Stress and how to tackle it

No-one feels good when they’re under too much stress and the fact is that extended periods of high stress can cause serious health issues. In this article, we look at a few common stress situations in daily life and how you can tackle them.

How stress impacts our health

From a purely biological point of view, when we are exposed to stress, our body readies itself to act quickly and effectively in case of any potentially dangerous situations. The sympathetic nervous system – also known as the fight or flight response – is activated and the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released. Our breathing becomes more rapid, our blood pressure increases and we are on the alert, ready to act. Our body also shut downs some of its less important functions – like digestion and reproduction.

This stress response is entirely normal and is designed to help us handle dangerous situations. But if such stress persists over an extended period of time, it has the potential to become long-term/chronic, which can have negative impacts on our health.

Illnesses and health problems caused by stress

Chronic stress has been linked to issues such as insulin resistance and Type-2 diabetes. Chronic stress can also upset the production of serotonin – our “happiness hormone” – which can lead to problems like irritability and having trouble sleeping.

High levels of cortisol can lead to digestive issues and IBS-like symptoms. Constantly elevated levels of cortisol also have a negative effect on our immune system and increase the breakdown of muscles and protein, which can increase the risk of injuries and infections.

Stress and the flora in our gut

If the stress hormones noradrenaline, adrenaline and cortisol hang around for extended periods of time, they can upset the balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut. This can result in stomach issues and difficulties digesting food. An imbalance in the gut flora has also been linked to low-grade inflammations – the precursor to many of today’s lifestyle illnesses.

Common stress situations and how to tackle them

Stressful situations here and there at work are handled by our body without any major issue, but if your overall stress level is high then you may need to take a look at your lifestyle. Below are 3 common stress situations and how you can tackle them to minimize the overall level of stress in your life.

Stress situation 1: Trouble sleeping and difficulty unwinding

Having trouble sleeping is a very common complaint. According to research, Singaporeans are consistently one of the most sleep-deprived populations in the world. A 2016 study in Singapore showed that 44% of them had inadequate sleep (less than seven hours) on weekdays and 26% of them had inadequate sleep on weekends.

In addition, interrupted or fragmented sleep is associated with high levels of cortisol during the day, which in turn can make it even harder to unwind in the evenings. This results in a vicious circle of stress, increased levels of cortisol and difficulty sleeping. Waking up frequently during the night can also impact the hormones that regulate our appetite – leptin (feeling full) and ghrelin (feeling hunger). This can lead to an increase in appetite and sweet cravings.

How to tackle it:

  • Create a wind-down routine for the evenings. At least 30 minutes before going to bed, switch off all digital screens, dim the lighting and spend some time doing a calm activity like reading.
  • Adjust your diet. A diet that is low in fiber and high in saturated fats and sugar has been linked to worse-quality sleep. So try introducing more high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and other plant-based foods. The fiber in these foods also helps feed the good bacteria in your gut, promoting a balanced gut flora.
  • Focus on magnesium and tryptophan. These two chemicals promote relaxation and better-quality sleep. Green leaf vegetables, like spinach, and also edamame beans are two great sources of magnesium. Tryptophan is found predominantly in animal foods like meat, as well as pumpkin seeds and almonds.

Stress situation 2: Working from home

More and more people are working from home these days, which is posing new challenges to our bodies and our minds. In particular, it is becoming more difficult to separate our work from our private life. On top of that, we spend more time sitting since we lose out on the everyday exercise involved in commuting.

Working from home also poses a number of dietary challenges. It’s easy to snack when the cupboard is right there, and it can be difficult to stick to regular mealtimes. As a result, our digestive system is constantly in operation, draining you of energy and making you tired.

How to tackle it:

  • Make a schedule and stick to it. Where possible, establish set times for when your working day starts and finishes. Set up a specific space in your home that is dedicated to work. This should not be the same place as where you eat or sleep.
  • Exercise and take breaks. The advantage of working from home is that it offers more flexibility and greater opportunity for physical activity. Take regular breaks to move around, stretch and maybe even use an exercise band to activate your back and core muscles. You should also make sure you take a lunchbreak wherever possible.
  • Prepare your meals. Eat your meals at regular times just as you would have done if you were working at the office or your normal place of work.

Stress situation 3: Over-exercising

Regular exercise is important for our physical and mental health. But all types of strenuous activity are also a form of stress as far as our body is concerned. More intense exercise can impact the gut flora, cause inflammations and even impact your immune defenses for a short period of time after your workout. In just the right amount and adapted to our lifestyle, exercise can often be a positive stress. But lots of high-intensity training combined with an already stressful lifestyle can be too much for many of us.

How to tackle it:

  • Listen to the signals your body is sending you. Everyone is different so try to listen to what your body is telling you it needs. For example, are you often tired or achy? Then you probably need to rest more.
  • Adapt your workout routine to your lifestyle. If you have a demanding and stressful job, you might want to lower your ambitions when it comes to exercising and limit the number of high-intensity workouts. If, on the other hand, you have a fairly laidback job and a lifestyle that isn’t particularly stressful, doing lots of intense workouts can be a great idea if that’s what feels good.
  • Have a look at your diet. If your workout routine is of the more demanding type, then having a good diet is extra important. You should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables with every mealtime, for example – these foods contain useful fiber that feeds the good bacteria in your gut (the same bacteria that are involved in your immune defenses). Also, make sure you eat anti-inflammatory and immune-strengthening foods and ingredients like turmeric, Vitamin C (found in citrus fruits, for example) and zinc (found in foods like pumpkin seeds).

Good luck!

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