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Joanna Foley, RD, CLT
Joanna Foley, RD, CLT, is a registered dietitian and the owner of a private nutrition consulting business at joannafoleynutrition.com.
No matter who you are or what you do, you likely experience stress in your normal life. There are endless things that can contribute to stress, and it may seem as though it’s just a fact of life that you have to deal with.
Thankfully, the truth is that while you may not be able to completely avoid stress, you can understand it better and set yourself up to reduce the negative effects it can have on your life and health.
Keep reading to learn more about a holistic approach to reducing the effects of stress.
What is stress and how does it affect your health?
Stress is your body’s natural response to a challenge or demand. It can take on many forms, including mental, physical or emotional stress. A wide variety of circumstances within each of these categories can trigger stress in your body.
Because stress is so common, your body is designed to adapt and deal with it by engaging in a stress response, also referred to as the “fight or flight” response.
During this process, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated, which is a network of signaling centers in your brain and body that help you respond to stress. The hormone cortisol is also produced during this time.
Normal activation of the HPA axis is necessary and helpful for your body during acute stress, but experiencing chronic stress can interfere with its normal functioning and can lead to excess cortisol production.
This can create many stress-related problems, such as:
- Mood disorders
- Heart problems
- Gut disorders from an imbalanced microbiome
- Weakened immune system
- Weight problems
- High blood sugar
- Headaches and muscle pain
- Inflammation within the body
Signs that stress may be negatively affecting your health
Because too much stress can be dangerous and damaging to your body and health, it’s important to be able to identify it.
Symptoms like a rapid heartbeat or increased blood pressure are commonly associated with stressful situations, but there are many other signs of stress that can easily be overlooked.
Signs and symptoms that you may be over-stressed include:
- Physical and mental exhaustion
- Isolation from social relationships and events
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irritability or frequent mood swings
- Frequently getting sick
- Difficulty losing weight
- Hormonal changes, which may look like skin issues, changes in your menstrual cycle, poor digestion, etc
In addition to these symptoms, there are some tests that can help determine how your body is dealing with stress. Measuring your heart rate variability is one way to do this. This refers to the fluctuation in the length of time between heartbeats.
Having abnormal patterns of heart rate variability can indicate that the body is not responding to stress in a normal and healthy way, and is associated with the development of many health problems.
Checking cortisol patterns is another way to determine your HPA axis function and how well your body responds to stress. Cortisol can be tested via blood, saliva, urine, and even hair.
You can talk to your doctor about getting either of these tests done, though in most cases they may need to be done through a holistic practitioner by ordering specialized tests or devices to be used at home.
Working with a trained practitioner is also important to assist you in interpreting your results and creating an action plan to help you reduce the effects of stress.
Natural ways to reduce the effects of stress
While you can’t escape stress, there are many things you can do to reduce the effects of stress on your body.
Some of these things include:
Eating a nutrient-rich diet
It is common to crave unhealthy foods and participate in erratic eating patterns when stressed, but these habits may make your body’s ability to respond to stress worse.
Research shows that stress can cause your body to become depleted of micronutrients, including magnesium, zinc, iron, and the B vitamin niacin, so it’s important to make extra effort to feeding yourself well.
Focus on eating a variety of minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods every day such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, poultry, eggs, fish, nuts, and seeds. In addition, it is best to minimize your intake of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol and to avoid skipping meals.
Consider supplements, like:
- Adaptogens, which are a class of herbs that help the body adapt to different environments and respond to stress in a healthy way. Examples of adaptogens include ashwagandha, lemon balm, holy basil, and mushrooms like cordyceps and lions mane.
- L-theanine, an amino acid found in tea that has been shown to reduce perceived stress and improve stress response.
- DHEA, another adrenal hormone that is produced in response to stress, but may become low during chronic stress
- Magnesium, a mineral that plays a large role in mood, stress, and much more. Magnesium deficiency is common and has been shown to increase your likelihood of experiencing stress, so taking supplemental magnesium may help lessen its effects. Magnesium also supports proper sleep, which further supports how you perceive and handle stress.
Focusing on the right types of exercise
Exercise is known for its role in lowering stress levels, and research shows that it can improve mood and overall mental health. However, under some circumstances, too much or too intense exercise can be an added stressor on the body. That is why it’s important to focus on the right types of exercise.
Light exercises like walking, yoga, and moderate resistance or strength training can provide the benefits of getting your blood flowing and helping clear your mind without the risk of overdoing it and potentially putting more stress on your body.
More intense exercises should be reserved for times when you are not undergoing significant or frequent stress.
Not getting enough sleep makes you more likely to experience stress, yet sleep often gets ignored when there is so much going on and you feel like you can’t relax.
Despite this challenge, it is super important to do what you can to aim to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night. You can read more about natural remedies to improve sleep in this post.
Engaging in self-care activities
Regularly doing things that bring you joy can have a tremendous impact on your body’s ability to manage stress. Examples include journaling, meditation, listening to music, being in nature, a long bath, or whatever recharges you.
This includes the things you commit to as well as the people and things you interact with on a regular basis. In our fast-paced and results-driven culture it can be easy to overwork yourself, which increases stress.
Pay attention to things that cause you to feel overwhelmed and that trigger stress and try to say no to unnecessary commitments and tasks when possible.
A strong social support network can help reduce your perception of stress and is one of the key factors for stress resilience. Support looks differently for everyone, but may look like spending time with people who can encourage you, or recruiting help for daily household, family, or work tasks.
Seeking professional therapy to help you process and work through your thoughts can also be tremendously helpful.
Chronic stress is becoming more common and can have significant effects on your health. It’s important to recognize the signs of being over-stressed and to take action steps daily to help reduce the effects of stress.