Stress Hormones: Friends or Enemies?

When busy defines you to the point that your health, sleep or relationships suffer, it is time to stop and reassess.

Most of us are doing our best to check off as many items as possible from the perpetually unfinished to-do list. We all have concerns and life challenges coming from our actions and family, friends or co-workers.

I couldn’t help but notice that in the past few years, the word stress has become so commonly used that somehow it seems we are distancing from its actual meaning.

Are you feeling overworked? Did you notice you have more and more health issues? That’s real stress. But stressed because the soup boiled and half of it spilled over on the stovetop while you were in the washroom? Well, this is just a mishap, not actual stress. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

What Stress Actually Is?

According to the dictionary (Merriam-Webster), stress is: “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”

Have you ever been scared off by a car that almost hit you while on a crosswalk? It happened to me more than once. When you come across anything perceived to be stressful or frightening, your sympathetic nervous system is activated almost instantly. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, a beneficial reaction that physiologically prepares you to deal with the dangerous situation.

The hypothalamus in the brain initiates the secretion of stress hormones, including adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands.

 

In seconds, changes to get you ready to fight or run for your life occur – elevated heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and blood sugar; perspiration, shaking, etc.

All these changes require additional resources from the body. Therefore some functions that are not relevant during a stressful event have to slow down; for instance, digestion gets disrupted.

 

Hypotalamus

Is There Such a Thing as Good Stress?

Regular (acute) stress is a defence mechanism – it prepares you to react in life-threatening circumstances.

All the mentioned effects are reversible. When the danger is no longer present, cortisol decreases and the body shifts into a more relaxed state. The parasympathetic nervous system slows the functions activated as a quick response to stress, allowing the release of calming hormones for both the brain and body.

Problems occur when, due to multiple stressors in our lives, it becomes difficult to cope with everything. Specific actions or just thoughts may be perceived as stress and activate the fight-or-flight response. Sometimes we overreact to circumstances that are not posing any threat, like traffic jams, contradictory discussions at work or remarks made by a neighbour.

Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can lead to chronic stress. Over time, it will take a toll on every aspect of your life, resulting in physical and mental health problems such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Suppressed immune system response
  • Insulin resistance
  • Digestive problems
  • Increased appetite, excess fat and weight gain
  • Painful muscle spasms
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Memory and concentration impairment.

Due to the brain-gut connection, digestion can be impacted by excessive stress, triggering a broad array of gastrointestinal issues:

-Constipation or diarrhea

-Heartburn, GERD

-Gas, bloating, nausea

-IBD/IBS

-Increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut)

-Disturbed balance of the gut microbiota

-Poor nutrient absorption.

Fortunately, besides diet, multiple stress management techniques are available and very effective. 

Tips to Ease Stress

1. Walk

After a stressful situation going out for a brisk walk helps to distance from the source of stress, redirect your attention to the surroundings and uplift the spirits.1. Walk. After a stressful situation going out for a brisk walk helps to distance from the source of stress, redirect your attention to the surroundings and uplift the spirits.

2. Practice Tai Chi, Qi Gong or Yoga

Each of them combines slow movements with deep breathing and meditation – the perfect package to help you get back to tranquillity.

3. Call a close friend or your mom

Share what is happening to you or ask for help. You will feel relief and might as well get great advice. Emotional support during a crisis makes a big difference.

4. Learn to say “No.”

In a quest to keep up with all the life demands, we sometimes don’t realize that we can live without doing all-of-the-things. Start saying “No” to whatever adds stress to your life. The others will understand.

5. Improve your diet

Include foods that are excellent stress-busters. For instance, eggs, cheese, oatmeal, seafood, salmon, nuts and seeds, are rich in magnesium, zinc, tryptophan or omega-3 fatty acids that can help you relax.

Deep Breathing Exercise

Abdominal breathing is an excellent way to calm your mind. Our default is shallow breathing into the chest. Focus now on taking bigger breaths and moving them into the abdomen.

 

→ Sit and place one hand on your belly and the other one on your chest.

→ Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, and make sure your belly expands while your chest does not move.

→ Breathe out through your mouth for 5-8 seconds and feel your belly lower.

→ Repeat 3-10 times.

Abdominal Breathing

Conclusion:

Stress is not always the enemy. It can save your life or accomplish seemingly non-attainable goals. However, you need to learn ways to deal with it and  adjust your perception of stress to avoid letting it take over your health and life.

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