Josh Bowen: Death by Stress

joshStress kills, and here are the statistics from the American Institute of Stress:

Stress increases the risk of:

Heart disease 40%
Heart attack 25%
Stroke 50%

Also…

44% of overstressed people overeat and 44% lose sleep every night. Extreme stress events (i.e. divorce, jobs loss) reduces grey matter in regions tied to emotional and psychological functions leading future psychiatric problems.

And finally…stress causes up to 60% of all human diseases. Wow. Our stress is killing our bodies.

So lets look at the main culprit in our physiology that is causes havoc on our bodies, cortisol. Cortisol is the “stress” hormone. It is released during times of stress from our adrenal glands (glands that sit on top of your kidneys that also produce adrenaline amongst other hormones). Now mind you, our body looks at all stress the same, no matter if it is; psychological, physical or emotional stress. Either way the following happens:

1. An individual is faced with a stressor. 

2. A complex hormonal cascade ensues, and the adrenals secrete cortisol.

3. Cortisol prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response by flooding it with glucose, supplying an immediate energy source to large muscles.

4. Cortisol inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, favoring its immediate use.

5. Cortisol narrows the arteries while the epinephrine increases heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster.

6. The individual addresses and resolves the situation.

7. Hormone levels return to normal.

So what is the big deal? The environment of the typical American is such where we rarely take time off (raise my hand), are constantly moving without resting and have so much on our plate that we become overstressed and do not know how to manage it. Our bodies over produce cortisol and we are constantly in fight or flight. Put all that together with a lack of physical activity and poor nutrition and you have a recipe for disaster. Here are a few ways cortisol is destroying our bodies:

Weight Gain/Obesity

The repetition of cortisol release due to stress causes weight gain in many people, more specifically body fat retention. Cortisol can relocate stored triglycerides to visceral fat cells (deep and under the muscle tissue). This type of fat is what kills us. Cortisol also suppresses insulin release causing increased blood sugar levels leading to cells that are starved for glucose and signaling to the brain for the body to overeat and thus the unused glucose is stored as body fat.

Blood Sugar Imbalance and Protein Degradation 

Under stressful situations, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein sources (dietary protein stored in the liver and muscle) and increasing blood sugar levels leading to diabetes. Cortisol essentially uses protein as fuel and can lead to burning up your muscle tissue.

Inflammation/Immune System Suppression

Cortisol functions to reduce inflammation in the body, which is good, but over time, these efforts to reduce inflammation also suppress the immune system. Chronic inflammation, caused by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and stress, helps to keep cortisol levels soaring, wreaking havoc on the immune system. An unchecked immune system responding to unabated inflammation can lead to myriad problems: an increased susceptibility to colds and other illnesses, an increased risk of cancer, the tendency to develop food allergies, an increased risk of an assortment of gastrointestinal issues (because a healthy intestine is dependent on a healthy immune system), and possibly an increased risk of autoimmune disease.

*****above taken from

4. Jones DS, Quinn S (eds). Textbook of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, Wash.: Institute for Functional Medicine; 2006.

5. Weinstein R. The Stress Effect. New York: Avery-Penguin Group; 2004.
So how do we combat this? Taking from my chapter in Jonathan Miller’s book, “12 Steps to Surviving a Crisis” http://therecoveringpolitician.com/12steps

Stress Reduction/Rest/Sleep

Sleep/rest can aid in the reduction of stress thus reducing your overall cortisol secretion. Taking a day off or taking a vacation, sleeping and learning to let go of things that do not matter will contribute to reducing your stress. Also, getting people out of your lives that cause you stress and incorporating those that have you back always are good ways to kill your stress.

Nutrition

Same mentioned earlier, our hormones have a big impact on our bodies. Crisis and stress enhances that. Nutritionally we eat to survive but can also eat to thrive. Excessive cortisol production will cause our bodies to tear down muscle tissue and cause us to store unwanted body fat. It will also suppress our immune systems during times of stress. Not good. The American diet consists of too much processed foods, alcohol, wheat and sugar. Reducing these can help dramatically with your stress levels and body fat percentages. 

Foods shown to reduce cortisol production are eggs, lean beef, sweet potatoes, fruits, and lots of vegetables. Raw, organic vegetables are preferred because of the high amounts of vitamin C, a cortisol reducer and anti-inflammatory. Almost including foods high in fiber (not bread) will help level out blood sugar levels.

Resistance Training

The human body does not know the difference between “good” stress or “bad” stress. So any stress put upon it will cause hormone secretion. Resistance training (lifting weights) is a stress to the body, however it allows your body to strengthen and grow your muscles and strengthen your bones. Very important in times of crisis. Also, will allow you to blow off much needed steam.

If you are a beginner start with 3-4 days of resistance training. Make sure you give your body 48-72 hours between body parts before you hit them again. As you progress you can start incorporating Tabatas, plyometrics, cross training into your program. Make sure you get ample rest and nutrition, as this you will your recovery and reduce your stressful situation.

Conditioning

It is said that the heart is your most important muscle in your body. That is correct, without your heart most processes in the body could not take place. The heart transports blood, oxygen, and waste amongst other things. It cannot take heavy stress over a long period of time. Diet, exercise and reduced stress play an enormous part in the hearts health. In times of crisis the heart takes a pounding due to increased hormone secretion, high blood pressure and increased anxiety.

Strengthen your heart by training, not just cardio. Cardiovascular training will help increase the amount of blood pumped in a heart beat, thus making it more efficient. 3-4 days of vigorous activity is best. Beware, over doing cardio also causes stress to the body. Keep it simple in times of crisis.

Holistic Health

Taking into account more than just practical medicine, holistic health is a huge part of well being during a crisis. Here we will concentrate on herbs that will reduce cortisol production and holistically improve your body versus turning to practical medicines.

Black tea, green tea, ginkgo all have cortisol reducing properties. Implement them into your diet and watch your stress levels and cortisol production decrease.

Meditation

As discussed earlier rest and relaxation play as big a part of crisis control than fitness. Being able to relax and meditate will increase serotonin production to relax the body.

Take 15-30 minutes per day and shut out all the distractions and just let your mind/body relax. If need be get a massage!

Flexibility/Yoga

Yoga/meditation/massage all have similar outcomes on the brain. Allowing you to relax and shut out the worlds problems. Becoming more flexible will reduce the amount muscular stress on your body thus will help the overall stress.

Take a yoga class or just take time to do some dynamic movements like lunges or body weight squats will do wonders for your flexibility, joints, tissue strength and stress levels.

Fitness is the vehicle to get you to your goals. Use it wisely during times of crisis and stress.

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