It’s often said that stress is a silent killer—but what exactly is stress? It’s the physical and chemical reaction that our body starts when it believes it’s under attack. When we sense danger—either real or imagined—the body’s defenses get activated in a rapid, automatic process known as the fight-or-flight response.
Fight or flight is not only reserved for physical danger. Being chased by a bear will definitely put our body into a state of alarm but so will stress from other sources like family, friends, financial worries, or relationship issues. The difference between these two types of stress is time. The body can handle small amounts of stress for short periods of time. It cannot handle long-term stress.
Prolonged or permanent stress (without any breaks of relief or relaxation) can lead to long-lasting health problems. Here are some of the negative health effects of stress alongside some tips on what you can do to help combat it.
Why stress may be different for women
Studies have found that women differ from men not only in their emotional responses to stress. Acute and chronic stress may take a greater toll on a woman’s physical and mental health1. When reacting to stressors, the body releases hormones like cortisol, known to impact things like our immune system, digestive system, and skin1. Research has also shown that a woman’s cortisol response to psychological stress differs dramatically to that seen in men2.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress in women is on the rise. Here are some stats from the APA you should know:
- Women are 8% more likely than men to report having stress.
- 49% of women surveyed said their stress has increased in the last five years. 39% of men said their stress has increased.
- Women are more likely than men to report that money and the economy stresses them out.
- Women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress. These symptoms include headache, wanting to cry, and indigestion.
Signs and symptoms of stress
Exhaustion is one of the primary symptoms of ongoing stress. It can cause you to feel weak, lethargic, sleepy, and lose all motivation to carry out even the simplest tasks. The symptoms of stress can show up in many different ways and although everyone reacts differently to stress, here are some common symptoms1:
- Upset stomach
- Elevated blood pressure
- Decreased or reduced libido
- An irregular menstrual cycle
- Acne breakouts
- Hair loss
- Problems sleeping
Your mental health
Emotional problems can also result from ongoing stress. It includes conditions like depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry1. Emotional problems are one of the biggest issues resulting from prolonged stress because they’re difficult to diagnose and sometimes difficult to treat. They can also turn into a vicious cycle of stress causing illness which itself leads to more stress.
Stress can undermine your health
Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases. Stress itself is linked to 6 of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide1. So although a small amount of stress may not be a problem, long-term stress can make any pre-existing health issues much worse.
Tips for reducing stress
Because modern day stress is primarily caused by our emotional and mental state of mind, the tips to reduce stress are centered around doing things to make you ‘feel’ less stressed out and help your body relax. The first step to tackling stress is always going to be to deal with the main cause of the stress itself—whatever that cause may be. But in addition to that, here are a few things you can do to help yourself out2:
- Keep a positive attitude and accept that there are events that you cannot control.
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques; try meditation, yoga, or tai-chi.
- Exercise regularly. Your body can fight stress better when fit.
- Improve your diet. Eat well-balanced meals, make sure you’re getting all your daily vitamins and minerals and skip the junk food.
- Set limits and say no to requests that would create excessive stress in your life.
- Find fun ways to relax.
- Rediscover your favorite hobbies and interests—ie. movies, painting, reading, hiking
- Seek out social support—keep in touch with family and friends. Sometimes it helps to have someone to talk to or just a friendly ear to listen.
- If you think your health is being compromised by stress then make an appointment to see your doctor.
The Connection Between Nutrition & Stress
Have you ever heard of a stress-relief food? It’s true. Certain foods, because they contain certain nutrients, have been reported to help relieve a little stress. According to the Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences,
“There are several ways to cope up with stress and one good solution is to eat stress-fighting and reducing nutrient through food. A nutritious, well-balanced diet has powerful stress-reducing benefits that improve brain functioning, shore up immune function, lower blood pressure, improve the circulation, and reduce toxins from the body. Some specific nutrients play a very important role in reducing the levels of cortisol and adrenalin in the body and also the stress chemicals that activate fight and flight response.”
Here are a few of the nutrients you need and the best ways to get them.
Vitamin C. Stress can deplete your vitamin C levels. When this happens, you are more prone to sickness and infection. An increased intake of vitamin C can help your body better deal with stress and reduce the harmful effects.
Selenium. A selenium deficiency can cause tiredness and fatigue. But the right amount of selenium can help reduce fatigue contributing to stress.
Magnesium. Physical and psychological stress release stress hormones. These stress hormones can cause a loss of magnesium. Magnesium is critical for new cells, heart regulation, and bone health.
Vitamin B. A vitamin B deficiency can have harmful effects on your nervous system. These effects include stress-related problems including depression, lethargy, and irritability. Vitamin B, when you have enough of it, can help ease mood changes.
Best Stress-Relief Foods
Oranges. Everyone knows that oranges are a potent source of vitamin c. When your body undergoes stress, vitamin c helps reduce damage caused by free radicals. Vitamin C boosts your immune system and protects your body.
Dark Chocolate. Did you know chocolate can also help reduce damage caused by free radicals? Chocolate can also affect your mood—it produces a feeling of delight. That does not mean go and eat ten chocolate bars. But, indulging every now and then can help improve your mood when you are stressed. It also contains many other antioxidants good for your health.
Bananas. These yellow friends are great sources of potassium. They also contain iron. The potassium and iron in bananas work together to reduce fatigue.
Walnuts. These nuts look like a brain so they have to help your brain somehow, right? Right. Walnuts are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are necessary for all brain function. Higher levels of these fatty acids in the bloodstream have been linked to improved moods and lower depression rates.
Spinach. A great source of magnesium. Magnesium helps lower stress levels and keeps your blood pressure from spiking.
1- The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Stress. 02/05/2015. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress
2- Kirschbaum, C., Wüst, S., & Hellhammer, D. (1992). Consistent sex differences in cortisol responses to psychological stress. Psychosomatic medicine, 54(6), 648-657. http://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Citation/1992/11000/Consistent_sex_differences_in_cortisol_responses.4.aspx