Do you ever feel anxiety in your stomach? That flighty, uncomfortable feeling.
Do you feel emotional stress in your muscles anywhere? I know when I’m stressed, my jaw, neck and upper back get quite tight and tense.
How do you feel joy in your body? Is it a feeling of lightness and flow, less aches and pains…?
When you are feeling happy and relaxed, do you find it easier to digest food?
These physical feelings created by emotional states are great examples of how the mind and body are intricately linked. So now, lets talk about how stress in particular impacts the rest of the body.
Getting to know your nervous system
To understand stress better, we need to understand the nervous system. The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cords, nerves and neurotransmitters (NTs). NTs are chemical messengers that speak to all other parts of the body. Some you may know of are serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline.
The nervous system essentially has two modes which are sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic response, also known as 'fight & flight', is activated during times of acute stress. It evolved as a survival mechanism to enable humans to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Pretty smart right?
When the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated there is a spike in cortisol and adrenaline and these hormones work in a complex way to increase heart rate, disperse blood to the heart and skeletal muscles and dilate the pupils, ready to flee from a dangerous situation.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). It is also known as 'rest & digest' mode. When in this state, the heart rate slows, pupils constrict and digestion is optimised.
When it goes wrong
Acute stress, meaning short bursts of SNS activation, throughout the week is not harmful, it is in fact helpful. Being in this state increases motivation and enthusiasm to get things done. However, being in this state all the time - what is called chronic stress - is not only terrible for your health, it is also far more common than you may think.
The modern world causes humans a substantial amount of stress and the body is not able to distinguish between life-threatening situations and daily modern stressors like work expectations, environmental toxins, deadlines, traffic and relationship complexities. This continual SNS activation leads to something called ‘allostasis’ where the nervous system finds a new normal within the SNS; we call this SNS dominance.
Chronic stress/SNS dominance can look like:
Poor digestion of food
Poor gut health (yes! stress influences the bacteria living in your gut)
Anxiety and depression
Poor immune function (under and OVER activated immune function - hello autoimmunity)
Unhealthy dietary and lifestyle choices
How to manage your stress in the modern world
Talk about it. To your family, friends, and trained professionals.
Write it down. Journaling is a fabulous way to release emotional stress. Having negative thought patterns repeating through the mind is stressful! Writing it down can be an effective tool to get the thoughts out of the mind and onto paper.
Reduce toxin exposure. This is a big one. We are exposed to an array of chemicals daily that humans are not designed to process. This toxic load creates hard work for the liver and impacts the body's ability to adapt to stress. Be selective with the products you keep in your home, put on your skin and put in your body. Avoid products that use phthalates, parabens, sulfates, oxybenzone, synthetic dyes, fragrances and BPA and shop organically where possible to limit pesticide exposure.
Actively engage in relaxation exercise. The constant stressors and demands of life mean that most of us are predominantly living in the SNS state. In order to counter this we need to do things that switch the body to the PSNS state regularly. Yin yoga, stretching, walking in nature, breathing exercises and having a bath can all do this.
Become more mindful. Meditation is shown to reduce stress and anxiety.
Prioritise sleep. Poor sleep shifts the body into SNS mode.
Eat a nutrient-dense whole-food diet. Prioritise foods rich in magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, protein and healthy fats to support a healthy stress response. Salmon, avocado and green vegetables are all wonderful for this.
Reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption. Unfortunately caffeine can shift the body into SNS mode due to the stimulation of cortisol and alcohol can impair sleep, see point 6.
Stress is a natural and useful part of life if managed well however it can have a serious impact on the body if left unchecked. Have a think about what causes you stress... are there any symptoms you are experiencing that could be linked back to stress... how do you manage your stress....?
If you want to feel supported with your stress management and learn a bit more about how stress may be impacting you individually, please reach out via the contact me section or book in for a nutritional consultation where we can take a deep dive into all factors of your health to support, optimise and get you feeling better.
Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition (2019). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7213601/
Neuroanatomy, Parasympathetic Nervous System (2020) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553141/
Impact of a Yoga and Meditation Intervention on Students' Stress and Anxiety Levels (2019). https://www.ajpe.org/content/83/5/7001.abstract
Stress and Sleep Disorder (2012). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538178/
Understanding the stress response (2020). https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response#:~:text=After%20the%20amygdala%20sends%20a,as%20adrenaline)%20into%20the%20bloodstream.