Over 70% of respondents in a 2019 US survey* said that stress and anxiety moderately to severely impacted their lives (a rate that has only increased with Covid-19). That’s a whopping number – yet many of us aren’t even aware of the amount of stress that we experience daily because we’re uncertain what exactly constitutes stress.
Given that the health implications of stress can be far reaching, it’s important that we understand the factors that can cause stress, and how we can manage its effects on our health.
What is stress, anyways?
Stressor = any thing or event that changes our body’s state of balance, whether internally, externally or psychologically
Stress = our body’s reaction to that change
Stress can manifest in our bodies physically or psychologically. Everything from headaches, skin issues and digestive issues, to decreased energy, depression and frequent colds can be tied to, or be experienced as a result of stress.
But what are the stressors (or “stress factors”) that can throw our bodies out of balance and lead to stress? Unfortunately, the list isn’t short:
- Chemical (e.g. cleaning products, body and skincare, food)
- Environmental (e.g. pollution, air quality)
- Intense workouts
Psychological and Social
- Work (e.g. big promotion, working long hours)
- Financial (e.g. unexpected expenses, job loss)
- Relationships (e.g. broken, new)
- Life Changes (e.g. move, new baby, marriage)
Emotional (e.g. shock, worry, sadness)
… just to name a few.
Types of stress and how the body experiences them
Depending on how long we experience stress from a particular stress factor, it can be one of two types of stress: acute or chronic.
Acute stress is a sudden and rapid reaction in which your body goes into a “fight or flight” response as a result of the stress factor – i.e. the threat. This means the body’s key resources (i.e. blood, oxygen, energy) are prioritized to vital functions like breathing, and pumping and circulating blood, and away from functions that are not a priority in that moment, like immunity and digestion.
Chronic stress is an ongoing response that is felt for long periods of time, and can lead to bigger and more serious health issues if not mitigated. It can result from any of the stress factors listed above to which we’re continuously exposed, and can manifest in the body in various ways.
Some examples of how we can experience chronic stress include:
Our endocrine system (the network of hormonal glands and hormones) is constantly striving to be in balance. When our body is stressed, stress hormones such as cortisol are produced by our adrenal glands – a very natural and needed reaction. However, when the body is in a constant state of stress, cortisol is overproduced to the point that our adrenal glands become worn out, unable to produce cortisol as needed. This is problematic, as cortisol controls key functions in the body, including acting as an anti-inflammatory, maintaining blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and muscle strength, and regulating salt and water balance.
Because our endocrine system is an interconnected system, imbalance in certain hormones due to stress can also lead to imbalances in other important hormones and processes. For example, reproductive hormone, thyroid hormone and insulin imbalances can lead to numerous issues, including fertility, weight gain/loss, blood sugar and blood pressure.
When our body is stressed, muscles tense up. This tension is a reflexive response to stress and is the body's way of guarding against pain and injury. With sudden and acute stress, muscles tense up all at once, and then relax when the stress passes. Chronic stress, on the other hand, causes the muscles in the body to be in a near constant state of “guarding” the body, which can lead to a clenched jaw, headaches, neck pain, back pain and overall tightness and pain.
Stress impacts our memories, specifically when it comes to creating and retrieving them. Elevated levels of stress hormones can impair your ability to think back on information you may have stored in your memory long ago. Stress can also intercept the process needed to make the memory in the first place. Stress can make you sleepy and exhausted, which also impacts memory.
Eating and appetite can be impacted by stress; some people eat when they are stressed, while others have zero appetite or might experience food not tasting as it should. Further, our gut is a muscle, so it tenses up when we’re stressed rather than functioning in the normal “contracting and relaxing” pattern required for healthy digestion.
Stress can impact digestion in a number of ways, including by:
- impacting movement of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, such as emptying of the stomach and movement of the large intestine
- compromising our body’s production of digestive enzymes
- suppressing our “good” bacteria, which regulate digestion and metabolism
Over time, chronic stress can also impact what is called “brain-gut” communication. One way in which our brain and gut communicate is through the neurotransmitter Serotonin (also known as the “feel-good chemical” because it causes a relaxed state of well-being), which is produced in our gut and in our brain. When we experience psychological stress, it’s communicated to our gut via serotonin and can throw off our digestion, triggering issues such as diarrhea, bloating, constipation and heartburn. (This is also the physiology behind the butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous, or having to use the bathroom when you’re anxious, even though you just went.)
When we’re stressed, our body is more prone to getting sick. Our immune system – which is made up of various systems including our circulatory and lymphatic systems, skin and gut – is weaker, slower to react and slower to recover.
Stress reduces the number of white blood cells in the body responsible for defending against illness and infection. As discussed above, with elevated levels of stress come increased levels of cortisol, which can weaken the immune system by increasing inflammation in the body.
Further, in addition to its role in digesting food, our digestive system is home to 60-70% of our immune system and is considered to be our first line of defense. The beneficial bacteria in our gut block harmful microbes from setting up camp and produce antimicrobial chemicals that defend us against pathogens. But when these good bacteria are suppressed due to stress, our immunity becomes compromised.
How to reduce the effects of stress
Strengthening our bodies and developing techniques to help our bodies become more resistant to the effects of stress is within our control. We’ve outlined some tips and tricks below:
1. Make time for yourself.
Taking time for yourself, whether to engage in a calming activity such as meditation or journaling or your favorite form of movement, will help give your mind a chance to reset from whatever may be stressing you out. It may not solve whatever the cause of stress may be, but it will give you a chance to face it with a clearer mind.
2. Eat the rainbow.
Turn to nature for fruits and veggies in every color. Fruits and veggies are chalk full of nutrients needed to strengthen your body, especially your immune system, in the face of stress.
3. Get enough sleep.
Being well-rested when experiencing stress can do wonders. The body recovers while sleeping, and you may even wake with new energy and perspective on what’s stressing you out. If your mind is racing due to stress causing difficulty falling or staying asleep, deep breathing exercises, calming adaptogenic herbs (see more below) and herbal teas with calming or sedative properties can often be helpful for calming the nervous system and promoting sleep.
4. Add adaptogens into your daily routine.
Adaptogens are naturally occurring, non-toxic plants and fungi that have been shown to help increase the body’s resistance to the effects of stress by balancing and normalizing our hormones and our body’s overall functioning.
- Reishi, a revered functional mushroom in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is a particularly calming adaptogen found in the Calm Cacao Superblend, Defend Vanilla-Maca Superblend, Balance Functional Chocolate and Zen Functional Chocolate.
- Ashwagandha, a prized herb in Ayurvedic medicine, is also a calming adaptogen found in the Defend Vanilla-Maca Superblend, Focus Matcha Superblend, Restore Turmeric Superblend and Balance Functional Chocolate.
You can easily work these powerful adaptogens into your daily routine by adding the Superblends to smoothies or breakfast bowls or making a hot or iced latte.
5. Spending time with people that bring you joy.
Seek out those that feel like sunshine – those who bring you joy, not stress. Call a friend or go for a walk. Connecting and sharing with others can work wonders in easing stress.
In the words of endocrinologist Hans Selye (known as the father of stress research): “It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” Many stress factors are unavoidable. Next time you feel yourself tensing up or feeling stressed, take a moment and breathe, and come back to these powerful tips.
*Euromonitor Top Consumer Trends Impacting Health & Nutrition (2019)
Zuza is currently studying Holistic Nutrition at IHN in Toronto, Canada. She's a balcony garden enthusiast and rescue dog mama.