How stress affects health and longevity
What’s the first thing that falls by the wayside when life gets busy? For me, self-care was always the first to go. I have many vivid memories of sitting at my desk late into the evening trying to get through emails and finish my workload! Then it was food – hello convenience meals, eating on the go and quick sugar fixes! After that, it was cancelling meetups with friends. Working too hard and not focusing on self-care is a recipe for stress, overwhelm, and burnout, which can have dramatic effects on your mental and physical health.
How can stress affect your health?
When you are busy and stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which switches on the sympathetic nervous system. Through a number of glands and organs, it causes your heart to beat faster, blood to pump more vigorously, and breath to come faster. Energy is diverted from digestion and sent to muscles and the brain to prepare to meet the perceived threat. These changes help survive short periods of stress but become harmful to your health when they continue. Every organ in the body is affected by stress hormones as they wreak havoc on your overall health and wellbeing.
Persistently elevated levels of cortisol can negatively affect brain function. When energy is diverted away from digestion and food sits in the gut for longer than it should, it can create digestive issues, like bloating, indigestion, reflux, and dysbiosis. Persistently elevated blood sugars and blood pressure can also contribute to high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and so on. Appetite can increase to meet the demands made on the body. Thyroid function can slow down, which impacts metabolism and causes weight gain. Although stress alone won’t cause a thyroid disorder, it can make it worse. Elevated stress hormones can affect sleep and poor sleep can increase stress levels, leading to a vicious circle.
So, what effects can stress have on our long-term health? All humans have a biological clock. Scientists can measure someone’s age according to this clock by looking at chemical changes in DNA. A recent study by Yale found that chronic stress can shorten lifespan and reduce longevity. According to their findings, stress can contribute to faster ageing by accelerating this biological clock. It’s becoming evident that reducing stress and focusing on self-care is more important than ever to increase longevity and age naturally.
Why is self-care important?
Think of your mental and physical well-being as a bank account. When you eat well and practice self-care, you’re paying in a deposit. But when you get stressed or don’t exercise, you’re making a withdrawal.
We want to keep our well-being bank account in credit. Take too much out and we go into debt. The bank will start sending letters demanding the account be brought back to balance. These letters are like symptoms – your body’s way of telling you it’s under pressure, such as bloating, lower back pain, achy joints, headaches, and so on. You can ignore the letters, but they’ll keep coming. You could tape over the letterbox to stop the letters from landing on your doormat – i.e., pain killers to stop backache, headache, or an anti-acid medication. However, this only addresses the symptom, not the cause. The letters are still being sent because the root cause hasn’t been resolved. Eventually, the bank may send a court summons or bailiffs to the door – in health terms, this might be burnout or illness.
Tips to support wellbeing and reduce stress
An easy one to get started is the 3-4-5 breath. Breathe in for three, hold for four, out for five. Try it for a few minutes if negative thinking, anxiety, or overwhelm starts to set in. The slower and deeper the exhale, the more relaxed you’ll feel. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system (aka rest and digest) and calms the body (decreasing heart rate, slowing respiration, reducing cortisol levels, etc.).
Exercise reduces stress hormones and stimulates the production of endorphins, helping you to feel relaxed. Find ways to incorporate movement into your day. Go for a walk at lunchtime. Take the stairs instead of the lift. Chase the kids around the garden. It’s better to do 5-10 minutes of stretching by your bed every morning than attend the occasional yoga class!
Connect with others
Make sure you don’t isolate yourself when stressed. It’s important to make social connections. Social contact can help offer distraction, keep your mind busy, and provide emotional support. Reach out to family and friends when you can and grab a coffee or just have a good conversation.
Nourish your body
Nourish your body with whole foods. Supplementation can also provide numerous benefits for mental health and wellbeing, and nutritional deficiencies can exacerbate mental health concerns such as stress, anxiety, and low mood. Vitamin D is hugely important for mental wellbeing, and we struggle to get enough, especially in the winter months. Vitamin C boosts immunity and supports the body during stressful periods. Vitamins help to increase energy, balance neurotransmitter levels, improve cognitive performance and regulate your mood.
(* It’s always best to speak to a qualified nutritional therapist before supplementing)
Drink more water
Water helps to keep you hydrated and has natural calming properties. A result of preventing dehydration’s negative effects on the brain and body. Drinking enough water is an important step in managing your anxiety. It’s free and easy to incorporate into your day. It also helps with inflammation in the body, cushions joints, and supports weight loss. Find water boring? Try adding rosemary, lemon, or lime slices. In colder months, drink water at room temperature or slightly warm. Aim to drink 1 – 2 litres a day depending on exercise levels. Always increase water intake over several days to give the body a chance to adjust.
Be assertive and prioritise self-care
Show yourself kindness and add non-negotiable pockets of self-care into your calendar, doing those things that genuinely fill you with joy! Don’t try to do everything all at once. It’s always good to be assertive and it’s okay to turn down things that might affect your wellbeing.
Keep a diary
Mindfulness is a great way to combat stress. Pay attention to your day-to-day thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Keeping a diary offers a great way to keep a record of these. Increasing your awareness of how you feel helps to control your emotions and recognise what causes you to feel stressed.
Incorporating just 2 or 3 of these tips will make such a difference to your health and wellbeing. Consistency is better than perfection!
I love this quote by Mahatma Gandhi:
“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”.
Sadly, we don’t tend to appreciate our bodies or our wellbeing until illness comes.