reduced immunity
- inflammatory diseases
- autoimmune diseases
- mental health difficulties
- Hormone imbalance
- weight gain
Bet you are thinking how the heck do I sort this out then???????
Maladaptive stress management results in chronically high cortisol levels circulating around your body. Understanding that cortisol is a stress hormone that, in adequate amounts, will improve our motivation and focus is an important foundation in changing how we begin to manage our stress response. Stress management is a complex process incorporating biological, psychological, behavioural and nutritional aspects.
Sound complicated? Well, fear not this is where I come in…………..
Over the next few weeks I will share my top tips on how to manage stress through lifestyle and nutrition. Always remember that knowledge is an important skill that will empower you within your experience and simple recipes will help you to combine foods and demystify the world of nutritional therapy in managing our mental health and quality of life.
– Una Cotter