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Why is chronic stress so harmful?

Think of your response to stress like a rechargeable battery. If chronically stressed then the battery gets depleted and the engine is not able to perform. When relaxed, your battery recharges. Chronic stress does not allow time for your body to recharge and this sets the stage for inflammation, weight gain, and chronic illness.

The Autonomic nervous system responds to stress by causing a cascade of events that increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. This is like the gas pedal on an engine. The parasympathetic nervous system is like the brake which helps with reducing the effects of the “fight or flight” response by reducing heart rate among other things.

Cortisol Gets You Ready To Respond

Once we detect a stressful situation, the autonomic nervous system alerts the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, adrenaline norepinephrine. Quickly bring on the “readiness” changes your body needs to respond. These powerful hormones bring on the readiness changes in the body that are needed to respond to what it perceives as a dangerous situation. Energizes the body, increases heart rate, heightens senses, tightens muscles, constricts blood flow and provides the body with access to glucose for energy, increasing blood sugar levels.

Stress And Weight Gain

Cortisol plays a role in weight gain because it increases visceral fat storage when released and by stimulating the release of insulin which prompts fat storage, as well.  When we were hunter gatherers, insulin helped us to take in the glucose and move, act in order to evade a dangerous situation. Stress also plays a role in cravings or a strong desire to take a substance. While the science is not completely clear, chronic stress often causes cravings for high calorie foods and overeating, as well.

Today, the effects of low levels of chronic stress affect the body differently than when the stress is acute and then gone. Stress at work or with a spouse does not require immense physical reactions that use up the glucose, so most of the mobilizes energy gets stored as fat. Consistently high blood sugar levels for chronic stress can lead to insulin resistance when occurring over time.

Stress and Your Thyroid

Your thyroid works together with your adrenal glands. Cortisol levels work on a negative feedback loop with the parts of the brain that regulate thyroid hormone production which in turns gets slowed down. Inflammatory immune cells also make cells less receptive to thyroid hormones which in turn makes your body more resistant to the hormone and unable to use it, possibly giving you symptoms of an underactive thyroid.

High cortisol levels also lead to immune system suppression, gastrointestinal problems, and cardiovascular disease.  High levels of fat accumulation leads to inflammation along with the body’s heightened inflammatory response. Chronic stress will leave the body more susceptible to colds and illnesses, increased risk for cardiovascular diseases and digestive problems.

The good news is that we can stop the stress-weight gain cycle!

The first step in managing stress is by realizing how the effects of stress affect the body, so you are inclined to take steps to get healthy.

10 Tips For Stress Reduction

  1. Breathwork is actually the one way we can control the autonomic nervous system. Breathing is a direct link to autonomic nervous system activity. So, learning different breathing techniques can reduce heart rate, blood pressure and the effects of cortisol on the body. Making this a regular practice will help you to de-stress.
  2. An Anti-inflammatory diet is one way to change your lifestyle to minimize the production of cortisol. Eating whole foods and avoiding foods known to trigger inflammation. For some people foods that can cause inflammation are unknown. Common culprits are gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, onions, nightshades, seafood, legumes, and nuts. Foods that contain trans fats and caffeine are touted to increase cortisol and inflammation. Caffeine, however, in moderation is healthful in many other ways. Trans fats have no health benefit.
  3. Regular exercise and nature are two activities that are very helpful in reducing stress. Taking time to enjoy a walk outside or go to a yoga session, regularly will help to reduce the effects of stress in your life and your body. Yoga, in my opinion, is the best form of exercise, guided breathing, and exercise that teach you how to relax and have mindful control over stress. It can be done just about anywhere, once you have practiced for a time and keeps your body limber and strong.
  4. Supplement support is mentioned in the literature. Dr. Meyers from suggests herbal supplements, B vitamin, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and magnesium.
  5. Prayer and meditation are two other ways that have been shown to promote relaxation. There are free apps that can be downloaded to your phone that will guide you through meditations. Headspace is one I recently downloaded. Meditation has been shown to increase the ability to be more resilient when stressful situations occur.
  6. Journaling each day is a great way to either brain dump all that is on your mind, essentially allowing worries to be dumped. Gratitude is another positive way to reframe your thinking patterns. By retraining your mind from negative to instant positive thoughts, you can control how you look at situations and reduce your stress response.
  7. Support groups are a great way to reduce the effects of stress. People who are less lonely or isolated have less stress, depression, anxiety, and fatigue.
  8. Massage therapy helps to relax the muscles and the toxins in our body built up in tight muscles when we are in a stress state response.
  9. Infrared saunas claim to relieve stress, detox the body and reduce muscle pain using light and heat to release stored toxins in the body. They are believed to support the parasympathetic nervous system.
  10. Spending quality time with loved ones and disconnecting from social media and devices 🙂

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