What is stress? The word is thrown around an awful lot but what does it actually mean?
Stress is the ‘non-specific response of the body to any demand for change’. This means that stress not only comes in the form of mental and emotional demands, but also physical demands.It can be a result of any real or perceived threat – interesting that what one person’s perception of stress could be very different to another person’s.
Over exercising or recovering from an illness puts just as much stress on the body as does trying to balance family life with a work deadline. These excessive demands on us to either internal or external factors that go beyond our body’s ability to cope and to respond in an appropriate way.
In our fast paced world rushing is the new normal. But does that mean stress is inevitable? Family, work, self-care, health and wellbeing – how do we find time to fit it all in?
What happens to our body when we are stressed?
When we are exposed to stress it is our nervous system that responds. Our nervous system is a complex body system that consists of nerve cells that transmits messages to different parts of the body. In terms of stress there are two different branches of our nervous system – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
When our sympathetic nervous system kicks into action it prepares our bodies for the fight-or-flight response. We have all heard the analogy of being chased by a bear, our body kicks into action, increasing secretions of stress hormones that leads to increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, faster breathing and increased blood flow to skeletal muscles. Our non-essential bodily functions are effected. The body forgoes what is needed for optimal digestion for example, and uses this energy for the essential functions such as breathing and pumping blood through our organs and muscles in order to help us out run the bear. It’s no wonder digestive imbalance is a common occurrence when we are chronically stressed.
On the flip side, our parasympathetic nervous system is what enables us to feel calm and relaxed. It sends messages to our body to slow high energy functions and supports energy conservation. It is also known as the rest and digest system, when blood flows through all body systems supporting normal balanced functioning.
While our fight or flight response is an essential function in order to keep us safe from harmful situations, long term, when our bodies have been releasing stress hormones on a regular basis our adrenal glands can become worn out and can no longer produce as much of these hormones. This can throw the balance of many biochemical processes. Some stress is a good thing, it helps to keep us safe in dangerous situations, but a long term stress response can lead to undesirable effects. Supporting the stress response can help mitigate negative effects of long term stress such as sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal discomfort and an imbalanced immune function. Stress can have an effect on all body systems leading to systemic imbalance.
An over active stressed body and mind sounds exhausting, it’s no wonder feeling tired but wired is commonplace. Trudging through the day, dragging your self around only to perk up just as its time to get into bed.
Getting that second wind late in the day can be common and can contribute to sleep disturbances. Our body needs deep restorative sleep in order to recover and replenish from the pressures of the day.
Support restorative sleep by:
- regular sleep and wake times,
- removing stimulants such as devices and T.V’s from the bedroom
- Creating a calm and peaceful sanctuary can support the body’s process of rest and recovery
Dietary support for stress – Good mood food
Supporting the digestive system through times of stress can be of great importance. When blood flow is steered away from the digestive system and concentrated on more essential body systems digestive balance can be affected.
When we are stressed our bodies need extra nourishment. However, during stressful times it is often our diets that are the last thing that we are concerned about. Easily accessible, fast food that is more often than not nutrient poor can be the easiest option, but can often lack the nutritional value needed to support a stressed body and mind.
Our gut lining is full of nerve fibres which supports the idea that our gut and brain are connected very closely through the nervous system. There is research to suggest that changes in our nervous system creates changes in the balance of bacteria in our digestive system. Healthy eating habits can support the rebalance of ‘good bugs’ in the gut.
Stimulants such as coffee, alcohol and sugar give us a quick stimulating hit but can put an extra strain on the body and mind. While the initial feeling of a boost of energy and mental clarity is appealing the longer term effects can often leave you feeling worse. However, food that nourishes the body and nervous system is essential to support the stress response and provide the body with essential nutrients. Regular eating is just as important. Supporting the balance of blood sugar levels also helps to manage the stress response.
Good fats and protein rich foods to support the feeling of fullness for longer, nuts and seeds are a nutritious snack that covers these bases, oily fish and avocados are amazing mood food, with the essential fatty acid component supporting brain health.
We all know the importance of supplying your body with a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables for the multitude of nutrients, antioxidants and fibre that they provide and also encourage the growth of these beneficial bacteria in the digestive system that are so important.
Lifestyle techniques to support the stress response
There are so many ways to ‘fill your cup’ and take a break from the stress of the day. Relaxation, meditation, listening to music, a walk on the beach adequate sleep, exercise – but not too much! The options are endless and all support the stress response.
Relaxation techniques can support both short term and long terms stress management.
- Mindful breathing techniques
While too much high intensity exercise can further stress and deplete a tired over-burdened body getting the right balance can provide the body with many benefits. Exercise supports the release of endorphins, hormones that when secreted support a feeling of well-being. It stimulates the flow of blood and nutrients around the body and it also lets you forget the stress of the day – if only for half an hour can help to reset your thought processes. Exercise should be enjoyable, not a chore. If the gym is your thing, go for it but if not choose another option, yoga, swimming, gardening the options are endless.
Do things that make you happy, if you enjoy it you are more likely to keep it up. A walk on the beach or in the bush, a movie with a friend or a meal out. Make time to include these in your day or week.
Nutrients that support the stress response
Vitamins and Minerals:
Magnesium is a mineral that is used for more than 300 biochemical functions in the body. According to research there is a close connection between stress levels and magnesium levels in the body. It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation, with low magnesium levels being associated with an increased stress response – does stress make us use our magnesium stores faster or is it that low magnesium levels contribute to increase stress response? Or perhaps it’s both?
Magnesium supports the body’s production of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter. Low levels of GABA mean it may be harder to relax. It is required for normal nerve functioning to support the body through the rest and digest phase of the nervous system.
B Vitamins are a group of water soluble vitamins that play a role in supporting energy production through the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and protein and the delivery of these nutrients through the blood stream to where they are needed in the body.
A B complex consists of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, Folate (B9), B12. While they are often grouped together in a complex supplement they all have their own unique benefits in terms of health and wellbeing. For example, folate (B9), B6 and B12 have a close relationship with supporting the regulation of the balance of mood and feel good neurotransmitters.
B vitamins are essential for the support of energy and to help the body cope with stress, they are used by the body in greater quantities when we are under pressure and so need to be replaced on a daily basis.
Ashwagandha is a beautiful nourishing herb that offers support to overburdened adrenal glands and also supports a healthy balance of cortisol levels, a hormone that is produced in excess in response to stress. It helps the body to cope better in terms of stress, it enables the body to adapt to stressful situations, and while the stress may not go away, Ashwagandha can support to body to build resilience.
Also known as Tulsi, this herb is native to South East Asia, but has been traditionally used in India for generations. The whole plant can be used for its medicinal qualities and is known as a tonic for the body, mind and spirit. It is often found in tea from but can be taken in supplement form.
A herb used in traditional Chinese medicine Rehmannia is said to support the bodies optimal balance in terms of stress and adrenal support. The root is used as a tonic, and supports the body’s ability to heal and maintain balance.
While the stress we experience may not go away there are tools that we can use to help us to cope and manage the stress effectively. Lifestyle techniques, herbs and supplements can support our bodies through the stressful situations that life sends our way.
Nutra-Life Magnesium Stress Ease contains magnesium to support a calm and relaxed body and mind along with key herbs including Ashwagandha and Holy Basil, plus nutrients to support a healthy stress response.
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