Updated: Jul 12, 2021
The effect of chronic stress and what we can do about it.
I’ve previously mentioned in this blog that the commonly cited statistic “two-thirds of Americans are overweight” does not paint the full picture of poor health in the United States. The word “fat” carries a connotation of laziness, or lack of willpower and I really don’t think that’s what is going on! It’s actually about inflammation, our high-stress lifestyles, a compromised food supply, and a lack of education.
For decades, we’ve been told to consume fewer calories than we expend but this is not true. It isn’t about calories in and calories out. Personally, I’ve tried extreme exercise routines and a low-calorie processed foods diet for years and despite nearly starving myself, I was always a little overweight. Why? I believe it’s all about stress.
Experts believe changes in technology, family and relationship dynamics, and economic hardship are some reasons for this. Coronavirus is an obvious trigger but I believe most of our stress is self-imposed. What are our belief systems like? Are we overworking to keep up with other people’s expectations of us? So we can afford to stay up with the latest cars, phones, or other technologies? What is our internal dialogue like? What’s the voice in our head saying most of the time? Can we even hear it or are drowning it out? It’s affecting us either way.
We lead incredibly high-stress lifestyles and most of us weren’t taught effective tools for managing it. We’re told to exercise or meditate but the way most of us exercise exhausts us and being told to meditate is like being spoken to in Latin unless you’re a yogi.
The coping mechanisms we often turn to create even more stress ~ eating processed foods, alcohol, drug use, or binge-watching adrenaline-inducing shows and movies. When we do manage to find so-called healthy outlets like exercise, we tend to overdo it. When I was in my twenties, I ran a few marathons ~ all 26.2 miles. When I moved on from running, I over yoga-d. I would do two hot yoga classes back-to-back in a day, desperate to lose weight. (That’s 3 hours of yoga in a room heated to 105 degrees and 50% humidity!) Yet, I was still a little overweight! I hardly think I was “lazy” or “lacking willpower”.
Looking back, I can see how I was only adding to the problem with all the mental and emotional pressure I was placing on myself, along with the actual free-radicals I had no idea I was creating through extreme exercise. Free radicals create oxidative stress on our cells and muscle damage.
The Autonomic Nervous System
So let’s talk just briefly about the autonomic nervous system and how stress affects us.
The autonomic nervous system regulates certain body processes, such as heartbeat, blood flow, breathing, and digestion. This system works automatically (autonomously), without a person's conscious effort. This system has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system controls our fight, flight, or freeze response. It directs the body's rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. A flash flood of hormones boosts the body's alertness and heart rate, diverts blood away from the digestive system and sends extra blood to the muscles so you can run from whatever is threatening you. Your brain also starts telling your fat cells to store more fat! It’s a stress response and many of us spend a great deal of our day in this state.
The other branch of our autonomic nervous system is the parasympathetic. In contrast, it’s our rest, digest, and heal response. Some of its activities include stimulating digestion, activating metabolism, and helping the body relax. We need more time in this state.
Now which system do we want to be using while we’re eating? Fight or flight - or - Rest and digest? What state do you think we’re in when we are driving? Watching television? Talking about stressful coronavirus or the financial markets? How many of us do those things while we’re eating?
One of our biggest issues is that we eat when we are not ready, under stress or on the run, right when our body isn't in a position to digest food. If you are in fight or flight, your body sends energy to your limbs and brain and not your digestive system, which becomes a major problem when it comes to fat storage, nutrient absorption, and the balance of your gut microbiome ~ the community of bacteria living in our guts that help us to digest food, affects our immune system, and regulates our moods.
Did you know that 90% of our seratonin (the “happy hormone”) is made by bacteria in our digestive tract, not our brain? This hormone not only stabilizes our mood and induces feelings of well-being and happiness, but it actually impacts our entire body through nervous system communication. Our microbiome where these “good” bacteria live becomes compromised when we’re stressed and we end up with a poor balance of “good” (health promoting) vs “bad” (disease promoting) bacteria. Stress can be mental (that nagging voice in our head), emotional (the pressures we place on ourselves due to poor conditioning), or physical (too much exercise, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, toxins, or processed foods).
Eating in a stressed out state increases the sensitivity of the intestines and intestinal permeability, aka “leaky gut”, along with accommodating food intolerances and inflammation. Many of us don’t even realize we *have* food intolerances and so we continue to consume foods which create immune system reactions, inducing even more stress. For more about identifying food sensitivities, check out this post. We will aslo get more into what "leaky gut" is and how to heal it in a post soon!
So, What can we do about it?
Well, the biggest thing is to downregulate the nervous system and spend more time in the parasympathetic state of “rest, digest, and heal”. We can do that in a variety of ways:
Eat Whole Foods (see this post)
Eat Mindfully (focused on the food and in a relaxed state). Future post coming soon!
Detox Regularly by drinking lots of water, consuming lots of natural fiber (cruciferous veggies), sweating, and other cleansing practices. An overload of environmental toxins create stress in the body. Future post coming soon!
Appropriate movement (Avoid extreme exercise)
Take short but frequent stress-relief breaks
Deep Belly Breaths (I’m hoping to share a video on this soon! In the meantime, YouTube “Diaphragmatic Breath”)
Play Calming Music: I love Steven Halpern’s music. He’s a parasympathetic wizard!
Creative Expression: Paint, dance, write, sing… You don’t have to share your creations but having an outlet is super important.
Get Outside for some sunshine, fresh air, and grounding
Touch someone (with permission), get a pet, or hug a tree!
“Do the work.” This means you have to stop ignoring your stress and do whatever it takes to understand your own psychology - What triggers you? What creates fear? How can you re-write your belief systems? How can you reprogram your operating system? How can you realign your life so that it nurtures you? I personally enjoy reading books on personal psychology, wellness, and spirituality but a coach or therapist can also help you with this.
REST. If you’re not getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night, explore sleep hygiene to discover what improvements you can make.
Most of all, practice self-love and compassion. The stress we experience isn’t our fault (at least not in my view). We have been victims of the culture and broken systems but empowered with knowledge, we *CAN* do something about it. Slow down, take your time and remember… This is about progress, not perfection. Pick just one thing from this list above to incorporate into your life for better stress management. Best of luck! Sending you all the love!