Research taken from Dr Elissa Epel and Dr Andrew Huberman
What is Stress? – Many different dimensions to the word stress, there is good and bad stress and chronic and acute stress. Technically, it means anytime we feel overwhelmed or the demands are too much for our resources.
So much of our lives is about meeting challenges and we are not going to ever get rid of stressful situations completely. If anything, they are increasing so it really comes down to not the stressors or what happens to us but how we react to them or our stress response.
It’s worth thinking about what stressors are in your life that may be difficult – ongoing situations like caregiving, health problems, or work stress and how are you coping with it? When something happen’s we mount a stress response and we recover which is positive. Problems arise when we keep it alive in our head with our thoughts – our thoughts are our most common form of stress. Overthinking or ruminating can lead to chronic stress which can affect us in ways not just mentally but also physically.
The Most Effective ways for Dealing with Overthinking and Ruminating On Stressful Topics
3 Key Areas:
Firstly, we need to have some kind of awareness of how our mind works or whether are thoughts are real. Instead of accepting every thought that comes into our heads as gospel we must learn to identify and challenge what thoughts are serving us in a positive way and what thoughts are irrational. I have a very acute stress response to flying in an aeroplane, I start thinking about being stuck on a plane where I can’t get off and the turbulence makes me think we are going to crash. Quite a common stress response for a lot of people. I have gotten better at separating myself from my thoughts and now I understand that these thoughts are just thoughts, not reality, if I don’t attach myself to them it helps get my stress under control. In my case I have released this type of stress thru awareness and mindset, this may also be a strategy that can help you manage yours.
Post covid 46% of people found they are experiencing stress of some description (more research has suggested these numbers can even be higher). This can have more serious implications for young adults who experience 4 x the level of stress to others and minority groups. People over 65 tend to be less stressed as the research found they have already been thru so much in their lives and are more resilient and better at problem solving.
- Changing the Body
Certain studies have found that High Intensity Interval or HIIT training is a great way to release endorphins. These endorphins make us feel good and also help us work stress out of the body which makes us feel positive and happy. Exercise has also been proven to be 4 x more effective than anti-depressants so next time you are feeling stressed go out for a walk, hit the gym or play sport.
- Changing the Scene
By changing the scene try to remove yourself from the environment that may be contributing to your stress. Find an environment that is calming and comforting places that have your pets, favourite photographs, smells or music can help.
Different Forms of Stress and How we can Recognise Them:
Stress is not always related to our mind, it can be measured thru the nervous system or holding tension in the body, it is sympathetically dominated (fight or flight). Our bodies when stressed are vigilant and are searching for safety cues to help alleviate our feelings of overwhelm. When we are stressed, we are mobilising a lot more energy (ATP) than we need too, this huge energy expenditure will often leave our bodies feeling exhausted and tired. Some other physical signs and symptoms of being stressed are clenching your jaw or hands, shallow or difficulty breathing and sweating.
Acute (short term) stress response – creates a situation where every hormone or cell in our body is having a stress response. This acute stress response is not always negative as it allows us to re-orient, focus and problem solve which is necessary for coping with life. Even if it last minutes or hours we eventually recover, this is also know as ‘Eustress’ or good stress.
Moderately Stressful events may take days or months to cope with – it is helpful to notice in the moment right now am I coping acutely with something or can I restore it?
Chronically Stressful (long term) situations which go on for years, many of us have these in our lives eg caregiving which may be hard to change. Whilst we may not be able to change these in a hurry we can use radical acceptance strategies to live well with them. Really important for people who feel like they have a harder life. A radical acceptance strategy may be along the lines of allowing yourself to feel negative feelings, find practices that make the stress feel easier to cope with breathwork, meditation and learning to accept your resistant behaviours.
Relationship Between Stress and Eating:
Most people when they feel stress either eat more or less food. For some people, stress makes our digestion shut down which reduces our appetite. This is a high sympathetic stress response (fight or flight) is triggered. This leads to more alertness and arousal and it can also lead to losing weight.
The more common pattern is binge eating or over eating when we experience stress and that looks different both in the brain and biologically. What is looks like in the body is the stress response is driving cravings and high insulin or an insulin resistant state. What goes along with that is a tendency to be overweight or obese. Stress can exacerbate tendencies to overeat or binge, not feel satiated and compulsive traits. We tend to crave high sugary foods, fast foods and processed foods. With repeated bouts of stress we will just gain weight particularly in the intra-abdominal area. This has been demonstrated in rat and mice studies and now also with people. 10 year study by Dr Elissa Epel found that what was happening in rats and mice was also happening with people.
In studies with mice if you stress them out and give them sugary foods to eat they develop binge eating and get compulsive. They get metabolic syndrome where their belly fat expands, which is an immediate source of energy when we are stressed. If our body thinks we are under chronic stress we are going to store abdominal fat which is easily mobilised.
Breaking Overeating Cycles and Mindfulness:
In certain weight loss trial’s (Dr Elisa Epel) in her lab researched the way to break the cycle of compulsive eating what she found was:
- In healthy, mindful eating trials they found that mindful eating is not going to cause a lot of weight loss. But the people who benefitted most from learning this kind of calm, self-regulation where you check in with your hunger you slow down, you increase your awareness of your body (teraseptic awareness). That type of skill is really critical for people with compulsive eating. In these trials by Dr Epel they found that people with compulsive eating who took on this mindfulness skill do better in terms of their long-term weight loss, insulin resistance and glucose.
- The ‘Positive Stress Pathway’ is also important also for breaking the compulsive eating cycle. Examples include high intensity interval training (HIIT) or other ways we can get rid of stress thru the body can help with the cravings.
If you are finding yourself in that Binge eating mode or using food to comfort then you can use the following strategies.
Top Down Check In
The compulsive drive to eat is one of our strongest impulses. If we have developed that neural pathway it is important to develop awareness around separating emotions from hunger. These two can easily get intertwined together, so labelling how you are feeling, numbering your hunger from 1-10, asking yourself, am I really hungry or is it just boredom? These strategies help people and if you do this check in right before you eat it is the most beneficial.
Ride the Craving or Surf the Urge:
This can be practiced with foods or drinks that are highly addictive such as sugar ie. Soft drinks. This practice includes watching your craving pass and knowing that it is only a matter of time that you can surf without jumping to consuming. This practice helps some people the exercising, the changing the scene the going for a walk is another strategy.
Stress Intervention Studies & Ageing
Meditation has been found to slow down the biological ageing in people. These meditation interventions we practice – even short-term ones have been proven to lengthen cells that help slow down the rate of ageing.
In addition to this meditation has been proven to reduce our Inflammatory pathways and boosts our protective enzymes which also helps slow our ageing. These studies suggest that if someone was to continue meditating they might keep up this slower rate of ageing even more.
So in summary the most effective 3 ways you can reduce your stress is by:
- Being aware and mindful of it,
- Secondly change your body – the power of movement
- Thirdly – change your scene – seek out environments that help you feel calm
To manage overeating and compulsive eating:
- Top Down Approach – mindfulness around emotions and hunger
- Positive Stress Pathway – again thru HIIT or other forms of exercise.
This is the season where the temperature starts to drop and flu season starts to well and truly kick in. Colds, runny noses, sore throats are par for the course so during this time it is important to try and keep our health and improve our immunity. The Corona virus outbreak had us all googling ways in which we could ‘boost our immunity’.
So what exactly is ‘your immunity?’
Your immune system is made up of your bodies defence against infection and illness. It basically operates like a defence system that fights off an unfamiliar germs, bacteria or parasites. These cells operate best when they are in balance and harmony!
Can we boost our immunity?
Whilst this is an enticing idea there has been no scientific evidence to suggest we can improve the number of immune cells (white blood cells) in our body (lymphocytes and phagocytes). We can rather bolster our protection against harmful viruses and bacteria by adopting some healthy living strategies such as:
– Eating a diet high in fruit and vegetables
– Not smoking
– Maintaining a healthy weight
– Exercising regularly
– Drinking alcohol in moderation
– Practicing proper hygiene such as hand washing and cooking meats thoroughly
– Getting enough sleep
– Trying to minimise stress
1. Fresh fruits and Vegetables:
What we do know is that the greater our intake of brightly coloured fresh fruits and vegetables, the better our health, weight and immune function. Fresh fruits and vegetables are packed full of vitamins and minerals, many of which play crucial roles in our daily immune functioning. Some nutrients such as vitamin C, have specific roles in fighting off bugs and keeping our cells healthy.
To optimise our immune system we need at least 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit each day for good health, but when it comes to optimal immune function, 10 serves a day is a good target. Ten is the magic number of 80 gram serves of fruit and vegetables you should eat every day to most dramatically lower your risk of disease and death, says the Imperial College of London. That adds up to 800 grams per day of the healthy stuff!
When it comes to our meals and snacks every main meal should contain a palm size amount of whole protein (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans or lentils), a healthy fat (nuts, olive oil or avocado) and a variety of colourful vegetables . Mix up your colours as well as enjoying both fresh and cooked options to ensure you get a range of different nutrients from different foods. Try to incorporate a range of salads or fresh juices and grab a piece of fruit as a snack. Eating at regular times throughout the day will also support your adrenal health and balance your hormones.
Broccoli: is packed full of phenolic compounds, powerful anti-oxidants and anti inflammatories that reduce the risk or coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and asthma and keeps your cells young.
Vitamin D: you get from the sun, fatty fish, eggs or supplements. Studies have found that it does everything from improving strength in muscle and cognitive function to benefiting gut flora and preventing respiratory infections.
Fish Oil/Omega 3: can reduce the effects of a high fat diet by fighting the inflammation this causes by, spread the clearance of waste from the brain and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Magnesium: great for heart health like arrhythmias and hypertension to atherosclerosis and endothelial dysfunction.
Tumeric: an anti inflammatory and anti-oxidant that makes it a potent protector against cancers and ageing free radicals. It also improves brain function and lowers the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s and depression.
Walnuts: high in vitamin B, fibre and omega-3 fatty acids, walnuts are packed with phenolic acids, tannins and flavonoids. They boost brain power, reduce cardio vascular problems and help prevent Type 2 diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease.
Vitamin C: foods which are packed full of vitamin C include oranges, kiwi fruits, berries, tomatoes and red capsicums. They are full of anti-oxidants which offer positive nutritional benefits.
Garlic: helps to stimulate the production of macrophages (immune cells) in conjunction with vitamin D.
Iron and Zinc: are required to support proper immune function, and a deficiency may impair the ability of the immune system to ward off illness. Iron regulates cell growth and differentiation and is a structural component of many proteins and enzymes.
2. Exercise Regularly:
Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system. According to ‘Harvard Health Publishing’ (2014)
“it may contribute even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently’.
Studies have also been conducted into whether there is a link between elite athletes undergoing intense physical exertion and whether they are susceptible to a weakened immune system. For now, even though a direct link has not been established, it’s important to recognise that moderate regular exercise is the best course of action of healthy living and keeping your immune system in check.
Australia’s physical activity guidelines according to “The Australian Government Dept. of Health’ website states that adults between the ages of 18 to 64 should be active on most days preferably everyday of the week. Accumulate 150-300 minutes (2 ½ hours to 5 hours) of moderate physical activity and or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intense activity, or an equivalent combination of both vigorous or moderate activities each week. Try to incorporate muscle strengthening activities at least 2 times per week.
Try to include incidental exercise like taking the stairs, walking to work, getting up from your desk every 30minutes and walking around. This makes a big difference to our health and wellbeing.
3. Stress and Immune Function:
Chronic stress or long term stress has been proven to depress the immune system and increases the risk of several types of illnesses such as digestive problems, increased heart rate, hypertension, and elevated cholesterol levels. Chronic stress raises the level of catecholamines. According to Everydayhealth.com (2015):
“These hormones are released in response to physical or emotional stress. Catecholamines are hormones produced by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. … Catecholamines are released into the bloodstream when you’re physically or emotionally stressed”.
Being stressed out leads to increased levels of suppressor T cells, which suppress the immune system. When this branch of the immune system is impaired, you are more susceptible to viral illnesses including respiratory conditions like colds, flu, and the novel coronavirus infection. Stress leads to the release of histamine, a molecule involved in allergies. In order to manage our stress mindfulness techniques need to be practiced everyday even if it is just for 10 minutes. Try things such as yoga, meditation, breath work, stretching or if you are having trouble switching off download an app on your phone that can take you thru a guided meditation.
We all feel the benefits of a good nights sleep we wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world. Whilst more sleep won’t necessarily stop you from getting sick, skimping on it could adversely affect your immune system, leaving you susceptible to a bad cold or case of the flu.
Without sufficient sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation, effectively creating an immune response. According to ‘The Sleep Foundation.org’,
“Cytokines are both produced and released during sleep, causing a double whammy if you skimp on shut-eye. Chronic sleep loss even makes the flu vaccine less effective by reducing your bodies ability to respond’.
To stay healthy during the influenza season get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night. This will help keep your immune system operating at it’s optimum and also protect you from other health issues such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
5. Personal Hygiene
It goes without saying that practicing good personal hygiene is one of the most effective ways to protect ourselves and others against nasty viruses and bacteria. Ensure you wash your hands before and after preparing food and going to the toilet. Sanitise your hands after going to public places or gyms and cook meat thoroughly before eating.
One of the biggest obstacles I come across when I am coaching clients, particularly corporate or executive level clients is getting them to understand the importance and impact of sleep on their health. We live in our world of rapidly changing technologies, cities that never sleep and an increasing reliance on devices such as phones, laptops and i-pads. All of this has resulted in our bodies natural sleep patterns being interrupted and for most of us, not getting enough good quality sleep that has an enormous impact on our overall health.
The best way to demonstrate the impact of not enough sleep or poor quality sleep is to share the experience of one of my clients named Amanda*.
Amanda had been a client of mine for over 10 years, during this time she had given birth to 2 boys and got back into the workforce. Amanda started working for a large Corporate and quickly moved up the ladder, which resulted in more travel, more responsibility and thus more hours being dedicated to her job. Amanda started taking work home in an attempt to stay on top of her workload and would find herself often on her laptop until 1am in the morning. What started out as a ‘one off’ became a common place theme most nights of the week. When the alarm would go off at 6am Amanda would feel like she had been hit by a bus the fog was that bad in her head.
During our sessions, Amanda would discuss how she was starting to feel anxious and overwhelmed with everything, she felt she was always cranky and moody with her husband and kids. She was having a hard time ‘holding it together’ at work and she felt she had no patience with her staff. Physically her body reacted thru a 10kg weight gain, her skin broke out in rashes and hives and she started suffering from headaches.
Amanda was getting approximately 5 hours sleep a night and waking up exhausted and tired. I explained to Amanda that it didn’t matter what she did, unless she got to bed by 10.30pm each night she was wasting her time and her money.
Whilst at first, these changes were overwhelming and hard, Amanda followed my advice and started changing her schedule by going to bed by 10pm. The changes in how she felt were dramatic, the headaches abated, her concentration and focus returned and she lost 2.5kg in the first week. From this experience Amanda started to pay attention to her sleep/wake cycles and her health improved dramatically.
Sleep/Wake Cycles and Hormones:
Our natural sleep/wake cycles are influenced by our environment and the movements of the sun, this hasn’t changed from ancient times. Animals as well as humans are designed to go to sleep when it is dark and wake when the sun comes out. Whenever light stimulates your skin or eyes, regardless of the source, your brain and hormonal system think it is morning. As a response to this light, your hormonal system releases cortisol.
According to Paul Chek in his book “Eat Move & be Healthy” (1993)
“Cortisol is an activating hormone that is released in response to stress, light being a form of electromagnetic stress’.
This cortisol production peaks between 6-9am which activates the body for movement, work or any other activity. This is why we may feel our energy is best at the start of the day and as time goes on this cortisol production starts to drop off significantly. As the sun goes down, decreasing levels of cortisol allow for the production of melatonin and increased levels of growth and repair hormones. If we are to follow the bodies natural hormonal production we should be winding down when the sun sets and should fall asleep by 10pm -10.30pm at the latest.
According to Chek (1993) the physical repair of the body takes place between 10pm and 2am when the body is asleep. After 2am, the immune/repair energies are more focused on psychogenic (mental) repair that lasts until we awaken.
The physical repair that takes place when we sleep assists in repairing our body at a cellular level strengthening our immunity and our ability to stay healthy. Our cardiovascular system is constantly under pressure and sleep helps to reduce the levels of stress and inflammation in the body. High levels of inflammation are linked to heart disease and strokes and getting your 7-8 hours every night can reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol as well lowering stress hormones.
Interrupted sleep cycles can have a detrimental impact on our physical health as well as causing us to gain weight. Shift workers such as nurses or doctors who often work thru the night can have a endless list of physical injuries, headaches, anxiety and other neurological disorders. When our body has not had enough repair, the hormone that stimulates our appetite called ‘ghrelin’ is released which makes us crave foods rich in fat and carbohydrates. Coupled with this increase in ghrelin is a reduction in the satiety-inducing hormone called ‘leptin’ which tells us when our body feels full. The flow on effect of sleep deprivation can also result in decreases in physical activity as we have less energy for our and motivation for our workouts.
Interrupting the sleep/wake cycle can also lead to ‘adrenal fatigue’. Chronic exposure to stress and light of a night -time can overload the adrenals which causes them to produce more cortisol than normal. Excessive production of cortisol can lead to adrenal fatigue which presents itself by headaches, chronic fatigue symptoms, viral infections, bacterial and fungal infections.
So how can we ensure we get a better nights sleep?
– Minimise your exposure to electro-magnetic stress such as laptops, phones and i-pads. The blue light emitted from computers, tv’s and phones causes sleep problems because it tricks your body into thinking it’s sunlight. According to research from the ‘Sleep Health Foundation”, around 44% of Australian adults are using the internet most nights before falling asleep, which is ultimately sabotaging our chances for a good nights rest. For tech addicts switch your phone over to a ‘night mode’ function, or you can download a filter application to switch to yellow or red light at night, which has a weaker effect on melatonin.
Try unplugging all electrical appliances in your room including tv’s, clocks and lights. Rearrange your bedroom furniture so that your exposure to electrical devices are as far from your bed as possible.
– Try eating more foods high in tryptophan for dinner. A 2015 study found that university students consuming high amounts of dietary tryptophan reported improvements in sleep quality and lower levels of insomnia. Good sources of tryptophan include yoghurt, milk, pumpkin seeds or cherries.
– the consumption of stimulants such as energy drinks, caffeine, soft drinks and nicotine after lunch. People who put away soft drinks and energy drinks regularly are more likely to get inadequate sleep, researchers at the University of California, concluded. In their paper published ‘Sleep Health’, they noted that participant’s who slept about 5 hours per night, drank 21% more caffeinated, sugary beverages than survey respondents who get 7-8 hours of shut eye.
– Get to sleep by 10.30pm. Start winding down by 10pm so your body is ready to fall asleep by 10.30pm.
– regular exercise can help improve sleep quality. Beware however of the time of day you exercise and the intensity. You may find that sleep quality is disrupted if you exercise after dinner, particularly if the exercise is intense. If you’ve ever gone for an evening jog you may actually feel more awake by the end of it. Some studies suggest this lack of sleep post exercise is related to body temperature. Most experts agree that the room temperature should be around 15-20 degrees for the best sleep. Vigorous exercise can raise your body temperature and it can take 5-6 hours before it drops so it’s essential to give your body enough time to cool off before going to bed.