Oh, relaxation, that elusive activity that is often talked about and rarely achieved in today’s world. We admit that we need to and that we often have trouble doing so, but the execution still eludes us sometimes!
The good (or bad) news is that even if we wanted to “relax” and scheduled time for that purpose (scheduled relaxation?) we might not be able to actually relax, at least not in the strictly physical sense. True relaxation goes much deeper than the dishes being done and no children currently crying.
True relaxation marks the body’s ability to regulate the stress hormones properly. Hormone regulation is affected by many other factors than just mental or emotional stress. The body comes well equipped to deal with danger (or stress if you will). In an instance of danger, the central nervous system (CNS) kicks into gear, releasing a hormone cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol. In an actual danger situation, such as the proverbial pulling a car off of a small child or preventing someone from walking in front of a car, the hormones serve their necessary purpose of heightening our responses, and are used up by doing so.
Lower level stress causes a similar release or adrenaline and cortisol, but often without the accompanying ability to release the stress. Think, for instance, when you actually got to slap the rude commenter in the grocery store or take a baseball bat to the headlight of the car that cut you off in traffic (not that you would want to do those things or anything!). This lower level stress reaction is a completely unconscious one, and one that can cause problems if we don’t have an outlet to deal with it. The presence of stress hormones in the body initiates the “fight or flight” response, causing muscles to tense in preparation of exertion, breathing and heart rate to increase, and non essential functions to cease.
That whole “non essential functions to cease” part is the most worrisome in non-life threatening situations. In a real life or death situation, we would be glad that we didn’t need to take a potty break, stop to grab a bite or go into labor (should we be pregnant at the time). The interruption in digestion, excretion, immune function and hormones is not beneficial when this stress is low level and prolonged, as it can cause serious issues with other hormones and bodily functions.
In modern life, many people are also either not exercising enough or or overexercising and both increase stress. Physical exertion (heavy lifting and really fast movement) help use up stress hormones in the body, but extreme exertion tells the body that the stress is still present. Our poor adrenals try to keep up with the constant fluctuations in stress hormones, but eventually, even these super glands get tired. Prolonged stress can lead to adrenal fatigue (a cause of infertility) and many stress related conditions.
What Causes Stress?
Stress reactions and activation of the stress hormones can be caused by physical, emotional/mental or chemical factors. Bad news for us, since these sources are abundant these days! Emotional stress we are all familiar with (those of us who have been pregnant, perhaps more so!). Physical stress can come from obvious factors like injury or trauma, but also from less obvious sources like poor diet, lack of good fats (which are needed for proper hormone production) and lack of sleep (repeat: lack of sleep can cause physical stress!).
Chemicals put undue stress on our bodies too, and can come from food and water sources, environmental toxins, and products we purposefully put on our bodies (like deodorants and personal care products). Add up all these factors, and it is quite logical that we are under more stress these days than when life or death situations (like invaders, wild animals or famine) presented themselves daily, and we don’t know how to get rid of the stress.
Poor diet, which often includes lack of nutrients (making the body think it is in famine mode) and concentrations of toxins (diet coke anyone?) causes a legitimate stress on the body and can interrupt normal bodily functions.
What Stress Does to the Body
As I mentioned before, stress causes reactions in the body that prepare it for danger situations. In the absence of true danger situations, this means that the body still operates without some normal functions. For instance, the body uses progesterone to manufacture cortisol in the adrenals during periods of stress. Progesterone is also needed for the body for successful ovulation and hormone balance (not to mention carrying a pregnancy). Ovulating wouldn’t be a priority for someone running for her life, but for a woman with chronic low level stress who wants to conceive, this can be devestating.
The stress reaction is controlled by hormones, and the endocrine system functions as a whole rather than in isolated parts, chronic stress affects much more than just the adrenals. An overabundance of adrenaline and cortisol can interrupt other hormones like serotonin, melatonin and fertility hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, lutenizing hormone, folicle stimulating hormone, etc) and cause problems like anxiety, depression, insomnia, muscle problems, infertility and menstrual disturbances.
Prolonged stress also contributes to aging and weight gain, which I am not a fan of myself. Weight gain around the mid section (especially in women) is actually often a symptom of impaired adrenals and the low progesterone that results. In these periods of chronic stress caused by not sleeping enough, not eating quality foods, inadequate exercise and mental/emotional stress, the body will let certain aspects of health deteriorate because it thinks it is keeping you alive in a period of danger (more danger than a missed deadline at work!).
How To Reduce Stress and Feel Better
We all know that reducing stress is important to optimal health, but how do we do it, practically speaking? Since we can’t truly function at our best with chronic stress, this is an important factor to address in the quest for good health.
1. Eat Real Foods
You’ve heard this one a lot if you’ve read anything else around here, but it rings true again. Poor diets full of processed foods, grains, sugars and chemicals put a tremendous stress on the body. For many people (Some experts estimate close to 85%) grains can put a huge stress on the body as they can cause an immune reaction, damage the intestinal lining and lead to serious disease. Excess carbohydrates can cause this problem too, since if the sugars in carbohydrates cause increased insulin if they aren’t immediately used as fuel.
For a stress-reducing, adrenal nourishing diet, focus on getting your nutrients from fresh, real foods in as close to their natural source as possible. Drink a lot of water and avoid the caffeine.
2. Avoid Toxins
This step goes along with the step above, as unfortunately, our “food” supply can be a major source of toxins. Other sources of toxins include chemicals in toothpastes, personal care products, deodorants, medicines and cleaning chemicals. Our exposure to large amounts of plastic, especially plastics that have been heated in the microwave, can also cause toxic build up in the body. If the body is in a state of stress, the liver and kidneys are also not functioning optimally, making toxin removal slow and ineffective.
Top steps for reducing toxins include:
- using only natural beauty and personal care products
- avoiding plastics and storing food in glass
- drinking enough water to make sure toxins are being flushed out
- avoiding processed foods full of chemicals
- using only natural cleaning products
- avoiding environmental toxins like pesticides and herbicides
This is one of the most important steps in stress reduction, and the one we are worst at. Historically, the body is used to sleeping when it is dark and being awake when it is light. When we stay awake long after the sun has set and don’t get enough cumulative sleep, we interrupt the body’s natural time for restoration and removal of toxins. The optimal time for regeneration during sleep is roughly between 10 pm and 2 am. Many people don’t sleep during part or all of this time, causing a backup of toxins and hormones in the body.
The body also has a delicate balance of hormones and depends on serotonin and melatonin to regulate good sleep and alertness during the day. Lack of sleep or interrupted sleep can disrupt the balance of these hormones, making you groggy during the day and restless at night. Poor sleep can also (logically) lead to fatigue, brain fog, memory troubles and additional stress on the body.
4. Learn to Say No
Another logical step that we are all bad at (me especially). I’m not just talking about saying no in a parenting sense (though that could be good too… I recommend “No, you many not eat that candy bar/happy meal/ding dong/fill in the blank”) Many of us have a commitment list as long as our arms, and the stress level to prove it. It is wonderful to help out whenever we can, but make sure you make yourself a priority and realistically evaluate what you can handle while keeping stress low and quality family time high. (Confession: I am really bad at this step myself!).
Exercise is really helpful in reducing stress in the body. It releases endorphins, helps the body regulate insulin and improves hormone levels. Exercise also boosts your immune function and helps the body use up excess stress hormones. Try to mix it up and try weights and high intensity exercise instead of strict cardio.
Fats are present in every cell in your body and are necessary for enzymatic reactions and hormone production. There are many kinds of fats, and while your body will use whatever it has, some are certainly more beneficial that others, and some are flat out dangerous. Your body needs saturated fats (coconut oil and animal fats) to produce new cells, manufacture hormones, coat the lungs, for optimal brain function and many other reactions. The body also needs quality fats to produce, utilize and store vitamin D, a necessary nutrient for immune function and disease prevention. A low-fat diet can actually be a stress on the body, as it won’t have the raw materials it needs to function at its peak.
7. Consume Antioxidant Rich Foods
Antioxidants can help counteract the damage done by free radicals and stress hormones in the body. Get your antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, but also make sure you have adequate intake of Vitamin C and other antioxidants. Many people, especially in states of chronic stress, need to supplement with a quality multivitamin.
8. Use Your Mind, and then Don’t
Many people are too tired after an exhausting day to engage their minds, and prefer to “relax” by watching TV or some other form of electronic distraction. There are some theories about the sleep disturbing ability of the blue light emitted by these electronics, but all the time spent watching TV is time that our minds are actively disengaged. Studies repeatedly show that people who actively use their minds in activities like reading, puzzles, or learning languages/new hobbies are happier and less stressed. Consider using your valuable time for an activity that improves your mind and reduces stress.
On the flip side of this coin, most people also don’t turn their minds off enough. Let your “relax” mean “relax” and don’t relax by watching TV or doing another activity that causes activity without engaging the mind. Take time to pray or meditate and try to focus on the positive aspects of your life and the things you are grateful for.
All in all, relaxation is easier said than done. Heck, I just gave you a list of what to do to relax! What is your favorite relaxation technique. With Valentines day coming up, perhaps it will be some quality time with your spouse and loved ones? Tell me below!