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Stress kills. No, really… Even if a person has all the other factors right, high levels of stress can derail health.
Unfortunately, just knowing stress is a problem doesn’t fix it. If you’re like me, the need to reduce stress just adds another item on the “to-do” list. Laundry… check. Dishes… check. De-stress… not so much.
While I’m far from perfect at this step in my own quest for better health, it doesn’t stop me from searching for answers…
Reducing Stress: The Silent Killer
You can eat all the healthy organic food in the world and take all the best supplements, but if you’re stressed, it will undo it all.
Chronic stress keeps stress hormones elevated, suppresses the immune system, and can put you at higher risk for heart disease or cancer. If high stress levels continue over extended periods of time, this puts you at higher risk for many diseases and can shorten your lifespan.
Elevated stress hormones will interfere with the body’s ability to properly digest and assimilate food and even lowers insulin sensitivity, which can lead to weight gain or pre-diabetes.
Factors besides just mental or emotional stress can create the same physical reaction. Toxins from our food, water, and air can create a stress reaction in the body, as can an unhealthy diet or lack of sleep.
What Causes Stress?
Physical, emotional/mental, or chemical factors can trigger stress reactions. Bad news for us, since these sources are abundant these days!
So why does everyone seem to be so stressed out? There’s a lot of factors, but several come to mind:
- Poor diet – We have a wide range of processed food to choose from these days, grown from soil significantly lacking of nutrients, which makes the body think it is in famine mode.
- Concentrations of toxins – These come from food (Diet Coke anyone?), personal care products, and the environment around us and they cause a legitimate stress on the body and can interrupt normal bodily functions.
- Emotional stress – If you’re a parent, you’re familiar with this one I’m sure! (If you’re pregnant right now, probably even more!) Research also shows emotional stress can follow us from childhood.
- Physical stress – This can come from obvious factors like injury or trauma, but also from less obvious sources like lack of good fats (which are needed for proper hormone production), constant input from digital devices, and lack of sleep. (Repeat: lack of sleep can cause physical stress!)
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.
The truth is, we don’t know how to get rid of stress … because we don’t know how to fight a threat we can’t see.
What is very visible and definitely not a figment of the imagination is the negative effect stress has on our physical health.
What Stress Does to the Body
As I mentioned before, stress causes tangible physical reactions in the body that prepare it for dangerous situations. This is the classic “fight or flight” response designed to make us stronger, faster, and more resilient in the face of a threat to our physical safety.
This response is appropriate and valuable in the case of true danger (like a bear about to eat you or Hun invaders riding over the horizon). In order to achieve the burst of strength needed to outrun said threat, the body turns off some normal functions.
This is why stress can suppress seemingly unrelated factors like fertility. 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 devastating.
In these periods of chronic stress caused by not sleeping enough, not eating quality foods, inadequate exercise, toxins, and/or 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. (Even if the danger is just being late to the pick-up car line or a missed deadline at work!)
What Stress Does to Hormones
The stress reaction is controlled by hormones and the endocrine system that produces them. This system functions as a whole rather than in isolated parts, and so 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, luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, etc.) and cause problems like anxiety, depression, insomnia, muscle problems, infertility, restless leg syndrome, and menstrual disturbances.
Prolonged stress also contributes to aging and weight gain, which no one is a fan of! Weight gain around the mid-section (especially in women) is actually often a symptom of impaired adrenals and the low progesterone that results.
When Stress Made Me Sick
It’s confession time.
Think I have it all together? The truth is, no one does.
Stress and sleep are the big gaping holes in my own health.
Sure, it’s easy to write about them, and I know what I need to do to optimize them, but with little ones, homeschooling, a blog, a podcast, and getting healthy meals on the table day in and day out, the execution is often difficult. And even if what’s on your plate doesn’t look exactly like mine, I know if you’re a mom you practice an equally challenging (read: rewarding, glorious, exhausting, infuriating) balancing act every day.
Several years ago, my stress materialized in a way I couldn’t ignore and reached a level that drastically impacted my health.
Here’s what happened…
Facing a Family Threat
It all came to a head when my husband had an emergency appendectomy. The doctor said his appendix had likely been calcified since childhood.
The original surgery required a 2-day hospital stay (and it was the first time I’d left my baby overnight). He came home and felt awful for another week. He was still in pain, wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping well, and couldn’t do much of anything but lay on the couch.
At his follow-up appointment, the doctor discovered my husband had developed a secondary infection that he’d picked up in the hospital during his surgery recovery. They found an abscess where the appendix had been and drained about 8 ounces of puss from it. They put in a drain that stayed for about a week.
A culture of the puss revealed 4 types of bacteria (picked up in the hospital) including the flesh-eating bacteria c-diff. This time, he had to stay in the hospital for 8 days, and was on IV broad-spectrum antibiotics every 6 hours. (I cringed for his poor gut every time they brought them in!)
For me, this meant another week of being away from the kids, and in the hospital with him. When I started getting a sore throat and flu-like symptoms, I was put on an antibiotic too, to make sure that I hadn’t picked up any of his resistant bacteria and that I wouldn’t carry it home to the kids or my nursing baby.
He finally got discharged from the hospital, and both of our symptoms were clearing up, so we got to go home. He was still under the weather and hadn’t been able to work for about a month thanks to the surgery and infection. I was taking care of the kids, the house, and him, plus trying to keep up with both of our work deadlines to make ends meet financially.
I was definitely stressed, to say the least, but I’d always worked well under pressure, so I brushed it off and figured I’d relax and catch up on sleep when things got back to normal.
My Body Said “Enough”
Then, I started having numbness in my fingers, toes, and lips. My heart was racing. My blood pressure and pulse were high and my whole body shook. I called the doctor, since I’d had allergic reactions to antibiotics in the past and was afraid I was having an allergic reaction.
The doc checked and told me that none of these symptoms were listed as side effects or allergic reaction symptoms to this antibiotic, and asked what my stress level was…
After a follow-up, it turns out that I was on the verge of a panic attack. The remedy? “Learn to relax and reduce stress.” (Yeah, right, I’ll just add that to my to-do list!)
Since then, things have calmed down, my husband is recovered, the kids are sleeping normally again, and my blood pressure is back to normal, but my brush with it all really re-enforced how much stress can affect your physical health.
How to Lower Stress and Start Feeling Better (Today)
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 Foods That Reduce Stress
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 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, yes … even avoid the caffeine.
2. Reduce Exposure to Toxins
This step goes along with the step above, as unfortunately, our “food” supply can be a major source of toxins. If the body is in a state of stress, the liver and kidneys are also not functioning optimally, making toxin removal slow and ineffective.
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.
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
3. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is one of the most important steps in stress reduction, and most moms find the hardest.
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 P.M. and 2 A.M. 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.
Need some motivation to make sleep a priority? Listen to this podcast on why sleep is more important than diet and exercise combined.
4. Learn to Say No
Another logical step that I’m guessing most of us 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 and have resolved to do better this year!)
5. Exercise, Even If It’s Just a Little
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. I use this 10-minute home workout to make it easy to fit in even on busy days.
When in doubt, a vigorous 10-minute walk outside in the sunshine and fresh air is one of the best things you can do to lower stress and improve physical and mental health.
If you have access to a sauna, research shows that sauna use has similar benefits to exercise because it causes hormetic stress, which ironically is a good kind of stress for our cells. (See my podcast with Ari Whitten for some awesome tips on using sauna and exercise to fight fatigue and anxiety.)
6. Get Enough Good Fats
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.
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 the right fats (coconut or olive oil, omega-3s, and fats from healthy grass-fed animals) 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.
7. Take In More Antioxidants
In the face of stress, the body compensates by speeding up adrenal production. This uses up the vitamins and minerals we take in at a much faster rate and can lead to depletion if not replenished with antioxidant and nutrient rich foods. You may want to consume additional vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, and potassium in times of stress especially. I list the best supplements I’ve found to help manage my stress in this post.
I also like to use herbal teas for some of these nutrient needs especially in times of stress or illness. Green tea, yerba mate tea, and even peppermint tea contain high level of antioxidants and vitamins that may be beneficial for stress.
Bonus: Sipping tea is often connected with sitting down with a good book or chatting with friends … good self-care activities that give you a break from the things stressing you out!
9. Listen to Music
Silence is golden, but music has therapeutic effects on the brain and body too. It’s not just that we enjoy the music, but science is starting to show that the vibrations creating the music have a physical and mental effect on us for the better. This podcast is all about how listen to music with the right frequency for a given situation can calm our mood, enhance our focus, or give us the patience to deal with one more sibling squabble!
10. Talk to Yourself (and Others)
It’s not crazy … we all engage in inner conversation with ourselves all day long! The question is, what are we saying?
Stress is not totally objective. We can play a part in telling ourselves — to borrow some famous words — “every little thing gonna be alright.” A growing body of evidence on the positive health benefits of gratitude tells us that the more we emphasize the positive in our minds, the more our physiological responses will follow.
This is one reason I take 5 minutes and journal 10 things I’m grateful for every day.
Other ways to talk yourself into a better mental frame of mind:
- Acknowledge what you’re feeling, but counter it with a positive statement — even try this technique to retrain your response to incoming problems and stresses.
- Flip through a photo book of a favorite vacation and relive some of the experiences with the family or friends you shared it with.
- Share how you’re feeling with someone you trust — that sense of connection and support may put you back on the right track.
- Shape your environment by adding positive input and motivation. Hang quotes that inspire you, pictures of family that make you smile, and reminders of positive achievements.
Bottom Line: Stress Doesn’t Have to Win
It’s my hope that as moms we can beat the stress monster and create a safe space within the walls of our homes where there is enough time and we are enough.
I’m not sure I achieve this every day (or even every week!) so if there are ways you’re making this happen in your home, please share with our Wellness Mama community… and help all moms know they’re not alone!
This article was medically reviewed by Amy Shah, MD, Medical Advisor to Genexa through partnership with the Wellness Mama Team. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do any of these stress busters work for you? What are three ways that you’ve found help reduce stress levels in your life? Share below!