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.
I am a firm believer that things come into your life for a reason, whether those things are good or bad or just simply to make you stop and think. I believe that what we hold onto emotionally and spiritually manifests itself in our physical bodies. That toxic relationship you are holding onto, that job you should of left months ago and then bang…..the sickness or injury occurs like a bolt out of the blue to gently remind you ‘I told you so’. These ‘reminders’ may manifest in minor symptoms like a flu or a common cold, or they can be more serious such as a weight gain, an auto-immune dysfunction, thyroid issues or a more sinister chronic disease.
Upon researching the topic for this article I thought it would be relevant to survey the people I come into contact with on a day to day basis, namely my personal training clients and secondly, my social media audience. I wanted to find out the health issues that were important to them. What were the burning topics they wanted more information about.
Quite surprisingly, the overwhelming response to the survey was ‘hormone health’. This was not isolated to women going thru menopause but women experiencing inflammatory problems bloating, poor digestion and elimination, skin problems, auto immune dysfunction, thyroid disorders and body fat that they just could not shift no matter how they little they ate or how hard they exercised.
As I dug a little bit deeper to find out more about what all of these women had in common it seemed that they were all ‘rushed’, ‘stressed’, ‘had no time for themselves’ let alone ‘not enough time in the day.’ A lot of them felt overwhelmed with life, coupled with trying to do it all and be it all! (sound familiar?). In regards to their diet, they were living off multiple cups of coffee throughout the day coupled with processed food and bookended with some wine of a night! (A concoction for a minor and major health melt down!)
Naturally as adults we all want to be liked, loved and to fit in on some level. If we pulled the curtain back and were completely honest with ourselves what frightens a lot of us is what other people think of us. In this pursuit of other people’s approval we have exhausted ourselves from keeping up the appearance of being kind, thoughtful, energetic, inspiring, funny, independent or strong or whatever other adjective we think we should live up to. It is more important for people to see us like this to maintain this like/love familiarity, unfortunately at the expense of our health.
The “Rushing Women’s Syndrome”:
Dr Libby Weaver a Nutritional Biochemist first identified the term ‘The Rushing Women’s Syndrome’ due to the health issues of the women she started seeing in her practice. They were stressed out, strung out and busy, busy, busy. Dr Libby observed in her clients the effect that long-term stress was having on these women. Some were presenting with polycystic ovarian syndrome, adrenal fatigue, hormonal imbalances, auto immune diseases like Graves disease and hashimoto’s, unexplained weight gain and infertility problems.
Dr Libby looked at the biochemistry of what happens to your hormones when you are in this long term stressed state and the role that nutrition and other lifestyle factors has on your overall health.
What Dr Libby found was that when we get stressed our bodies ‘sympathetic nervous’ system or our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. This stress response causes our bodies to release adrenaline, our blood pressure fluctuates, and our digestive system shuts down. This elevated adrenaline changes the fuel that your body perceives as safe and appropriate for you to use. During this process the body is making a decision whether to use glucose (carbohydrates) or fat as the fuel it burns. Most of the time when our lifestyle is in balance, the nervous system uses a combination of both glucose and body fat as fuel. When we operate on a high level of stress all of the time the body thinks it is in danger (fight or flight) and it recruits a fast acting fuel to make it feel safe again, which is glucose.
Over time, us women have lost the ability to use body fat as a fuel because our bodies are under constant stress. This inability to burn body fat results in our fat levels increasing, our clothes getting tighter, our moods fluctuating and as a result we turn to sugar to top up the fuel tank.
“The body cannot differentiate between different types of stress whether it be financial, emotional or environmental our bodies response to this stress is always the same.’
Sarah Wilson’s Story (I Quit Sugar):
Sarah Wilson an Australian journalist, built an entire “I Quit Sugar’ movement off the back of her thyroid problems. Her burnt out thyroid later escalated into infertility, her hair started falling out, her nails started pealing off in sheaths and eventually she was diagnosed with leaky gut syndrome. At the time of her sickness she was editing Cosmopolitan magazine, running 30 miles a week, sleeping 5 hours a night and propping herself up on black coffee and red wine. She was burning the candle at both ends until her body crashed and her thyroid completely ‘imploded’.
After hitting rock bottom with her health, Sarah was forced to look at alternative ways of healing herself. A pharmaceutical drug was prescribed to help regulate her thyroid but this was a band-aid solution. Sarah knew in order to get well she had to completely overhaul her lifestyle. This lifestyle change involved a multi directional approach of eliminating all processed sugar out of her diet and starting a daily meditative practice.
The role of Nutrition on your Hormones:
The most important question to ask oneself when making a decision about what to eat is ‘will this nourish me?’ We want to eat foods that helps us stay alive and to drive the biochemical pathways of our bodies so we have the energy to look, feel and function at our most optimal level. We want to be focused on whole and real foods that give us the nutrients we need to drive the inner workings of our bodies.
When selecting what to eat, go for foods in their most natural state such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean cuts of protein that are packed full of macro and micronutrients. When we eat a diet of processed food or when we don’t eat enough we become deficient in certain micro-nutrients like iron, zinc and magnesium. When we restrict our food, or cut out certain food groups, this results in our biochemical pathways not functioning properly, which can have major ramifications on our health both immediately and later on in life.
How do we have ‘happy hormones’:
There are a number of things we can do on a daily basis to bring our sympathetic nervous system down which are:
- Firstly, start to recognise when you are in that sympathetic stressed out response state. Are you experiencing symptoms of feeling rushed?, Is your heart racing?, Do you have shortness of breath or are you sighing a lot? All of these are symptoms and signs of adrenaline which is driving that sympathetic dominance. Ways to overcome this are to start exploring your perception of urgency and pressure. Is what you are experiencing really worth stressing about?
Start saving this stress for situations when your’e really need to rely on that fight or flight response such as a medical emergency vs not stressing about the 200 unopened emails in your inbox.
- Get brutally honest with yourself about how much caffeine you are drinking. A lot of people would really benefit from taking a break or cutting their intake right back to ideally 1 cup per day. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases our blood pressure and our heart rate and too much of it can increase our anxiety our heartbeat and cause heart palpitations.
- Take note of what is stressing you out, is it in relation to what other people are thinking about you? Try to see situations for how they really are, rather than what you perceive is to be happening. Cull your circle of influence down to 5-10 people and take on board their opinions rather than those of strangers on social media.
- When you feel stressed and exhausted, try to reduce the amount of high intensity exercise that you do as this releases more stress hormones (cortisol) into the body. Instead, try to activate the ‘green zone’ of the parasympathetic nervous system by participating in activities that energise you rather than deplete you. This could involve Yoga, pilates, tai chi, meditation, stretching or some concentrated breath work (diaphragmatic breathing). Start listening to yourself and tuning into your body. Ask yourself the questions ‘what feels good for me?’ and ask yourself ‘why’ are you working out.
- Eat a diet that is rich in micro and macronutrients as this governs the inner workings of our bodies and determines how we think, feel and act. Eat food that is good for your soul occasionally such as take out or alcohol, everything in moderation
- Lastly, avoid restrictive dieting as this slows the metabolism down. Our bodies do not understand that we have a choice about whether to feed it or not. When we restrict our body, it thinks it is in a famine and it’s not sure when it is going to get fed again. When this process takes place we start producing an enzyme that breaks muscles down, when our muscles break down we lose energy and with less muscle mass our body fat increases. This is a very important reason why diets don’t work in the long term. No one can sustain a diet of deprivation, nor is it healthy. Instead of focusing on how little you need to eat or how intensely you have to work out, focus on how you can nourish your body optimally so it performs at it’s best.
Remember that the true currency of health is not how much we weigh, but how much energy we have!
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.