Baruch recently came to see me to talk about an exercise program. Baruch isn’t overweight-not at all. However he had been “foggy” for an extended period of time and was having digestive issues—all due to stress. But he had read an article about how exercise can help and wanted to hear what I had to say.
Stress permeates our society. The main causes of stress include job stress, financial stress, relationship problems, overwhelming family responsibilities, and daily hassles. Stress can be caused by life events such as divorce, the death of a spouse, or losing a job, environmental changes such as changes in temperature, overwork, or unresolved problems the expectations that you place on yourself and others place on you.
Certain kinds of stress can indeed be healthy. But when the reaction goes beyond the types of responses discussed above, not only can it be debilitating, but it can be dangerous. If your stress response is turned on too much of the time, and certainly ALL the time, it will almost always lead to serious issues – both psychological and physiological. This article will define the negative impact which stress has on us, and will offer tools to help combat stress getting the better of us.
It may be surprising to know, but according to Stress Researcher Dr. Kenneth Pelletier (Sound Mind, Sound Body – A New Model for Lifelong Health; Fireside Books; 1995), an astonishing 80-90% of all illness is stress-related. Among the physical symptoms you may experience from stress are pain of any kind, heart disease, digestive disorders, sleep disorders, depression, obesity, autoimmune diseases and skin conditions such as eczema.
Stress has to be dealt with or it can become something debilitating and incapacitating. The most common ways to deal with stress are talk therapy with qualified psychologist or therapist or medications under the care of a psychiatrist. However, both the way we eat and exercise can have a very pronounced role in stress management; even to the point of possibly not having to engage in therapy or drugs.
Fighting Stress with Food
A little stress in our lives is beneficial (Aschbachar et al. 2013). However, feeling too much stress too often or for too long is clearly harmful. Stress tells the body to unleash its “fight-or-flight” response, prompting the release of stress hormones—including cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline—to prepare for a physical feat. Repeatedly triggering the stress response takes a toll in the form of high blood pressure, impaired relationships, anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity, and even chronic pain.
Several strategies for alleviating stress have been well studied and documented. They include making a concerted effort to minimize stressors, engaging in meditation and physical activity, and nurturing strong social relationships. Unfortunately, too many people turn to a detrimental coping method—eating—which leaves them feeling lazy and sluggish, depressed about their bodies and disappointed in themselves. This outcome contributes to weight gain and an increased risk of obesity. Stressed-out people recognize what’s happening but still have a hard time breaking the cycle (APA 2013). While it is generally a bad idea to eat for psychological reasons, there are beneficial ways to use food to manage or prevent complications from stress.
Promoting Our Happiness Hormones
Chronic stress can reduce levels of serotonin, the body’s “feel-good” hormone. Serotonin is thought to be a key moderator of mood, appetite, sleep and memory. Some foods that may increase serotonin contain high levels of tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce this “happiness hormone.” Incorporating tryptophan-rich foods into a daily nutrition strategy is often advised as a way of raising serotonin levels and countering stress and depression. It is particularly plentiful in chocolate, oats, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, bananas, and peanuts. Additionally, vitamin D may enable the body to convert tryptophan to serotonin more effectively (Fox 2015).
Nutritional strategies may also be aimed at decreasing the intensity or effects of stress-induced conditions like high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and insomnia. For example, potassium-rich foods can assist in lowering blood pressure. High potassium foods from natural food sources include beans, dark leafy greens, potatoes, squash, yogurt, fish, avocados, mushrooms, and bananas. Some herbal substances, such as chamomile (Amsterdam et al. 2009), may lessen anxiety and depression, and there is some evidence that foods like tart cherries may improve sleep quality through production of melatonin (Howatson 2012).
Exercising to Lower Stress
Numerous recent studies have shown that exercise protects our brains from stress in several ways. When we exercise (and the more intense we can exercise the better the result) we increase something called Brain-Dirived Neurotphic Factor (BDNF), which maintains brain health. Not only does exercise give us more BDNF, it also triggers the brain’s self-repair processes. And last, exercise also activates the brain’s self-calming system by releasing a neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) in order to restore balance in the autonomic nervous system. Perhaps the most encouraging research is that for someone who makes exercise a part of his or her life, exercise can create a STRESS RESISTANT BRAIN (Fleshner et. al. 2011)!
How much does one need to exercise and at what intensity? Intense exercise is good, but intense exercise for a prolonged period of time is not good for our cardiovascular system, our immune system or our brains. So it seems that moderate exercise for less than an hour at a time brings the best results. Overtraining, meaning intense exercise for a prolonged period of time can have the opposite effect of what we are trying to achieve. Remember that exercise in all of its forms, aerobic and resistance training does help us manufacture more of the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
Carrying excessive stress is always harmful. When I see how exercise and good eating can make such a large difference in my clients, I am truly amazed. Baruch is only half way through his program but he will be the first to tell you how much better he is feeling after making exercise part of his daily life and seeing our dietician in order to change his eating. He will feel even better in another month. Using proper diet and exercise to lower stress will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”