Stress: Expert on how it affects your health over time
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Stress is often thought of as mental pressure, but it forces you into ‘fight or flight’ mode and causes physical effects, thanks to stress hormones. The stress hormones flood the body with the intention of increasing energy and alertness to avoid danger, but many modern-day stresses (financial problems, or relationship issues) are not short-lived and lead to chronic stress with negative knock-on effects. Express.co.uk chatted to Hannah Braye, a Nutritional Therapist at Bio-Kult, to find out the nine health concerns caused by stress and how to solve them.
Stress has long been associated with many common skin conditions and can be both the cause of their onset or an aggravator.
Hannah said: “Stress hormones such as cortisol are thought to trigger the release of inflammatory compounds by skin cells, contributing to conditions such as psoriasis, atopic eczema, alopecia, rosacea and acne, which can affect confidence and be a source of further stress!”
Cortisol suppresses immune cells, meaning our ability to fight off germs, viruses and other foreign invaders is reduced, leaving us more susceptible to infections when we are stressed.
Hannah said: “The pressures of modern living lead many to experience stress on a chronic basis, and this chronic depression of the immune system can have serious consequences.
“High stress is a big risk factor for the development of autoimmune conditions, where the immune system becomes confused and incorrectly starts to attack your own cells.”
Our brain and digestive system are connected via the vagus nerve, so when our brain is stressed, symptoms will often manifest in the gut (and vice versa).
Hannah explained: “It’s no surprise that stress is one of the biggest triggers for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Stress can disturb the mixture of bacteria in our guts, reducing the number of beneficial strains, which in turn increases the risk of a pathogenic overgrowth.
“Taking a good quality live bacteria supplement such as Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formulation (RRP £9.48 www.bio-kult.com), with 14 different strains, can help replenish depleted beneficial gut flora keeping the microbiome in balance and potentially helping with a diverse range of stress-related gastrointestinal disorders.”
Blood sugar dis-regulation
Historically, when the fight or flight response was triggered, we would usually have been in physical danger, necessitating us to either fight or run away.
Hannah said: “For both of these actions there is an increased need for glucose to fuel the body.
“Therefore one effect of cortisol and other stress hormones is to release glucose from storage, flooding the bloodstream so there is plenty available for use by our muscles and brains.
“However, as modern-day stressors rarely require us to fight or flee, regularly having high levels of glucose in the bloodstream which isn’t used up can have negative consequences for our health, for example increasing the risk of developing insulin resistance, weight gain and energy crashes.”
Food intolerances can manifest when the cells lining our digestive tract become damaged, allowing larger food proteins to cross into circulation (known as “leaky gut”).
Stress not only disturbs our protective gut bacteria but has also been shown to contribute to the development of leaky gut, which may increase the risk of food intolerances.
Despite often feeling tired throughout the day, many highly stressed people have difficulty getting off to sleep or staying asleep through the night.
Hannah said: “Getting a second wind of energy just as you should be going to bed is a classic sign that our adrenal glands (which control our stress response) are struggling.
“Stress hormones can cause hyperarousal, upsetting the balance between sleep and wakefulness.
“This creates a vicious cycle, as stressful situations are much more difficult to cope with when you are tired, leading to further stress.”
Both anxiety and depression are positively correlated with high-stress levels and particularly stressful periods often trigger panic attacks and low mood.
Hannahs aid: “Stress reduction and being gentle on yourself, therefore, plays a key part in managing mood disorders.
“Chronic stress can also affect our memory and concentration, as cortisol reduces activity in the hippocampus part of our brain (responsible for memory) and increases activity in the amygdala, making us feel more panicked.
Stress can be a real passion killer for a number of reasons, but not least because it can interfere with your sex hormones.
Hannah said: “The stress hormone cortisol, is made from the same building blocks as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
“If the cortisol pathway is upregulated, our sex hormone pathway will be down-regulated in order to cope with the increased demand, and this can have a negative impact on libido.”
Stress is thought to potentially play a role in up to 30 percent of infertility problems.
Hannah said: “Stress reduction techniques are often found to positively correlate with increased chances of conception, due to associated reductions in cortisol levels, regulation of proteins within the uterine lining involved in implantation and increases in blood flow to the uterus.”
How to manage stress
The nutritional therapist lists eight ways to reduce stress and prevent the health concerns mentioned as much as possible:
- Balance blood sugars –Avoid sugary drinks and snacks and eat regular meals, containing complex carbohydrates and good quality protein.
- Gentle exercise – Avoid intensive exercise which is another stress on the body and instead opt for gentle exercises such as walking, jogging, swimming, and yoga.
- Look after your gut microbiome – By regularly consuming traditionally fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, live yoghurt and kefir and taking a good quality live bacteria to supplement such as Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formulation.
- Still your mind – Set aside 10 minutes each day to breathe deeply and focus on quietening the mind. This could be going for a walk around the park on your lunch break, downloading an app that offers short guided mindfulness meditations, or doing some yoga.
- Increase fruit and vegetable intake – To provide plenty of B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium, all of which are required in higher amounts during times of stress.
- Avoid stimulants – Such as coffee, tea and alcohol. Caffeine has been shown to amplify cortisol production, even hours after drinking it and alcohol and other drugs can affect our mood by interfering with our neurotransmitters.
- Practice good sleep hygiene –Ideally phone, computer and tv screens should be avoided for at least an hour before bed. Apps which filter blue light can be used to reduce exposure at other times of the day. Don’t eat too late and get into a routine which includes a regular bedtime and some time to relax, such as reading a book or taking an Epsom salt bath.
- Professional help – If stress is having a significant impact on your day to day life, consider seeking some professional support to help deal with it. Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other forms of counselling can be particularly useful for helping to build stress resilience.
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