Managing festive stress.
Well it is that time of year again, endless rounds of present buying, social gatherings to prepare for, work parties to attend and if you make it through that lot still alive the big day itself.
Already some of my clients, friends and family are starting to feel the strain, so much to do and buy so little time and money-aaaarrrggghhhh!
So, how can we successfully navigate this time of year without having a breakdown, and pray tell Nicola what on earth does this have to do with our health and fitness I hear you ask?
Well evolutionarily the human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert and ready to avoid danger. Stress becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between challenges. As a result, the person becomes overworked and stress-related tension builds.
Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress — a negative stress reaction. Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.
Stress also becomes harmful when people use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to try and relieve their stress. Unfortunately, instead of relieving the stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances tend to keep the body in a stressed state and cause more problems. Consider the following:
Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety.
The total number of cases of stress in 2011/12 was 428 000 (40%) out of a total of 1 073 000 for all work-related illnesses.
Now for the science bit. The stress response has evolved over millions of years dating back to our ancestors to protect you from danger. Also known as the flight-or-fight response, it gets the body ready for action. So if you’re in danger say for example being chased by a bear, the brain’s hypothalamus sends triggers—both chemical and along the nerves—to the adrenals, which are glands that sit on top of each kidney like a hat perched on a head.
The adrenals then churn out hormones, such as cortisol, which raise blood pressure and blood sugar (among other things). This is dandy if you need to outrun said bear, less so if the perceived threat is whether you have remembered to buy presents for everyone. Continually raised cortisol levels can be harmful to health if sustained over long periods of time.
As adrenals become fatigued, the production of cortisol and other hormone levels will fall. High levels of cortisol will suppress immune system cells making us more susceptible to coughs, colds and viruses that float around at this time of year. Cue total meltdown as you’re trying to get presents bought, food sorted for friends and family gatherings as well as going to the school nativity. Xmas fair and you then have to do all of that with a rotten cold as well! I previously wrote about ways to up your immune system so make extra efforts to incorporate some of those tips and at the very least try to eat lots of fruit and veg and get plenty of sleep.
Studies have linked cortisol, to cravings for sugar and fat. Part of that link is due to poor eating during stress, but the stress hormone cortisol may also increase the amount of fat tissue your body hangs onto and enlarge the size of fat cells. Scientists believe cortisol may also bind to receptors in the brain that control food intake. Higher levels of cortisol have been linked to more deep-abdominal fat—yes, your paunch. And if you are already an emotional eater you will be even more susceptible. Combine this with the over indulgence that goes hand in hand with Christmas and it’s like sending a lion into the butchers-he ain’t gonna leave without having polished off a few steaks. However in your case probably more likely to be a tin of celebrations, which are not as rich in iron as steak!
Heartburn, stomach cramping, and diarrhoea can all be caused by or worsened by stress. In particular, irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, which is characterized by pain and bouts of constipation and diarrhoea is thought to be fuelled in part by stress. Add to this all the rich food and alcohol you may be consuming and you are clearly asking for trouble! Obviously trying to find ways of managing your stress will be a big help here, but also being aware of the stress you will be putting on your digestive system could at least stop you having to spend Boxing Day on the loo! Peppermint tea can help with indigestion, Milk Thistle can help detoxify your level (read ward off and help fix a hangover) and of course not trying to cram as much food into you as possible-but you already knew that and will probably ignore it anyway……
Stress can cause hyper-arousal, a biological state in which people just don’t feel sleepy. While major stressful events can cause insomnia that passes once the stress is over, long-term exposure to chronic stress can also disrupt sleep and contribute to sleep disorders. What to do? Focus on making your surroundings conducive to a good night’s rest, turn off all TV’s, radios etc., write down anything that is on your mind as this can help the mind to switch it off and perhaps try yoga or another stress-busting activity during the day like boxing or going for a walk or run. If you can try to get plenty of sleep when you are not attending social events your body will be better able to deal with a few late nights without you being wiped out for days. So lights out at 10pm people!
Stress can set off an acute attack of back pain as well as contribute to ongoing chronic pain, probably for the simple reason that the “fight or flight” response involves tensing your muscles so that you’re ready to spring into action. One recent study in Europe found that people who are prone to anxiety and negative thinking are more likely to develop back pain, while a U.S. study tied anger and mental distress to ongoing back pain.
Fight or flight” chemicals like adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol can cause vascular changes that leave you with a tension headache or migraine, either during the stress or in the “let-down” period afterwards. Also as mentioned above stress also makes your muscles tense, which can make the pain of a migraine worse.
Now for some more serious stuff.
Stress is known to raise blood sugar, and if you already have type 2 diabetes you may find that your blood sugar is higher when you are under stress. Add to that the excess food and drink and you could be in for holiday season hypoglycaemia-sorry couldn’t help it!
The exact relationship between stress and heart attack is still unclear, but evidence is mounting that there is one. An American study has also found a significant increase in heart attacks around Christmas and New Year, and although studies are ongoing as to exactly why this is, it has been suggested that the increased stress around this period may be a factor. So, if it all feels too much at least try taking 10 minutes out of your day to relax, read a book, have a bath or go for a walk so we can avoid having a Christmas Coronary. I know I did it again!
A stressful situation can raise your blood pressure temporarily by constricting your blood vessels and speeding up your heart rate, which means if you already have high blood pressure you will be heading for danger. It’s not yet clear whether chronic stress can cause more permanent changes in your blood pressure, but techniques like meditation may help, In addition to a healthy diet and exercise.
A study of 20,000 people who had never had a stroke or heart disease found that stress was linked to an increased risk of stroke. In another recent study, healthy adults who had experienced a stressful life event within the past year were four times as likely to suffer a stroke than their less-stressed counterparts. One theory is that the increased risk is due to stress-related high blood pressure and/or narrowing of the arteries (known as atherosclerosis). Its snow joke, ok I’ll stop now.
So let’s at least try at get plenty of Vegetables, plenty of rest sleep or just Chillin, and some preferably daily exercise and we can all come out the other side into 2014 ready to tackle it head on!
Look out over the next couple of weeks I will begin my 12 days of fitness, a short workout challenge everyday leading up to Christmas Eve to help you fit in some exercise as well as some tips on having a healthy Christmas Dinner-without even noticing!