I recently got back from a week long stay in Tulum, Mexico (highly recommended!). In addition to my passion for nutrition, travel is a priority in my life and plays a vital role in maintaining both my mental and physical health. Whenever I take a trip that involves spending a week or two in the sun, sand and ocean water, I experience astounding relief from any stress-induced ailments that present themselves as anything from annoying skin outbreaks to adrenal and fatigue issues.
Like everyone, my stress loads can get quite high, sometimes without me even realizing it. Eventually I realize it’s time for a break to reset and heal. We all know the feeling of burning out, especially in our modern world when society basically demands we all try to play Superman – or Superwoman – all day, every day. This kind of stress is not something our bodies can thrive with, nor are the astronomical levels anything we were evolutionarily equipped to handle.
I’m a believer that stress is a large obstacle to reaching and maintaining our health goals, even with a healthy diet is in place. If we don’t learn how to manage stress, our symptoms may never be relieved, and that includes attaining clear, healthy skin. Many people can attest to switching to a cleaner whole foods diet and seeing immediate improvement. At first many of their symptoms begin to clear up as the physical stress on their bodies dissipates due to the absence of inflammation and stress caused by food sensitivities. After a period of time, however, symptoms can start to return if other factors are not addressed.
There are many different forms of stress, but for now I want to discuss emotional and mental health and the direct effect it has on the immune system and the body’s ability to regenerate and heal.
Adrenal glands produce certain stress hormones when you are in an excited or stressful situation. When you are constantly under stress, your adrenals release a hormone called cortisol in larger amounts and at the wrong time of day than normal. This is extremely important to note, as excess cortisol levels and a disrupted rhythm is the start to lowered immunity, imbalanced hormones, acne and other skin issues, not to mention a host of other problems.
Cortisol should naturally be high in the mornings and low in the evening before bed. With chronic ongoing stress, these amounts are subject to being reversed. These are some of the symptoms of high cortisol levels:
- Fatigue and tiredness throughout the day, especially in the morning upon awaking
- Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
- Mood swings, depression, anxiety, irritability, and a reduced ability to handle stressful situations
- Brain fog, inability to concentration, forgetfulness
- Weight gain, predominantly around the stomach
- Reduced ability to burn fat
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased blood sugar levels
- Low libido and infertility
- Increase hunger, especially for sugar, starch and caffeine
When stress is sustained or repeating or extreme, then all [the usual systems] gets disrupted,” says Huda Akil, co-director of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute at the University of Michigan. “And eventually, you do it long enough and it starts impacting other systems … immune responses; it can affect the heart; it affects brain cells. It depends how long we’re talking about.
How To Manage Stress
I recommend both diet and lifestyle changes when addressing stress levels. The body recognizes and deals with stress in the same way, regardless of whether it stems from a poor diet, work, relationships, or even excessive exercise…it’s all stress.
For now, I want to focus on emotional stress (in part 2, I’ll address the diet aspect). Here are a few tips I try to live by to learn how to manage stress in my life:
Think and Be POSITIVE!
One of the most impactful things you can do to lower your stress is to surround yourself with positive people who encourage and support you. Cut ties with Negative Nancy – those people who bring you down, are critical and unmotivated. This will only drain you emotionally. If avoidance is not possible, limit the amount of time you spend around these people and situations.
This has helped me reduce my stress levels immensely! Small changes make a big difference when your schedule starts to fill up and that overwhelmed feeling begins to kick in. Easy ways to get organized include: having a daily schedule, writing goals down for the day, creating a meal plan and grocery list for the week, keeping your work area and home tidy for increased productivity. When your head and space are de-cluttered, it reflects on your stress levels and your body.
Happiness is tragically overlooked in the healing process. This is critical to not just stress but any sickness or disease, as joy ups the production of “feel good” hormones and chemical messengers that lower our stress and, therefore, increase our immunity and our body’s ability to heal properly. Each day, pursue activities and hobbies you love. Be less critical of yourself and others, and don’t take life so seriously. Happiness and laughter combine to make a powerful medicine!
Meditation and Mindful Exercise
Mindful practices such as Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Pilates, and yoga are excellent for building and balancing mind and body. These exercises help you practice acceptance and learn to be grateful for all you have. Long, intense workouts can actually lower immunity, especially if a good diet is not in place. Make sure you work with a nutritionist when exercise becomes demanding on the body.
Sleep deprivation is a main cause of high cortisol production. Sleep is a necessity: our bodies need it to heal, recover and renew. When we begin to lose sleep, our cortisol rhythm changes and we begin to experience the symptoms listed above. You may not actually need more sleep as much as you need better quality sleep. Make sure where you sleep is completely dark so your melatonin production will be sufficient. Pull down the curtains, turn off the computer, TV, alarm clock and any electronic device that may have a light (especially if it’s blue), or better yet do not keep these electronics in your bedroom. The electromagnetic interference from these devices will also affect sleep cycles. You can also use a sleep mask to make sure the light is completely blocked. I started doing this about a month ago and have never slept more deeply. The various phases of sleep include two cycles that are deep enough to refurbish your immune system. You need to sleep through them to gain the benefits and wake up feeling great. If you’re still having trouble falling or staying asleep, trying eating a little protein before bed to sustain your blood sugar levels through the night, or consider taking magnesium, which is a muscle relaxer, to help you wind down for the night. This one here is one of my favorites, as it also contains a blend of other sleep-promoting nutrients and herbs. Alternatively, if you have trouble staying asleep, Insomnitol is a product that provides nutritional support to help calm the mind and body so you can naturally fall and stay asleep.
A lack of ability to handle stress is a recipe for immune dysfunction. I am obviously a big advocate and believer in the healing power of diet and food, but I have seen first hand that this means nothing if you are not able to control stress levels. Don’t obsess over anything, as this will only create unnecessary stress. Rather, be mindful of things you can improve on and start taking strides to change things, one itty bitty step at a time.
4 Things You’ll Learn that Will Change Your Life…
- Health starts with your metabolism. But if your diet and lifestyle don’t support your metabolic health, you’ll be left feeling tired, moody, and stressed–and wondering why all this “healthy” advice you’re following isn’t working for you!
- Find out which hidden causes of stress are ruining your metabolic health, and learn how you can reduce or counteract these sources of stress.
- Learn how digestion, sleep, and exercise are all connected to your metabolism, and learn whichsmall changes can make a big difference in your health.
- Find out how to listen to your body’s biofeedback so you know what works for you. This is not about following an arbitrary plan–it’s about learning what works for your body!