After a stressful day at work do you find yourself getting home and heading straight to the freezer to devour a tub (or two) of Ben & Jerry’s? After a weekend so crammed with plans that you don’t get any time to chill out do you end up tossing and turning all night and not getting a wink of sleep? Comfort eating and sleep problems are just some of the things caused by stress, and it’s actually a lot more serious than many of us realize.
Savoir Flair spoke to Dr. Shefali Verma, Partner and Medical Director of the Institute for Biophysical Medicine in Dubai, to find out just how harmful stress can be for our bodies and minds and what easy things we can do in our everyday lives to stop stress in its tracks.
Your body’s stress response triggers the adrenal gland, an organ that sits on top of the kidneys, to churn out the stress hormone cortisol. Studies have linked cortisol to cravings for sugar and fat, and scientists believe it binds to receptors in the brain that control food intake. Gaining fat can definitely be a result of poor eating caused by stress, but the cortisol itself can also increase the amount of fat tissue and enlarge the size of fat cells in our bodies.
When we’re stressed, our bodies enter what is called fight or flight mode, which is a primal survival mechanism that would have been activated when we were hunting for food or running away from a predator. The role of cortisol in this case is to store whatever it can as fat to make sure you have enough fuel to keep you going. Little does your body know, it’s not a dinosaur you’re running away from, but a deadline you’re working towards. Higher levels of stress and cortisol have been linked to more deep-abdominal fat, and chronic cortisol production can also have an impact on other hormones that affect the metabolism, causing weight gain and symptoms of thyroid deregulation.
A common symptom found in people with chronic stress is the inability to fall asleep and insomnia. Often they describe a classic “tired but wired” syndrome as their cortisol remains high at bedtime when it should in fact be at its lowest. Chronic stress can deplete your body’s mineral magnesium, which can affect the quality of sleep, cause increased muscle tension, and increase sugar cravings.
Chronic stress can affect the ecology in the digestive tract by decreasing beneficial bacteria. This can affect motility of the gut and the production of certain vitamins, which can lead to many digestive problems. Cortisol can also directly affect the permeability of the lining of the gut and allow particles to cross this barrier, causing food sensitivities that could, if untreated, lead to autoimmune conditions.
Chronic stress can lower the immune system and even cause premature aging. This is because it can shorten telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of cell chromosomes, causing your cells to age faster.
Try these five easy ways to de-stress at your desk to help keep your mind and body in check throughout the day.
Take a Break
Taking regular breaks is important for a variety of reasons. Uninterrupted computer time has been shown to be associated with stress, depression, and even sleep disturbances, so get up, go for a walk, and change your environment.
Just as shallow breathing has been associated with stress, deep breathing has been associated with the opposite, because it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can reduce tension with the extra boost of oxygen. Meditation improves people’s perceived stress and helps you feel calmer, less dominated by thoughts and feelings that pop up randomly or can’t be quieted down. Learning simple, short meditation exercises is a great way help with stress, so try this easy technique: Inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of four. Repeat five to ten times.
Listen to Music
Have your headphones in so you don’t disturb any of your colleagues and choose classical or other relaxing music similar to what plays when you have a massage in a spa.
Try Self-Myofascial Release Techniques
The hands and feet both hold many stress trigger points, so one good exercise is to stand up during one of your breaks and roll your feet (one at a time) on a tennis ball. Not only does this release tension, but it can also improve lower-body flexibility and therefore prevent potential injuries to both the lower body and back. For women wearing heels all day, this exercise is particularly beneficial! Using stress balls, which are readily available, and repeatedly squeezing them is a great de-stressing exercise.
Eating regularly and keeping blood sugar levels stable is so important. When you don’t eat or have long gaps between meals, blood sugar may drop, and this can affect productivity and potentially also cause more stress! Make sure your snacks don’t contain lots of sugar as this will cause a rapid rise in blood sugar followed by a crash. Examples of good snacks include a few nuts, nut butters with rice cakes, lettuce turkey wraps, a vegan protein shake, hummus and vegetable sticks, and guacamole and corn chips.