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Is stress making you sick and what can you do about it?

When stressed our bodies release cortisol and it enhances deposition of abdominal fat and is linked to weight gain, depression, osteoporosis and hypertension. Under stressful conditions, cortisol can move fat from storage depots in the hips and thighs and relocate it to viceral fat cells in the abdomen. Excess belly fat has been linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers. Stress is very difficult to avoid in modern society. Humans originally lived in small clans but now many people live in big, stressful cities with high levels of mood disorders (20% of Australians) like anxiety (14% of Australians) or depression (4% of Australians will have a major episode this year), and digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome.

When stressed, your adrenal glands release the hormones cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline). That awful feeling of nausea that we have when we are awoken from deep sleep is due to cortisol. Sleep deprivation makes us wake up with higher amounts of the cortisol. Fasting, eating, exercising, awakening, and psychosocial stressors cause the body to release cortisol. Cortisol naturally rises and falls during the day, but when you are chronically stressed your cortisol level goes up and stays there. It  increases your appetite and cravings especially for foods high in sugar and fat, causes a loss of muscle mass, libido and bone density, and also contributes to depression and memory loss.

We may not be able to prevent the production of excess stress hormones, especially cortisol, but we can help the body to break it down by limiting caffeine intake, avoiding simple carbohydrates (especially sugar), grains, and processed foods, eating vegetables, high-quality protein, omega-3 rich foods, consuming Mg, Zn, Cr, amino acids, carbohydrates, and vitamin C, B 1, 2, 5, 6, exercising and de-stressing.

These simple tips will help you to de-stress:

  1. exercise;
  2. limit caffeine intake;
  3. check email less often;
  4. leave your phone at home;
  5. read something light;
  6. take breaks at work and be more productive for it;
  7. have a rest day each week;
  8. do recreational activities;
  9. get a massage;
  10. take a bath;
  11. imagine creative solutions;
  12. take a long weekend;
  13. do yoga, meditation, tai chi, deep breathing, visualisation, progressive relaxation;
  14. listen to calming music;
  15. eat darker and more vivid coloured fruits and vegetables; and
  16. get 7-9 hours of sleep per night!

The book Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott is an interesting read and he suggests that one keeps a food and mood diary for 7 to 10 days to record every bite eaten (including time of day) and mood and energy levels before and afterwards. I did this for about 4 weeks and it helped me to remove sugar and grains from my diet. Part-way through the book I realised that Talbott’s agenda was not so much to enlighten as to proselytise about his special approach (and make money). He is a strong advocate of dietary supplementation and he suggests the following foods/supplements for cortisol control:

  • magnolia bark;
  • theanine (green tea);
  • epimedium (tea decoction);
  • phytosterols (seeds, nuts, vegetables, fruit);
  • phosphatidylserine (soy);
  • tyrosine (amino acid); and
  • Branch Chain Amino Acids

During heightened stress periods Talbott suggests that we consume:

  • ashwagandha (aka Indian ginseng);
  • ginseng;
  • schisandra;
  • rhodiola (aka arctic root, golden root, crenulin);
  • astragalus;
  • suma (aka brazil ginseng);
  • reishi, maitake, shiitake;
  • kava kava (anti-anxiety, tension relief);
  • valerian; and
  • St John’s wart

Talbott suggests avoiding these herbal stimulants:

  • Ephedra sinensis (ma huang);
  • Paullinia cupana (guarana/caffeine);
  • Citrus aurantium (synephrine);
  • Pausinystalia yohimbe (yohimbine); and
  • Coleus forskohlii (forskolin)

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4 comments on “Is stress making you sick and what can you do about it?

  1. Kaho
    March 31, 2014

    Your post about stress was so interesting because I have been feeling stressed over small things and at the same time my appetite for sugary food went up! I have been wondered about the correlations and your post made it very clear! I don’t think I can be as committed as you are to record my food, but I will try to avoid some of the food listed on the list such as caffeine, sugar, and so forth. Thanks!

    • strivetoengage
      April 1, 2014

      Hi Kaho, I’m glad that my post was of interest to you and I hope that you are able to feel less stressed very soon! I too feel the same cravings that you describe but I try to eat a piece of fruit instead of having something with added sugar 🙂

  2. william filgo
    April 2, 2014

    I agree with your comments and find it fits much of personal observations when seen in hindsight. I wonder why evolution left us with this seemingly perverse legacy. I don’t think we have more stress than our forebears. If you look at our history just from the time of the invention of photography, there are some interesting observations. The average person was thin compared to our overfed population today. They weren’t worried about their weight, they were trying to store enough during good times to make it through the bad times. There were no grocery stores, and not even a lot of money. The economy depended on the barter system, because of the lack of enough currency to fuel or lubricate a growing population and economy. I don’t think our past has ever been serene and this stress system we have does in some way still serve us. If you look at carnivores, they don’t suffer systemic dysfunction from the prolific use of stress hormones. Reports from survivors of predator attacks marvel at the low heart rate and breathing and seeming effortless, unstressed delivery of powerful attacks on a prey. Our genes hail from lines of tree dwelling vegetarians that had to adapt to an omnivorous capacity. Two hundred years ago, the average lifespan in the United States was forty for women and forty-five for men. It is about eighty for women and seventy-seven for men now. That would indicate that our stress mechanism is successful even if it is not always fashionable. Recent research has found that the visceral fat comes in two varieties, grey and brown. Your genes seem to determine the predominant one in an individual. The brown variety seems to produce other hormones that have positive benefit for diabetes and the fat acts as a whole like a separate independent internal organ. Our genes are far more complicated than we give credit. There is evidence that the life experiences are transmitted to future generations, that an event in your life may bring a measurable difference to your grandchildren. As the lifestyle we now experience becomes expressed in future generations, we will discover the tricks evolution has placed in our genetic encyclopedia.

    • strivetoengage
      April 2, 2014

      Dear William, thank you for your insightful comments! Every comment that you leave teaches me something I didn’t already know and makes me consider lines of thought that hadn’t occurred to me.You make some good points about stress, longevity, and genetic heritage.

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