Almost 18 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in the UK alone in 2019/20 alone.
According to recent statistics, the average UK adult feels stressed approximately 8.27 days each month – more than twice a week.
If that sounds like you, we have the low-down on how stress affects the body and what you can do to keep your stress levels under control.
To understand more about this relationship between stress and the body, we need to explore the role of cortisol, our primary stress hormone.
Finally, we offer some solutions for stress management that we use with our personal training clients at Ultimate Performance to help you better manage your stress levels, as well as improve your sleep, diet and body composition.
What is stress?
We’ve all experienced stress but defining it is less straightforward. Stress is a highly subjective term that depends on situational factors; what is stressful for one person may not be so for someone else, and we may find something stressful at one time and not another. Likewise, stress has become so prevalent in our daily lives that many of us don’t realise how much we are experiencing.
In simple terms, stress is defined as what most people find stressful, known as ‘stressors’, which generally fall into five categories:
1. Acute, time-limited stressors, such as public speaking, mental arithmetic;
2. Brief naturalistic stressors, which may include real-life short-term challenges, such as an exam;
3. Stressful event sequences, perhaps a focal event such as loss of a relationship, a natural disaster;
4. Chronic stressors. These pervade life, potentially forcing us to reformulate our identity and social roles, such as a major accident causing a disability or a chronic illness that stops you from working;
5. Distant stressors. These include traumatic experiences in the past that continue to modify the immune system due to their long-lasting cognitive and emotional effects.
While stress comes in all shapes and sizes, it is still relevant, whatever its cause. The issue with stress is not just how we experience it but how well we respond, which determines how well we survive and function.
What is the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that triggers the breakdown of proteins, fats and carbohydrates for energy during acute periods of stress.
Cortisol has a reputation for being a ‘bad’ hormone, but it serves several key functions that are vital for our everyday survival. One of its primary functions is to increase the availability of fuel to evade a stressful event, such as being chased by a predator (our fight or flight response).
The problem we have in today’s modern, fast-paced society is that we are exposed to multiple stressors daily. If our stress response is not controlled, it has a knock-on effect on the body causing problems with chronic inflammation, decreased insulin sensitivity, blood pressure changes, impaired sleep, and body composition.
The increased level of cortisol caused by prolonged efforts to correct this condition eventually suppresses the immune system and wreaks havoc on our general health and well-being.
How does stress affect our health?
Stress can trigger poor mental health, which places additional psychological stress on the body. It is estimated that 60% of doctors’ appointments are triggered by stress-related symptoms.
Stress may also exacerbate or initiate illnesses, such as tension headaches, migraines, neurodermatitis, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, regional enteritis, ulcerative colitis, and many more.
Stress is a significant contributor to coronary heart disease, cancer, lung illness, accidental injuries, and suicide. It is also a trigger for five of the leading causes of death in the US. But to understand more about this relationship between stress and the body, we need to explore the role of cortisol, our primary stress hormone.
Stressors appears to trigger a relatively similar hormonal stress response in both men and women – but the extent and duration of these effects differ between the sexes.
Women are around seven times more likely to suffer from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, partially because women have a stronger immune system than men,.
Women are also statistically twice as likely to experience depression, in which high cortisol is a risk factor.
Men’s stress response has always historically been considered as one of ‘fight or flight’.
However, in women, we are now learning that the female stress response triggers a ‘tend-and-befriend’ response, related to women caring for and protecting children. Likewise, forming social bonds is also important, as this appears to decrease stress levels in women. Inversely, social rejection is likely to be more stressful for women than it is for men.
Women also seem to report having higher levels of stress generally than men. This could be because women often experience more stress for socioeconomic and cultural reasons, such as childcare, work, social pressures, and so on.
However, there also appears to be a physiological component to these differences. For example, while women tend to release smaller amounts of cortisol, they release it more quickly, resulting in higher circulating cortisol levels. In addition, women’s bodies also clear cortisol less quickly. As a result, cortisol has a stronger and longer-lasting effect in women than it does in men.
One of the crucial factors in the female stress response is the role of oestrogen. Research has found that the exogenous administration of oestrogen to men appears to increase their stress response to psychosocial stress to similar levels as in women.
Stress is also a known risk factor for hormonal disorders such as amenorrhea and PCOS. All these factors mean that stress may have more significant and longer-lasting effects in women.
5 steps to managing stress levels for better long-term health
There is overwhelming evidence that stress has important implications for our mental and physical health. But while the underlying mechanisms are complex, there are several tools you can try today to reduce your stress levels.
1. Make dietary changes for long-term health
While it may be tempting to turn to food or alcohol to relieve stress, this simply compounds the problem. High-calorie, highly inflammatory foods, such as junk food, cause intestinal distress. Alcohol also disturbs sleep, hitting you with a double whammy. Instead, aim to:
Avoid processed foods and food sources that don’t work for you. For some people, this may include dairy and gluten; others may not experience issues. Use a process of trial and error.
Include a ton of bright, colourful vegetables with every meal.
Avoid high-inflammatory oils, like sunflower oil, peanut oil, corn oil, margarine or vegetable oils, and soybean oil.
Enjoy healthy fats sources, such as olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
Eat a high-fibre diet, including green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds.
Prioritise high-quality, unprocessed protein sources.
2. Improve your sleep
This is a factor that many find difficult, particularly if you have a demanding job or small children at home. Even getting to bed just 15-30 minutes earlier each night will have a dramatically positive impact on your health.
Either way, aim to maximise your sleep quality wherever possible:
Install blackout blinds or curtains or invest in a sleep mask.
Keep your room cool and quiet; invest in earplugs if you live with a lot of ambient noise.
Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime.
Establish a bedtime routine: in the hour before bed, avoid your phone and chores. Use this time to read a book, take a bath or meditate.
However you choose to do it, gratitude and mindfulness have many positive impacts on stress and mental health.
Invest in a journal and write down three to five things you are grateful for every day. You will improve at this with time if it feels difficult at first.
Make time to meditate or for guided breathing, whether before bed or in the morning. Ten minutes is just 1% of your day; an investment will reap rewards for your productivity, mindset and health long term.
4. Create your morning routine
Do you check your phone for work emails, social media or news as soon as you wake up? This habit sets you up for a negative mindset straight off the bat.
Create a routine that works for you, whether that’s journaling, doing a 20-minute yoga class online, a stretching routine or some guided-breathing.
Make time to sit and eat a nutritious breakfast with zero distractions.
Give yourself an hour undisturbed before diving into work or other activities. If you can’t do an hour, even 15-30 minutes is a good start.
Consider your news sources. Modern media often creates a stream of negativity that feeds into our mindset and stress levels without us even realising it.
The keys to minimising stress should primarily be lifestyle changes. However, stress is sometimes inevitable, which is where supplementation can be invaluable. Our stress supplement stack provides the support to help you keep stress under control.
Amplify. The ingredients in our unique BCAA blend suppress myostatin caused by chronic cortisol elevation, vital for stressed thirty-plus executives.
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