14 Oct How to stop stress from impacting your overall health and longevity?
I am constantly amazed by the number of clients who do not recognise how stress is impacting their health.
Stress has become a much-used term, usually a negative term, but did you know, short-term stress can also be beneficial. This is the type of stress that we are designed to respond to, not the chronic accumulation of long-term stress that many individuals are currently facing.
Stress comes in many forms and classed as 3 different types; good, tolerable and toxic
It can then be defined as:
- Environmental, work and home
- Trauma and abuse
- Major life events
How individuals respond to stress is determined by genetic make-up, development, experience, diet, smoking, pharmaceutical drugs, substance abuse, alcohol intake and activity level.
What happens in times of stress
In response to perceived stress adrenalin, noradrenaline is released by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and cortisol is released on the activation of the HPA axis (Hypothalamus Pituitary adrenal axis). The ‘threat’ activates the Amygdala in the brain, this is our Primal brain which is not well adapted to the stressors we face in our modern lives. Once the stressor has subsided the SNS response should be switched off. However, the problem we are facing now is the duration and accumulation of stress that we are dealing with every day.
Short term stress can be protective, such as increasing the efficacy of vaccinations and wound healing, increasing resistance to infection and cancer, unfortunately, chronic long-term stress becomes pathologically harmful.
Long term stress affects us by
- Increasing inflammation, thereby increasing the risk of autoimmune diseases
- Reducing efficacy of vaccination and decreasing wound healing
- Reducing resistance to infection and cancer
- Immunosuppression which results in repeated infections
Our immune system is primed to react to bacterial infection, not contemporary social threats such as social isolation, emotional abuse or, chronic viral infections.
During stress, neuroinflammation and increased oxidative stress hardwires our brain function – this inflammation contributes to blood-brain barrier hyperpermeability, as with the gut this leads to systemic inflammation.
In the short term, this leads to:
- Anticipation of adversity
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Social anxiety
In the medium term, it leads to:
- Disrupted sleep
- Chronic pain
- Depressed mood
- Social withdrawal
The Long term consequences are:
- Susceptibility to infection
- Inflammatory disease
- Accelerated ageing
- Early mortality
How to deal with stress
So, how do we deal with this and reduce the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and promote balance with the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and stay on the beneficial side of the stress spectrum?
Incorporating these Lifestyle factors is a good place to start:
- Restful 8 hours sleep
- Nutrition: Antioxidant, rich whole food diet with adequate protein
- Physical activity, ideally 5 days weekly, start slow and build-up
- Coping strategies
- Social support
- Activities, such as meditation, yoga, mindfulness, being in nature, music, dance, craft, painting, gardening, fishing – finding an activity that you enjoy and a group of people who you enjoy spending time with .
Making small changes will lead to more energy and enthusiasm to look at the big picture and lead to positive changes
Therapeutic areas to target for supporting stress
- Gut support – to modulate the stress response in the digestive tract and by supporting the gut/brain connection enhancing microbiome diversity and ecology.
- Protecting the Mitochondria – the mitochondria is the engine house of the cells, where we produce cortisol and can modify the stress response. Chronic stress leads to damaged mitochondrial activity and lowered energy stores within the body .
- BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) – a family of neurotrophins, which are essential for development, survival and function of neurons. As we age it facilitates the strengthening of nerve pathways, neuronal plasticity and neuroprotection. It is associated with learning, memory, behaviour, stress, pain and energy metabolism. Chronic stress depletes BDNF which means that neuronal plasticity is reduced and as we age this is essential for maintaining cognitive function.
- Exercise – as mentioned before exercise is also essential, which supports prefrontal cortex blood flow and improved executive function and memory.
- Sleep – balanced circadian rhythm and a healthy restorative sleep cycle.
As a Naturopath, my passion is supporting clients to get back into balance. I am grateful I have the experience to do this and the tools to assist with this journey and especially the wonderful world of Herbal medicine. For stress, I use adaptogenic herbs, which are stress response modifiers, promoting adaptation and survival. I also use calming or anxiolytic herbs and nervines, plus specific nutrients that are essential to support mood, energy and reduce inflammation as a therapeutic first step towards a healthy happier life.
Hopefully, we can all dance into our last decades as studies have demonstrated that regular dance practice integrates brain areas to improve neuroplasticity!