There are only so many hours in the week, your to-do list at work and home continues to grow, you’re stretched thin, and stressed to the max. What you may not know is the ways you’ve been trying to cope with the stress of it all are actually making you more stressed, not less.
Many of us think of stress as a mental or emotional state. The truth is stress starts as a chemical event that radically changes our chemistry and physiology. The hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released in response to stress and serve very important roles in the body. They fuel the fight-or-flight response and then to return the body to a state of balance and calm after it’s all over.
The problem with this beautifully designed system is that we’re living and working in environments that run counter to how the stress response works best. Instead of fighting or fleeing to use the stress hormones, we’re stuck motionless behind desks and steering wheels, while they continue to circulate in the body and cause negative side effects like insomnia, food cravings, weight gain, brain shrinkage, and reduced immunity. Much of our stress is chronic and ongoing, and we’re surrounded by large amounts of high sugar, high fat foods that are easy to grab after the stress is over.
In an attempt to handle the stress in your life, here are five things you may be doing that are making things worse:
1. You sacrifice sleep to get things done.
It’s tempting to trade sleep for extra hours of productivity, but lack of sleep ramps up sympathetic nervous system activity, pushing us in the direction of the fight-or-flight response. It simultaneously makes the parasympathetic nervous system, related to restoring balance and calm, less effective.  Sleep deprivation also increases body fat levels, specifically around the midsection. This abdominal fat may not only be frustrating, it also increases our risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and even premature death.  Keep to a regular sleep and wake cycle, and aim to get between 7-9 hours each night. Sleep is one of the best tools we have for the body to recover from stress.
2. You drink caffeine to get energy and make up for lack of sleep.
In addition to increasing blood pressure, caffeine stimulates the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. To make matters worse, caffeine has been shown to work synergistically with mental stress to further increase cortisol levels. From a stress perspective, cutting out caffeine is ideal. Why voluntarily pump more stress hormones into your body? If you choose to consume caffeine, do so in small amounts.
3. You skip meals because you’re too busy to eat.
When we skip meals or go too long without eating, blood glucose (a form of sugar the body uses for energy from many of the foods we eat) drops. When there’s not enough glucose, the body thinks a famine is occurring, the stress response is stimulated and the body secretes cortisol. This puts us into food seeking mode to get much needed energy into the body. Cortisol makes us eat large amounts of food and to store much of this extra energy away in our fat cells for the next glucose emergency. Maintain blood glucose levels and minimize stress by eating about every 3 hours, alternating between moderate sized meals and small snacks.
4. You skip your workout because you don’t have time.
Stress hormones are specifically designed to fuel a short burst of intense physical activity – fighting or fleeing. When we do this, it burns them off and releases a new class of hormones that restore balance and counteract the negative consequences of stress. The good news is just 30-60 seconds of intense exercise produces these feel good hormones. Sprint up a flight of stairs, or do a few jumping jacks or burpees. Worst-case scenario, you do a few of these shorts bursts to hit the reset button on stress, or you squeeze in a few minutes here and there. Exercise can be accumulated throughout the day in 10-minute bouts, which can be just as effective for improving fitness and decreasing body fat as exercising for 30 minutes straight.
5. You turn to high sugar, high fat comfort foods to feel better.
One of the actions of cortisol is to replace lost energy during the fight-or-flight process, and in the most efficient and effective way possible. It makes us seek out the most energy-rich sources of food available: sugar and fat. The reason we crave “comfort foods” like chips, sweets and fast food when stressed is that our bodies want to replace the resources it thinks we’ve burned fighting or fleeing.
We eat these foods in response to the cortisol release, as well as to comfort ourselves, but they ultimately add more stress. Eating excessive amounts of food requires processing excessive amounts of glucose, especially when the food is high in sugar. Excessive amounts of glucose require the pancreas to produce large amounts of insulin to return blood glucose levels back to an ideal range. Eventually the effectiveness of insulin decreases and the pancreas is forced to produce progressively larger amounts. This places stress on the organ, eventually it wears out, and results in type 2 diabetes.
Unfortunately cortisol doesn’t know we didn’t fight or flee, and much of this excess glucose is processed and stored away as fat around the abdominal region, raising our risk of disease. Excess fat also places more stress on the body’s joints and systems.
If we get short bursts of exercise (see #4) it uses up the cortisol and minimizes our cravings for junk food. Eating foods that are high in fiber, lean protein and healthy fats stabilize blood glucose levels and provide steady levels of energy to deal with all the demands of your busy life.
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