So what is stress really doing to your body?

It’s a buzzword – one that you hear all the time. But what exactly is stress? Why do you feel it? And what is it doing to your mind and body?

Stress is a whole range of reactions to danger – it’s one of the ways your body protects itself. In the face of ­threat, a range of stress hormones are released. One result of this is the release of glucose, to provide energy for the large muscles that you need to use to fight or take flight. Your heart beats faster and your blood pressure rises to ensure that oxygen and nutrients in your blood can reach every cell in your body. And, the systems that aren’t needed to fight or take flight are turned down a notch or two – such as your digestive system. This is one reason why stress and depression are sometimes linked with digestive problems.

Although your stress hormones play a vital role in keeping you ready to protect yourself – or others – too much of them circulating for too long can trigger physical and emotional problems over time.

And, it doesn’t have to be a major danger that triggers your stress response. It can be anything from a niggling neighbour to a frustrating experience online. If you don’t address your stress, the result can be problems with …

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Memory and concentration
  • Tiredness
  • Headaches, aches and joint pains
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems and more.

Hello belly fat!

When stress hormones such as cortisol hang around in your body for long periods and aren’t burned off, changes in your weight can result – particularly weight gain around your middle. Cortisol orders your body to release glucose from cells raising the amount in the blood. And, when there is too much glucose in your blood, your body tries hard to normalise it and return it to within safe levels. One of the ways it does this is via the action of your liver, which converts the excess glucose into fat. Fat that’s processed in the liver tends to be laid down near the liver i.e. around your middle – hello belly fat!

Belly fat is different to the fat on other parts of your body. It is linked with many chronic (long-term) conditions such as heart disease and cancers[i]. Belly fat has four times as many cortisol receptors as other types of fat[ii] which moves fat from areas such as your bottom and thighs (fat in these areas is relatively inactive) and transports it to the belly. Belly fat is much more metabolically active and triggers inflammation. And, since belly fat has more cortisol receptors, your cortisol levels rise and rise and rise.

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Also on the rise …

Your blood pressure jumps every time you feel stressed. And, over time, high blood pressure damages your heart and is a major risk factor for heart disease. You can’t tell whether you have high blood pressure – this is why regular medical check-ups are important. Your GP can check your blood pressure quickly and easily and guide you about what’s needed.

How’s your emotional health?

As well as the effects on your body, high levels of cortisol are potent risk factors for anxiety and depression[iii]. Both can contribute to physical symptoms such as altered sensitivity to pain, tiredness, headaches, poor sleep or excessive sleep. Emotional problems can also trigger digestive problems and vice versa, as there are nerve cells all along your intestines which send signals to your brain in a two-way communication[iv].

So what can you do?

Find out what presses your buttons. Make a stress diary and keep it for two weeks or so. Make a note of what triggers your stress – times, places, people and situations. Then write down how you felt and how you reacted to the stress. Looking back at your stress diary can reveal some interesting insights into your personal stressors.

Then think about how you can reduce your stress. If it’s lack of time, there is no option but to start earlier. If it’s people, think about how you can see less of negative people and more of people who lift you up. And if you can’t do this, try to counter negative comments with positive or neutral ones. Decide what kind of pain you’re willing to bear. For the vast majority of us, it isn’t possible to have it all – at least not at the same time. So consider what you’re willing to give up or reduce. This isn’t a forever decision – review your views periodically to make sure you’re making the right decisions for you at the right time.

Follow Elsa’s lead. Although everyone feels guilt, too much can drag you down. The next time you feel guilty, try to pinpoint exactly why you’re feeling it. Do you need to alter your behaviour? Do you need to apologise? Or, are you making too much of it? Do what you need to do and then try to let it go. Even Disney heroines such as Elsa from Frozen now recognise that they can’t do it all and get it right all of the time – and about the need to let it go. So learn from what happened, try not to do it again and move on. And if you can’t move on, talk to someone who can help you such as a trained psychologist or counsellor. Otherwise, your guilt could fester and interfere with relationships.

Nourish yourself. What you eat, when you eat and how you eat can relieve your stress – and can contribute to it, too. For example, too much alcohol, too much sugar and too much caffeine can all stress your body triggering the release of stress hormones. Try to avoid foods made from white flour – the process of making white flour not only removes the minerals and vitamins, but also the fibre. Fibre is important as it holds onto carbohydrates in foods, releasing energy slowly and in a way the body can control, which won’t stress it. With the fibre removed, glucose is released rapidly into the blood in a way that is difficult for the body to control and adjust to.

For a calmer life, be picky about what you eat and drink. Make meals rich in veggies (five or more servings per day) and try to eat two fruits per day – they’re rich in vitamins, minerals and plant pigments. Plus, the fibre they contain helps to ensure that the energy inside is released slowly. Choose lean meats such as skinless chicken and turkey, opt for fish a few times a week and use pulses (peas, beans and lentils) in your cooking. Pulses are rich in fibre and protein but low in fat and calories. Add them to casseroles, stews, soups and salads. Be careful about how much alcohol you drink, too. This can stress both body and mind and rob you of restful sleep, too. If you’re drinking too much alcohol, do what you need to do to cut down or cut it out altogether. Talk to your GP for help.

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Remember stress isn’t just about your mind – it can have a whole host of physical consequences and in the long-term, trigger serious chronic conditions. So do what you can to beat your stresses today. Your mind and your body will thank you for it. And your friends and family probably will too!

Ravinder Lilly
Ravinder Lilly, Dietitian at rt health fund

 

[i] Harvard Health Publications. Abdominal fat and what to do about it. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/abdominal-fat-and-what-to-do-about-it

[ii] University of New Mexico. Stress Cortisol Connection. https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/stresscortisol.html

[iii] Mayo Clinic. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037

[iv] Harvard Health Publications. The gut-brain connection. http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-gut-brain-connection

 

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