Psychosocial stress has been implicated as a risk factor for a diverse array of health conditions like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. But also to other health factors like weight gain and obesity, although this relationship is less clear.
A stressful lifestyle might affect our behavior in eating, appetite, food intake, and dietary restrictions. But also in the way, our body responds to the stress by producing more cortisol and other factors that directly affect weight gains like poor sleep, enhanced appetite, cravings, and decreased motivation to exercise and stay physically active.
GOOD STRESS vs BAD STRESS
Stress is usually seen as a dangerous and undesired thing, that can be very harmful or even deadly to us. It is only a normal and biological response to an event where you sense danger to help you stay focused, alert, and ready to take action to save your own life. It’s a primal response meant to protect ourselves.
That is what we call Eustress, or good stress. Which is short-lived and infrequent and can help us adapt, become stronger, smarter, and better prepared. Think of a hard training session, it was very intense and demanding on your body, but after a few minutes it is over, you go grab a good meal, get some sleep and the next session, after a couple of days, your body will be stronger and fitter. You could say the same thing about an important project at work or an important test coming, it will have a deadline, and once the effort is over you’ll be smarter and better prepared for upcoming challenges.
But the problem is when it starts to become a constant and continuous stimulus that doesn’t go away. That is when the hormonal response, cortisol, adrenaline, elevated heart rate, muscular tension, etc. are continuously active and can lead to very serious health issues.
An example of this can be a newborn baby who is going to keep you awake most nights, an unfriendly and tense working environment where you have to come back every day for months or years; having a lot of debts to pay, and never being able to catch up even with two jobs, or a very restrictive diet that you hate every day and has you energy drained and miserable. Or if you’re a regular human being, all of the aforementioned stressors put together. That is the lifestyle most of us face every day.
PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSE AND HARM OF LONG-TERM STRESS
The stress response is mediated by different hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, etc. Has different effects on our whole body:
- MUSCULOSKELETAL SYSTEM: When we are under constant stress our muscles will tense up, and when muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders like tension-type headaches and migraine headaches are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck, and head. All of this muscular stress can be due to psychological stress, an injury, ongoing pain, etc.
- RESPIRATORY SYSTEM: Stress and strong emotions can trigger respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts. This might not be that harmful to healthy people. But psychological stressors can exacerbate breathing problems for people with pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
- CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE: Chronic stress can contribute to long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels mainly due to the consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, elevated levels of stress hormones, and elevated levels of blood pressure. This long-term continuous stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, coronary disease, or stroke.
- HORMONES AND ENDOCRINE SYSTEM: When facing a dangerous or stressful situation our brain initiates a cascade of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, that triggers an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol, commonly known as “the stress hormone”. Chronic stress can result in broken communication and feedback between the immune system and the HPA axis. This has been linked to the future development of numerous physical and mental health conditions, including chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders (e.g., diabetes, obesity), depression, and immune disorders.
- GASTROINTESTINAL FUNCTION: This is probably one of the areas where stress symptoms and effect is more varied.
- Stress can change our gut bacteria which in turn can influence mood, heartburn pain, and affect proper absorption, digestion, and what nutrients the intestines absorb. Gas production related to nutrient absorption may increase.
- Intense stress can cause strong esophagus spasms and pain that can be mistaken for a heart attack
- Stress may cause fluctuations in appetite that might lead to unhealthy weight gain or weight loss.
- Stress can weaken and thin the intestinal barrier, allowing harmful bacteria to enter the body and also cause immune symptoms.
- Stress can greatly affect people with chronic disorders like inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome.
PROVEN SUPPLEMENTS TO REDUCE STRESS
There are a bunch of supplements, that have been claimed to help manage stress like fish oil, ginkgo Biloba, essential oils, saffron, spirulina, and others that have some studies supporting their positive effect.
However, the two that show the greatest effect and consistency through different studies are:
- Ashwagandha: with a marked decrease in perceived stress scale and also a positive effect in weight management when under stress.
- Theanine: consistently lowering subjective stress levels
PROVEN STRATEGIES TO MANAGE STRESS
Probably the most popular and known strategies to manage stress are breathing, meditation, and lifestyle changes. These seem to also be the most effective, so here are our top picks of strategies and techniques you can try:
Asking for help: Never underestimate the help a qualified professional can give with strategies to cope with stress and improve your mental health. The same is true for having a support network of colleagues or friends by your side.
Focus and be more present: Practices of mindfulness and being more present and focused on the tasks at hand shows increased productivity and improvement in life wellbeing. A few tips to start with, try the Pomodoro technique for increased productivity and focus or pick up journaling as a habit to be more grateful and present.
Time management and prioritization: First of all try to understand that nothing can be done perfectly continuously and that multitasking is really not an option for most, if not all, people. So learning tools to prioritize and be more focused on just one task at a time can help you be much more productive, accomplish more in one day and do everything better, thus relieving stress and helping you focus more. Trying for example the Eisenhower decision matrix to better organize, prioritize and put more focus on the most important and lucrative tasks and not on what we believe is urgent but is really not.
Exercise and diet: We can find hundreds of studies promoting the effectiveness of being more physically active as a means to lower stress levels, clear your head, improve mental health, as a kind of movement meditation, and improve your cardiovascular health thus preventing the heart risk associated with stress and many other benefits. Even just a 10-minute walk a day can have all of these benefits for our mental health. If you’re stuggling with a consistent diet, try a meal preparation service such as Clean Eatz Kitchen to routinize your diet and keep you accountable.
Breathing: The most simple thing, but probably one we don’t all put attention to not practicing deep breathing enough and thus not allowing our brains and whole body to have enough oxygenation, especially during stressful situations. Practicing deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises can show great improvement in stress and our mental health. For example, the Wim Hoff breathing method has shown great results in improving mental health, preventing depression, and reducing the stress response in high-demand situations.