Community Health: How Stress Can Impact Our Physical Health
By Barbara Solomon, LN, CNS
For the Cordova Times
“I started running whenever I’m stressed. Now I’m somewhere in Chile and I need to be taken home. – Unknown
Stress. We all have it. And sometimes that can feel overwhelming. But in reality, stress is nothing more than our body’s response to our environment. Or to put it another way, a stress response is triggered by something that demands our attention – be it emotional, physical, energetic or spiritual. Last week Susie Powell wrote a fantastic article on stress. Since it’s Stress Awareness Month, let’s continue the discussion on how stress can impact our physical health.
We have all experienced periods of distress, but there are also “beneficial” stresses. For example, hiking on ski slopes creates “metabolic stress” which causes the release of stored blood sugar to fuel the muscles and deliver more oxygen to the lungs. In this case, the result of stress is a stronger body and over time greater endurance and adaptability. Another example might be that if you were injured, your body would release an anti-inflammatory stress hormone to allow you to heal. So, a little stress is necessary to keep us healthy.
The problem with stress comes from its intensity and its duration. Suppose we encounter a bear while hiking up the hill. We need to be able to react quickly, so that our adrenal glands release hormones that allow us to flee or fight. Additionally, “non-essential” processes such as digestion, detoxification, cell repair, hormone management, etc. are stopped to direct resources to areas where they are needed to keep us alive. Once safe, we can relax and begin the recovery process.
But what if, instead, our stress is just “everyday life?” » Our nervous system does not differentiate between different types of stress, so over time, stress due to imbalanced blood sugar, infection, vitamin or mineral deficiencies, pain, food sensitivities, environmental exposures , negative thoughts or emotions, anxiety, etc. can accumulate. . Physiologically, this combined stress may not feel any different to us than an actual encounter with a bear. And unfortunately, that stress then contributes to the same underlying issues that caused it in the first place. A perpetual catch-22.
Since stress is a metabolically expensive process, left unchecked, it can end up burning through our nutrient stores. So, to sustain life, we have learned to adapt. We can slow our metabolic rate by throttling our thyroid or reducing energy production at the cellular level. Unfortunately, this is also when symptoms can start to appear. One may notice fatigue, decreased stamina, increased blood pressure, weight gain, weakened immune system, digestive problems, memory loss, hormone or blood sugar problems, aging skin, anxiety or depression, etc. And if stress ends up overwhelming our defenses, we may need to metabolically “hibernate” until we are better able to handle it.
But it is not necessary to go that far. There are things we can do to help curb runaway stress. First, it is important to uncover any underlying dysfunction or disease that may be causing stress. Then we can look at our food choices and our lifestyles. For example, eating well-composed, high-quality meals throughout the day eliminates the release of stress hormones needed to balance blood sugar. Moreover, if we avoid the consumption of foods that degrade health and promote foods that improve it, we can reduce stress while improving our health.
Lifestyle management is also a powerful stress reduction tool. Sleep inhibits the production of stress hormones, giving us time to recover. Exercise reduces stress hormones and stimulates the production of endorphins, which together keep us relaxed and more stress tolerant. Activities such as meditation are extremely beneficial. A A 2018 study shows that using a meditation app reduced stress levels by 14% in just 10 days.
Even the way you think can affect your health. A study found that people who think they are unhealthy are six times more likely to die earlier than those who think they are healthy. So let’s eat healthy foods, exercise, meditate, think good thoughts, and spend time with friends and family to help reduce stress and stay healthy.
Barbara Solomon is a Registered Nutritionist at Ilanka Community Health Center. She specializes in the adaptation and application of food and nutrient knowledge to the solution of food and nutrition problems, disease control and health promotion.