We have all heard that stress impacts our health in more ways than one. But I truly believe having a better understanding of what that really means for you, your body, and your day-to-day is how you will find your path to a more balanced life.
There are 3 key parts about stress and the body that I think will help you understand more about your health when it comes to stress. & hopefully help you turn inward and see where you have control to make changes in how much stress is in your life OR just how to manage it better!
1) Fuel Sources:
We all have probably heard of the fight or flight response. It’s our body’s response to situations where we may need protection. Now what this looks like in action has changed over time — we’re no longer running away from wild animals to safety — but maybe instead sprinting out of the way of traffic in a busy city. In either situation, your body’s focus remains the same… to get you to safety.
To do this, our bodies tap into the fast-burning fuel that we can access quickly and put right to use (aka glucose) and produces a hormone, Cortisol. This in turn causes our blood sugar to spike and diverts energy away from any other systems that can make do without energy for a brief period of time, such as digestion. When you finally get to safety, your body will stop producing this quick energy because it no longer needs it and resumes normal functions as your body calms down.
So what does this have to do with stress? When we are stressed, our body is going to resort to the same functioning as it is a fight or flight scenario, thus diverting energy away from other body systems and producing cortisol. Our bodies were not meant to live in fight or flight for extended periods of time but how often do we hear people talking about how stressed they are? Almost everyday, right? When we are stressed, we are producing excess cortisol, using glucose as our fuel source, and taking it away from other bodily systems. This is why when you are stressed, even if you have a regular workout and eating regiment, you can still gain weight due to the body tapping into glucose for energy instead of fats.
2) Food Choices & cravings:
When you are stressed, what foods do you find yourself reaching for? Probably something high calorie & high sugar like pasta or cookies, or maybe a combination of similar items. You’re not alone & there is a why for this.
Our bodies are looking for more sugar, that quick energy to get us through what it thinks is a dangerous situation. Remember - the fuel source is glucose! Your body is just doing its job. Not to mention the instant gratification you feel when you eat it. Your feel-good hormone, dopamine, is released when we eat these kinds of food, giving us that sense of satisfaction or comfort, however brief. Will-power only gets you so far and hasn’t been seen to have sustainable results. Your body will find a way to get you to give it what it needs. By reducing your stress levels your body can resume normal functions and come back to balanced hormone levels which can stop leading you to higher sugar and nutrient-lacking foods. Take your power back of consciously choosing what to eat and accurately listening to what your body needs.
3) Other Bodily Functions:
When our bodies are in a constant state of stress, it’s understandable that you are going to feel off. It’s because you are! Your body isn’t performing the way it was designed to.
I mentioned that stress and cortisol impact your digestive system. It takes the energy that it would use to break down your food and instead directs it to the fight or flight scenario. But when this is a constant state of stress, the digestive system is going to be on the back burner for a long time. Is this starting to sound like the why to the
Why am I gaining weight?
Why does my stomach hurt?
Why are my bowls inconsistent?
And it’s not just the digestive system. Systems that the body views as not vital to survival like hair and nail production are going to have less attention and focus from the body. Lowering the stress on your body can improve how you both look and feel!
And finally, sleep — when we are stressed we don’t often sleep well. That is by design. Cortisol is designed to keep you awake in case you are still in danger. You may doze in and out but you miss out on the restorative benefits of deep sleep which are critical to our health. Even after a stressful day, you can still get a good night’s sleep… as long as you get your mind and body both there. Winding down for the evening, which can be practiced in a variety of ways, is another reason I’m a lover of an evening routine. Just like babies, your routine triggers our body and brain that it’s time to settle in for the night and rest. Deep breaths and meditation for example cue the body and mind that you are safe.
That’s a lot - so highlights & takeaways:
After reading this you aren’t instantly going to feel less stressed. But you have a better idea of what is happening in the body so now, how can you change what is in your control?
A few tricks to help —
Find time to meditate. It can be 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 45 minutes. Morning or night. But this time allows you to connect with your breath. Deep belly breathing is what triggers the body out of ‘Fight or Flight’ & into Rest & Digest.
Build up your well of healthy stress outlets. Letting it out instead of holding it in helps! Moving the body, talking in out with a friend, writing in a journal to make space in your brain — to name a few. Find a few methods to have that you can turn to when times are stressful.
Planning & Scheduling: knowing you have time allotted for yourself, eating, family time, and work time helps you keep lines from bleeding over. Yes, we are living in a world where a lot of these lines cross and the 9-5 is far less common. But that’s why it’s even more important to block out your time so you know when your energy and mind are dedicated to one. This also can help you stay focused and get things done which ultimately leads to lowering the possible stressors.
Monitor your caffeine consumption. Caffeine stimulates our nervous system and can add to our perceived levels of stress. Try adding a glass of water or tea instead of another cup of coffee. Or you can always go decaf :)
Reducing and managing your stress is an ongoing practice. And it takes time to learn how you will best manage it in your current season of life. But lowering your stress will improve your quality of life, how you look and feel in your own skin, and help you show up in your life how you want to!