How to reduce unhealthy stress

Stress is the great disease of our time. Among the main reasons we feel so stressed today are endless to-do lists, social demands, expectations we feel we can’t meet, and unpredictable events that we can’t control. But stress is also a natural reaction that has contributed to our survival for thousands of years. Stress has enabled us to mobilize energy quickly to fight or flee in a threatening situation. It is only when we are stressed for longer periods of time that the stress becomes harmful to us instead. In this article, we identify the body’s stress responses, the important warning signs to watch out for and how stress affects our gut health. You’ll also find tips on what you can do to reduce unhealthy stress.

Stress is a survival instinct

Today, few world associate the word stress with anything positive. But in fact, it is thanks to the body’s stress reactions that we have survived for thousands of years. Stress allows us to mobilize energy so that our bodies have more fuel to deal with physically demanding and threatening situations. So what is usually called the fight-or-flight response is the way the brain and body set themselves up to fight or flee the threat. Today, our bodies react in the same way, even though the stress we experience rarely requires physical strength.  

When does stress become unhealthy? 

When we can’t escape or fight, the body may react by “playing dead”. This happens when fleeing or fighting the threat is not enough. Instead, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, decreasing our energy levels. We become tired, experience dizziness, muscle weakness, low pulse, low blood pressure, fainting and an upset stomach. Many people also find that they wish to avoid social contacts, feel paralyzed, gloomy and depressed.  

When we are exposed to unhealthy stress, the body will react. It is important that we listen to the signals, take them seriously and do something about them to avoid the risk of getting sick. If we are exposed to stress for a very long time, we may suffer from fatigue syndrome. Then we experience symptoms such as brain fatigue, cognitive impairment and stress sensitivity. It is also common to experience physical fatigue that cannot be relieved by resting. But before it comes to that, there are some important warning signs to watch out for: 

  • Sleeping problems 
  • Memory and concentration problems 
  • Body aches 
  • Wanting to withdraw from social situations 
  • Difficulty facing demands and time pressure 
  • Weakened immune system and increased exposure to infections 
  • Anxiety and a feeling of being down, increased irritation and emotional outbursts 
  • Dizziness and sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as sound and light 
  • Rest and recovery takes longer than usual 

Gut problems are common in stressful times 

Stress is a major cause of the increasing amount of gut problems, affecting not only the brain but also the gut flora. The gastrointestinal tract is surrounded by an advanced nervous system known as the abdominal brain, or enteric nervous system (ENS). This nervous system controls activity in our gut using neurotransmitters that are very similar to those in our brain, and is therefore often referred to as the ‘second brain’. 

The brain and the gut are in constant communication with each other via something called the gut-brain axis, and studies have shown that gut flora changes when we are stressed. The stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol cause the diversity of bacteria to decrease, while the good bacteria in the gut become fewer and are replaced by harmful bacteria. This can lead to digestive problems such as diarrhea and constipation.   

Tip: What you can do to reduce stress 

During stressful periods in your life, it is especially important to take care of yourself and your health. Here are some concrete tips on what you can do to reduce stress levels in your body: 

  • Give yourself room to rest and recover 
  • Get moving so that you get your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes every day 
  • Spend time in nature 
  • Try to get a good 7-8 hours of sleep a night, go to bed early and try to unwind before you fall asleep 
  • Eat a nutritious and anti-inflammatory diet 
  • Socialize and laugh with family and friends  
  • Set aside time for quiet breaks during the day, preferably in the form of a moment of yoga or meditation 
  • Say “no” and ask for help when you need it, try to keep your workload reasonable and lower your expectations towards yourself 
  • Make sure you get all the vitamins and minerals your brain needs to function and feel good, such as vitamin B9, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, zinc, iodine, magnesium and omega-3.  

A supplement for your gut health

Want more energy and less bloating? It might be time to take better care of your gut. To strengthen or restore the balance in your gut flora, it's important you feed your gut with a daily dose of pre- and probiotics. A healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables is usually sufficient. If you want an extra boost or make sure you get a daily dose of good bacteria, you can complement your diet with a supplement.

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