Stress is a natural reaction designed by the human body in order to deal with certain circumstances which demand a response. These circumstances are generally demands or threats which we may face. When we feel endangered, stress causes the nervous system to release stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare the body for immediate action.
These hormones help prepare the body by raising the blood pressure and heart beat, quickening the breath, and tightening the muscles. These physical changes can help increase our stamina, strength, reaction time, and focus.
This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. When in a threatening situation, the stress hormones induced by the ‘fight or flight’ response help make us more able to deal with the situation. This can be true for both physical threats, where the hormones can increase your strength and stamina and so your ability to protect yourself or to run away, and also for mental threats, such as giving you the additional focus to deal with a job interview. However, in general, stress hormones as a result of mental or emotional threats can have a negative impact, as there is no physical outlet to release the excess hormones.
This is a large problem in the modern world, where the body finds it much more difficult to distinguish between a genuinely threatening situation and what we perceive to be threatening in daily life. For example, your nervous system may react with the ‘fight or flight’ response to being stuck in traffic, or having an argument with a partner or friend, or worrying about money. When our nervous system is constantly releasing stress hormones in response to stressors such as these which have no physical outlet, it can have a very negative impact upon our health. Too many stress hormones can lead to an increase in blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and quickened ageing, as well as a variety of other physical and emotional symptoms.
Some of the physical symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy
- Increased blood pressure and heartbeat
- Frequent illness such as colds and infections
- Upset stomach
- Chest pain
- Loss of libido
- Excess sweating
- Teeth grinding and jaw clenching
- Some of the emotional symptoms of stress include:
- Low self-esteem
- Feeling overwhelmed
How Can We Combat Stress?
Whilst our lifestyle cannot determine whether we will be affected by stress, it can greatly increase our resistance to it and help alleviate the negative symptoms. There are several lifestyle changes we can make to help protect our bodies from stress.
Exercise can help the body deal with the effects of stress in several ways. One of the key ways physical activity helps manage stress is by releasing endorphins. Endorphins are a chemical in the brain known as neurotransmitters, which means that they pass information between neurons. Endorphins are produced in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, and interact with opiate receptors in the brain to reduce the perception of pain. This has the secondary effect of boosting your mood and promoting feelings of relaxation, which can make you less susceptible to stressors and help combat the negative emotional effects of stress.
Furthermore, exercise can help to reduce the levels of the key stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. Although the levels of these chemicals in your body may rise during physical activity, studies have shown that long term exercise reduces the overall levels of these hormones in the body.
Having a healthy diet can also help make the body more able to cope with stress.
When the body is under stress, it uses energy faster. This fast consumption of energy can lead to many of stress’s negative effects, including lethargy and a weakened immune system. Thus, having a diet which is rich in energy boosting foods can help to combat the negative effects stress has. Magnesium in particular helps to raise energy levels in the body, and foods rich in this include whole grains, nuts, and leafy greens. Unfortunately, many people who are stressed turn to ‘comfort foods’, which are often high in fat or sugar. This only serves to aid the negative effects of stress, as foods high in fat or sugar reduce our energy levels.
Having a healthy diet can also combat stress by boosting serotonin levels, which promotes feelings of happiness. Serotonin itself isn’t found in food, but consuming the chemicals which help synthesise it can help increase its levels. One example is tryptophan, an amino acid vital for the creation of serotonin. Some foods rich in tryptophan include nuts and seeds, eggs, tofu, and fish. Additionally, the Vitamin B complex helps the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin, so consuming foods rich in these, such as liver, milk, and yoghurt, can help to achieve a more direct effect.
Eating a healthy diet can also help to boost the immune system in response to stress weakening it. Foods which help to keep the immune system strong are predominantly those high in anti-oxidants, such as Vitamin C, which is found in kale, peppers, and citrus fruits.
Yoga / Meditation
Many people turn to yoga or meditation to help deal with the effects of stress. Although there is not much scientific research into this, many practitioners find it to reduce anxiety levels and generate feelings of relaxation.
Although having a healthy lifestyle is essential for both preventing and managing stress, many find that using supplements can help to have a more direct effect on stress levels and symptoms.
5 HTP & Tryptophan
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known for reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation. This means that is essential for combatting the negative mental effects of stress. Serotonin can only be created in the body and cannot be consumed from external sources, and so the best way to boost serotonin is by ensuring you have enough of the chemicals which are essential for its production. It can be difficult to achieve a direct effect on the amount of serotonin through the chemicals found in food, and so consuming them in the form of supplements is often favoured.
5 HTP and tryptophan are essential for producing serotonin. The body converts tryptophan into 5 HTP, and then 5 HTP into serotonin. Boosting the levels of these chemicals in the body would thus boost the levels synthesised into serotonin, which would in turn combat many of the mental effects of stress.
Vitamin B complex
The Vitamin B complex is composed of 8 minerals - B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12. These vitamins play an important role in keeping the body running smoothly, and can also be effective in dealing with stress.
Vitamins B1, B3, B6, and B9 play a role in forming serotonin, by helping to convert tryptophan into serotonin. Taking additional Vitamin B supplements can therefore help to boost happiness when stressed by assisting the body in the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin.
The Vitamin B complex can also help to prevent feelings of lethargy and tiredness caused by stress by raising energy levels. These vitamins increase energy levels by converting food energy into Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the chemical energy used by cells.
Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals in the body, and one of the most important nutrients for coping with stress. Stress causes the body to use up magnesium, depleting its levels and causing worsened symptoms. Thus, adding magnesium to your body can help to counter the effects of stress. It is often recommended to consume additional magnesium through supplements, as research has found that the modern diet does not provide us with the recommended amount.
One of the key symptoms magnesium can aid is low energy levels, as one of magnesium’s primary functions in the body is breaking glucose down into cellular energy. This means that when you are stressed, the magnesium that is lost from your body can cause you to become lethargic and weak.
Magnesium also helps the body to regulate cortisol levels. Studies have shown that magnesium reduces the levels of cortisol in the body, so this nutrient can be useful in alleviating many of the symptoms of stress by lessening the amount of cortisol released when you are under stress.
Some studies have shown Vitamin C to alleviate some of the negative effects of stress. This is because Vitamin C is essential for the functioning of the adrenal gland, and it is the adrenal gland which releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, into the body. By regulating these stress hormones, vitamin C can lessen the symptoms of stress.
Vitamin C is also an anti-oxidant, which means that it can help strengthen the immune system and so protect the body from illnesses which may be caused by stress weakening the body.
It is also worth noting that many of the symptoms of Vitamin C deficiency are similar to those of stress, such as weakness, tiredness, and high blood pressure. Therefore, Vitamin C can be useful in countering these symptoms when caused by stress.
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