Category Archives: anxiety

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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How fatigue affects both body and mind

Feeling a little less energetic than you’d like? Diet, exercise, emotional health, sleep and work, all contribute …

Fact: Staying awake for 17-19 hours affects your concentration in a similar way to having a blood alcohol content of 0.05%. Staying awake for longer periods is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.1% – you’d definitely be off the road for both![i]

Stress makes you tired and it affects all of your body …

  • Brain – headaches and migraines
  • Lungs – coughs and asthma
  • Mood – anxiety, difficulty concentrating
  • Muscles – tension, pain and nervous ticks
  • Stomach – ulcers, heartburn and indigestion
  • Skin – dryness and rashes
  • General – tiredness and fatigue.

Watch the caffeine

Lots of us use caffeine to kick-start our day, but did you know that it increases alertness for only a short time? If you consume caffeine regularly, it may not boost your alertness as much. And, five or six cups of coffee per day can make you jittery and anxious. Caffeine can also interfere with restful sleep. Try cutting down slowly over a month or so and see if your fatigue reduces.

Nap vs. sleep

A short nap could be just what you need to boost alertness. If you can, get your head down for around 15-20 minutes – but set the alarm because longer periods can increase grogginess and leave you feeling worse.

Diet counts

  • Drink enough water – even mild dehydration can trigger tiredness.[ii]
  • Watch sugary foods and drinks – they cause a rapid rise in blood glucose (sugar) but this is followed by a rapid dip as your body releases insulin to normalise levels. The result is tiredness, irritability and hunger.
  • Opt for wholegrains instead of refined, white flour foods for longer lasting energy.
  • Eat regularly – skipping meals causes blood glucose to dip triggering fatigue.

pulses

Could you be short on iron?

This mineral is a major component of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen to every blood cell. One of the major signs of iron deficiency anaemia is fatigue. Oily fish, pulses, wholegrains and lean meat contain iron. Eating vitamin C rich veggies (tomatoes, capsicum) or fruit (Kiwifruit) increases the amount of iron your body absorbs each time you eat.

Exercise

Being more active actually helps you sleep more restfully, feel better about yourself and along with a healthy diet may help you lose extra kilos. All of these can boost your mood and fight fatigue.

Relax

Meditation, yoga, reading or spending time with friends and family will help boost your energy levels.

woman resting

Did you know? Psychological factors are responsible for a massive 50-80% of cases of fatigue[iii]. Professional counselling can help you to work out the issues adding to your anguish. In some cases, fatigue is also the symptom of an underlying medical problem. So, if you feel excessively tired and you’re getting enough rest, speak with your GP.

Ravinder Lilly
Ravinder Lilly, Dietitian at rt health fund

[i] National Center for Biotechnology Information. Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1739867/

[ii] Psychology Today. Fighting Fatigue with Diet. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200310/fighting-fatigue-diet

[iii] Better Health Channel. Fatigue fighting tips. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/fatigue-fighting-tips

Depression – it’s all about you!

This month we’re shining the health spotlight on men’s emotional health. Do you know a man who thinks he’s too macho to talk about depression? If you do, he’s not alone …

Although both women and men are affected by anxiety and depression, men are much less likely to seek the help they need[1] (only 28 per cent of men seek professional help). Around one in eight men are likely to be affected at some time in their life[2] so it’s pretty common.

The kind of symptoms you might experience include:

  • Stress – which can be a symptom of depression but can also be part of the cause (stress can trigger changes in both the body and the brain).
  • Anxiety – although it’s more likely to affect women than men, men are more likely to report anxiety rather than say that they are feeling depressed.
  • Fatigue and sleep problems – which can make day-to-day challenges more challenging.
  • Moodiness
  • Changes in eating behaviours
  • Negative thoughts – including negative thoughts about self worth
  • Irritability, anger and/or hostility towards others
  • Difficulty in concentrating – and in making decisions
  • Substance abuse – men are twice as likely to turn to destructive behaviours such as drug and alcohol use, if affected by depression[3].
  • Sexual problems – men may not want to openly talk about this with others
  • Loss of interest in the pleasures of life – where once enjoyed activities are no longer enjoyed.

What can you do?

Everyone is different and every person is affected differently. But there are a range of treatments that can really help; including talk therapy and medication. Speak with your GP about the best treatment options for you. There are also some lifestyle changes you can try.

Exercise

Not just important for your body; exercise is also good for your mood. Regular exercise can help lift you, provide a distraction
from worries, help you feel better about your body and your mental strength, boost energy levels, help you feel like part of a team (if you play team sports) and even help you sleep. Exercise seems to alter the levels of chemicals in the brain – such as mood-lifting chemicals, serotonin and endorphins, while reducing stress hormones.

Relaxation training

Stress involves the release of hormones like adrenaline, which causes tension in your muscles and amplifies stimulation of the nervous system. Anxiety and stress can lead to depression, too, so if you’re feeling either of these, it’s important to try and tackle them early.

Relaxation training (like yoga) connects your breath with each movement helping to relax and stretch the muscles. It may also help reduce anxious thoughts and behaviours and make you feel as if you have more control over feelings of anxiety and/or stress.

Diet

You already know that fast foods can make you pile on the kilos and can contribute to chronic conditions such as heart disease. But new research suggests that too much processed food may also contribute to depression,[4] according to Spanish researchers who studied the eating habits of close to 9,000 people.

Manufactured foods that contain trans fats (artificially hardened fats) and saturated fats (from animal foods) can raise the risk of depression by up to 51 per cent, the researchers found. This could be due to the increased inflammation seen in the body when these unhealthy fats feature in your diet.iStock_000041367902_Double_FINAL

On the other hand, diets rich in green veggies, fruit, oily fish, nuts, seeds and pulses (peas, beans and lentils) – which, combined, provide high levels of antioxidants, B vitamins, folate and Omega-3 fats – have been shown to reduce rates of depression.

Worried about a loved one?

Have you noticed that a friend, colleague or loved one is behaving differently? You may see a difference before the affected person recognises a change themselves. Someone who is undergoing emotional challenges may be reluctant to admit or even recognise if they’re having difficulties.

How can you help?

  • Start a conversation. Talk about what’s going on – but make sure the conversation is private and let them guide what is spoken about. Reserve your judgement about whatever the person you’re speaking with may share with you. Check in a few days later to see how they are feeling and to remind them that help is available.
  • Urge the person you’re speaking with to take action by scheduling an appointment with their GP – but don’t force the issue.
  • See if the person that’s affected might be interested in some resources, such as the ones below.

If you speak with someone and they talk about suicidal thoughts, gently encourage them to seek help immediately from a mental health professional.

When you’re trying to help a depressed friend, be aware that you may also experience a range of emotions such as frustration, sadness and helplessness. So if you choose to reach out, don’t neglect your own mental wellness.

Seek support

Being around people who have had or are going through similar experiences to you can be a great opportunity to connect and discover ways to deal with challenges. Search online for local support groups or contact your GP to find out whether they know of any in your area. The mental health charity, beyondblue, also has a supportive online community that can really help someone who is feeling alone to feel supported.

For more information:

This health information is brought to you by the health and wellbeing team at rt health fund.

[1] Black Dog Institute. Facts and figures about mental health and mood disorders. http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/Factsandfiguresaboutmentalhealthandmooddisorders.pdf

[2] Beyondblue. Depression in men. https://www.beyondblue.org.au/resources/for-me/men/depression-in-men

[3] Better Health Channel. Men’s health. http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Men%27s_health

[4] ScienceDaily. Link between fast food and depression confirmed. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120330081352.htm