Posted on May 08, 2020, 3 p.m.
Article courtesy of Joseph Maroon, MD, FACS
Over the last several months we have been bombarded with stress-inducing news. The COVID-19 pandemic, job losses, food and essential item shortages and most frightening daily reports of deaths and illness are all taking a toll. Stress is an essential part of human existence. It can focus us, motivate us and help us achieve things, both physically and mentally we never thought we could. But chronic stress, such as we are experiencing now, or other more personal stressors, such as long-term physical or mental illness, bad relationships, poverty or chronic unemployment can have serious life threatening and life shortening consequences.
Chronic stress can also cause damaging changes to our brain and its function. Stress can cause lethargy, fatigue and even alter memories. Because humans have such a strong mind/body connection, it’s really no surprise that stress can cause both physical and mental changes. During times of stress our brain and body react by stimulating high levels of cortisol—one of the chemicals released when we’re stressed—can:
- Negatively affect memory and new learning, and can actually kill brain cells in the part of the brain where memories are encoded.
- Increase both heart rate and pumping, which can cause arteries to narrow and restrict blood flow back to the heart. This raises blood pressure throughout the body.
- Alter heart rhythm, which can pose a risk and even sudden death.
- Cause blood to be stickier, leading to thickening of blood vessel walls and possible clots.
- Alter fat metabolism, potentially causing more fat storage and obesity.
- Cause depression and suicidal thoughts.
- Cause the body to release inflammatory molecules (cytokines) that can lead to premature aging and disease in every organ of the body.
To make the effects of stress clearer, it may help to organize them into three categories:
Physical: headache, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, high blood pressure, change in sex drive, sleep problems.
Mental: anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, irritability or anger, sadness or depression.
Behavior: Over/under eating, angry bouts, drug/alcohol abuse, tobacco use, social withdrawal.
My personal battle with stress has been well documented and reported in my blog, my many lectures on balance and wellness and my book, Square One: A Simple Guide to a Balanced Life. Despite being very much aware of chronic stress and its potentially demonstrating effects, I still daily battle it with a variety of stress-countering techniques. Below are some of the ways I use to counter stress that may also help you.
What steps can you take?
The most important step in managing any stressful situation is to:
- First, understand the real reason why you’re feeling stress.
- Second, recognize how the stress is affecting your body and your mind.
- And third, figure out how you can relieve that stress and perhaps avoid stress in the future.
The three essential areas that we can control—and that can in turn control our stress—is:
- Getting more rest,
- Eating better foods (and not overeating because of stress), and
- Getting more physical activity.
The Importance of Rest
It’s imperative that we give our bodies the rest and relaxation it needs, because a good night’s sleep gives your body time to relax and rebuild in every way, including the production of the hormones and neurotransmitters that are so critical to brain health. As we get older it’s common for sleep patterns to become disrupted. If poor sleep continues, symptoms of sleep deprivation can arise, including headaches, indigestion, irritability, and decreased concentration and focus. Lack of sleep can also be associated with depression if the brain hormones are not replenished during sleep, and can also cause chronic fatigue and occasionally more serious diseases.
To Get The Best Rest…
- Try to go to bed at the same time each evening and wake at the same time each morning.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and other liquids before bedtime.
- Take a bath, listen to calming music, white noise or try deep breathing before bed.
- Clear your mind of nagging thoughts or worries. Have a notepad next to your bed and write down any tasks or reminders for yourself, so these thoughts won’t keep you awake.
- Eliminate napping during the day, or nap for less than 30 minutes in the early afternoon.
- Deal with medical issues that may make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.
- Dietary supplements may help you sleep
We have all heard that warm milk before bed is a great stress reliever and sleep aid. This has some proof in science. But other sleep “aids”—such as drinking alcohol to help you relax—can actually cause stress and sleeplessness. Sometimes we need help to relax and sleep better. For occasional use only, and with medical clearance if you have an underlying medical condition, there are some dietary supplements, like CBD and melatonin, that have been shown to improve mood, relaxation, and sleep.
The Connection Between Stress And Eating
A recent annual survey by the American Psychology Association (APA), reported that most Americans are suffering from moderate to high levels of stress. And not only are stress levels increasing year after year, but Americans are now doing a worse job coping with the increased stress. This finding helps to explain why only 27% of respondents were happy about their level of exercise, and why 40% reported they were overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress.
Because stressors tend to build on or provoke other stressors, it’s no surprise that stress and overeating go hand in hand. Stress eating, or emotional eating, happens when people turn to food for comfort—either consciously or unconsciously—when they feel stressed. And overeating makes us less healthy and more stressed. And…you see the cycle. Stress eating is a major cause of our current obesity epidemic, because the comfort foods that people reach for are typically high in fat and loaded with processed sugars. Weight gain will often continue until the source of the stress is dealt with in a healthier manner.
Comfort foods that have a high sugar content can stimulate the release of a brain neurotransmitter called serotonin. Candy, sugary cereal, sweets, and other foods loaded with processed sugars will increase serotonin levels, which results in a calming effect. Stress eating thus becomes hard wired in the brain. But as we eat more food, we gain more weight—which becomes another stressor—and the cycle continues to worsen.
The stress/weight gain cycle can be broken, and stress reduction is the most effective place to start. Here are techniques you can try that relate specifically to food.
- Identify your stress triggers.
- Keep busy so you’re not tempted to overeat.
- Don’t eat if you are already full. Drink a glass of water instead.
- Choose healthy food and snacks
What Can Exercise Do To Reduce Stress?
Simply put, everything! Because it has such a profound effect on both the body and the mind, physical activity is one of the single best things you can do to help relieve stress.
- It pumps up the feel-good chemicals. Physical activity can literally unlock the genetic keys to “nature’s pharmacy,” meaning that it offers an array of healing compounds to both the brain and the body. Indeed, tiny neurotransmitters known as serotonin and dopamine are released in the brain during and after exercise, and their effects can be more effective and longer lasting than any pharmacological antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug on the market.
- It allows the brain to focus. Exercise and movement can reduce daily tension and has been proven to help the brain to focus. After exercising, most people sense greater energy and optimism, which allows the brain to feel clearer and function more efficiently.
- It improves your mood. When exercise becomes a habit, it can actually lower the symptoms of mild depression and anxiety, and increase feelings of control and self-confidence. In turn, exercise improves your sleep—which is so often disrupted by stress, depression, or anxiety.
Excessive and chronic stress can affect both the brain and body. Now is a perfect time to figure out ways to relieve the stress and manage stress as we face the uncertainty that surrounds us. While the pandemic is mostly out of our control, we can choose how we respond. We can do the necessary things to improve our odds of both getting or giving someone the infection. We can prepare our bodies, brain and actions to handle stress better. Use these tips to help and daily reassess your stress levels.
Article courtesy of Joseph Maroon, MD, FACS, among his accomplishments he is Senior Vice President of the A4M, board certified neurosurgeon, best selling author, keynote speaker, sports medicine expert, triathlete, and one of our medical editors. Dr Maroon is an expert and consultant in the areas of sports nutrition, concussion management, and brain and spinal problems, as well as being an internationally competing Ironman triathlete.
“I am glad to share with you what I have learned throughout my personal quest to overcome adversity to become an accomplished neurosurgeon, scientist, Ironman athlete, consultant, author, and advocate on healthy living and nutrition.” ~ Dr. Joseph Maroon.