Stress: feeling frayed, frazzled & falling apart?
Copyright… Kathie Strmota, LoveLight Co-Creative HealthCare
Psychological & physical stress affect your entire system, so just about every nutrient you can think of will play some role in keeping down the damaging effects of stress on physical and emotional health.
A stressful lifestyle also increases the body’s need for nutrients, as they are more quickly used up.
If you have a demanding lifestyle, you need to be even more vigilant about giving your body everything it needs.
As a broad rule, a healthy diet, regular exercise and good sleep habits will make all the difference to how well you handle life, and how peaceful and joyous you feel. You can feel bigger than the challenges you face, rather than having problems feel bigger than you.
There are also a few specific nutrients which can provide additional support, on top of a healthy diet, when you are experiencing an extended period of stressful and demanding life circumstances or chronic illness, just to help you ‘keep your head above water’, both physically and psychologically.
What is Stress?
In relation to human beings, the term ‘stress’ refers to the impact of a disruption or change in our internal or external equilibrium, which is caused by a physical, psychological or energetic stimulus (a ‘stressor’).
Stress is a natural part of life and can be either productive or destructive, depending on its effects.
Beneficial stress, which results in growth, is referred to as ‘eustress’.
Stressing bones with resistance pressure improves bone density. Stressing muscles with exercise increases strength and bulk. Stressful life experiences can result in personal growth, as you overcome challenges and learn lessons.
Stress which is harmful, and has a damaging effect on health and well-being, is referred to as ‘distress’.
Stressing the bones or muscles with enough pressure to break or tear them is an example of this. Taking in more chemical toxins than your liver and immune system can effectively neutralise, is another example. So is receiving more life challenges than you have the resources to deal with.
Good stress turns into bad stress when it pushes you past your ‘breaking point’.
The Stress Response
Most people will be familiar with the concept of ‘fight or flight’, the body’s natural stress response designed to deal with threats to survival, such as having a gun pointed at you.
During this response, energy is diverted from basic health management and focused into the body functions needed to make us alert and ready for action. Immune, digestive and reproductive functions are suppressed, while brain, heart and muscle energy is increased, creating a peak state for action.
Biochemical processes triggered by the stress response are relatively damaging to the body’s overall health and integrity, and are not meant to go on continuously.
They are beneficial in the short-term, giving you a burst of clarity and energy for activity when you have to deal with an intense physical challenge, or a mental-emotional challenge requiring streamlined problem-solving.
However, when the stress response is activated frequently, or a low-grade level of stress is maintained continuously, the very things which work so well in the short-term actually become damaging to your physical health and emotional well-being in the long-term.
In the modern day, true ‘life-and-death’ threats are rare, but feeling overwhelmed by life’s demands can keep a low-level stress response activated almost continuously. You may worry about the practical demands of keeping a roof over your head and food on the table, as well as the emotional demands of maintaining social acceptability and trying to ‘get what you want’.
The ongoing withdrawal of energy and nutritional support from immune, detox, digestive and reproductive systems, during chronic stress, leads to all kinds of metabolic problems, poor appetite and lowered libido. This also expresses as a reduced appetite and passion for life, as you focus on just surviving the daily dramas.
Mental and emotional processes are limited as well, with a reduced ability for complex problem solving and effective forward planning. All you can do is just deal with the current problem in a simplified way, which is more a survival response rather than a creative drive.
While the stress response is biochemical, with very real physical effects, its triggers are usually psychological. Your perceptions of a situation (feeling threatened, worried, distressed, overwhelmed) are what cause the physical response to be activated.
The stress response makes you ready for physical action and reduces complex mental processing, but the majority of issues which trigger it, these days, actually require more creative mental-emotional functions rather than physical efficiency.
Life becomes more difficult to handle, and challenges seem even greater. You become more overwhelmed and the physical stress response continues to be activated. It’s a vicious circle.
Anything you can do to change your perceptions of life’s challenges, so that they don’t seem so overwhelming or distressing, will minimize the stress response and give you better access to your abundant inner resources. This is why things like meditation, confidence-building activities, or simply taking time out ‘to be with yourself’, are so good for your health. They help to keep you calm and clear, minimize your stress, and make life ‘seem’ easier to manage.
When you believe that you will overcome life’s challenges, come what may, you reduce the amount of triggers for the stress response.
Oxidative Stress & Inflammation … Don’t Fall to Pieces
One of the most serious long-term effects of stress is immune suppression.
The immune system doesn’t simply fight infections. It works, in different ways, through all tissues of the body, to maintain overall integrity … clearing out toxins and damaged tissues to prevent abnormalities developing, neutralizing ‘free radicals’ (in conjunction with the liver) before they damage cells and tissues, creating balanced inflammatory cascades to encourage tissue healing, and so on.
When immune function is suppressed by ongoing stress, you are not only at increased risk of serious illness through infections, auto-immune diseases or cancer, but also of the widespread tissue damage caused by oxidative stress (free radicals rioting through the body unchecked) and out-of-control inflammatory processes which lead to destruction rather than healing.
If long-term stress makes you feel like you’re ‘falling apart’, that’s because you literally are. Cells and tissues are breaking down and losing their integrity.
Even worse, oxidative damage to the brain and nerve tissues affects your memory, mental clarity, and complex cognitive functions, diminishing more and more your ability to deal with life and make the best of it.
You feel ‘frayed and frazzled’, your attention wavers, you have difficulty retaining large amounts of information and thinking more deeply into things.
This inability to engage fully leads to bad decisions and missed opportunities because it’s just too difficult to process all the available facts and embrace all the possibilities.
To stop yourself from ‘falling apart’ under stress, increase your dietary intake of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods, providing the nutrients needed to combat oxidative stress.
You can also help to reduce the loss of tissue integrity by minimizing your intake of toxins and chemicals which trigger inflammation and tissue destruction, and make such hard work for your immune system. These are things like unnecessary pharmaceuticals, food chemicals and artificial additives, sugar-added foods & soft-drinks, junk foods, fried foods, hydrogenated oils (like polyunsaturated margarines and cooking vegetable oils), as well as excessive alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs.
The article Immunity & Inflammation explores immune health in more detail and further discusses anti-inflammatory food choices.
Fresh, ripe, raw fruit and vegetables are the best way to give your body a huge range of different antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substances, and should be at the top of your dietary list.
Have at least 5-7 serves of fruit & veg every day to help maintain cellular integrity and keep you from feeling like you’re falling apart.
It’s not enough just to get on the antioxidant-supplement bandwagon.
Firstly, most antioxidants are shown to work less effectively, and sometimes can even be damaging, when isolated from their natural whole food state.
Secondly, there is such a variety of different substances needed to neutralize specific oxidative wastes in different kinds of body tissues, that you just couldn’t supplement them all anyway.
Aside from the vitamins A, C & E, and minerals copper, zinc, selenium, magnesium, and manganese, there are allium sulphur compounds in onions and garlic, indoles in the cabbage family, lignans in whole grains and veges, flavonoids in citrus fruits, lycopene in tomatoes and watermelon, beta-carotene in carrots and parsley, curcumin in turmeric, anthocyanins in eggplants and berries, and the list goes on.
Your best bet, in the long term, is just to learn to love your fruit and veges.
Try and get them as naturally grown and ripe as possible.
Many antioxidant substances, such as vitamin C, increase during the sun-ripening stage and begin to break down once the food is picked. If your fruit & veg are picked unripe, frozen in a supermarket warehouse for months, and then gassed to give them colour, they won’t be giving you anywhere near the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory hit that they should.
The essential omega 3 fatty acids (DHA & EPA) are both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
They support cellular integrity in general and, in particular, maintain the stability of brain and nerve cells, and enhance the sensitivity of brain cell receptors to mood-related signals.
They support communication of all the brain’s neurotransmitters, helping maintain a good balance in thought and mood interactions.
The best sources of omega 3 are cold water oily fish (like salmon, mackerel, and herring). Flaxseeds are the best known vegetable source but are difficult to digest and provide smaller amounts.
If you’re very stressed, but not a big fish eater, it’s likely that you won’t be maintaining a satisfactory level of omega 3 in your body and it would be wise to supplement your diet with fish oil capsules.
A good supply of vitamin C, from fresh, ripe, raw fruit & vege, and as an additional supplement if necessary, will not only provide antioxidant and immune support, it will also support adrenal health.
The adrenal glands produce hormones involved in the stress response, both activating and calming, and can become overworked and exhausted from the ongoing demands of a busy, stressful life. Constant adrenal hormone release depletes vitamin C.
Vitamin C is also involved in the production of collagen (the ‘glue’ which keeps cells attached to one another), helping you ‘keep it all together’.
Overall, this vitamin helps you withstand the draining and damaging effects of life’s big challenges, such as major change or unexpected disruptions.
This is another important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrient.
It protects cellular integrity throughout the body and reduces the degeneration which leads to abnormal cell wall structure and function.
It is especially important in brain tissue, where it helps maintain efficient cognitive function and memory, helping you engage in efficient problem-solving and forward planning when dealing with life’s challenges.
Vitamin E is a group of nutrients, tocopherols & tocotrienols, whose greatest benefit can be obtained when the group are ingested together, from whole foods, rather than being singled out as alpha-tocopherol (only one of the tocopherols) commonly found in vitamin E supplements.
The best vitamin E sources are fresh whole seeds, nuts and grains, and it is even more concentrated in the oils from these, especially wheatgerm oil. Being an antioxidant, vitamin E oxidises easily, so be sure that your seed oils are cold-pressed and stored in opaque bottles protected from heat and light.
There are now some group vitamin E supplements available (eg. mixed tocopherols), and you should seek these out if you feel the need for a larger amount of vitamin E.
Energy, Endurance and Resilience … Keep On Keeping On
Regular physical activity, in moderation, helps to reduce overall stress and improve your ability to function mentally, emotionally and physically.
Exercise helps to release tension and blocked emotions from muscles. It oxygenates the body (and brain) and improves the health and resilience of all tissues. It increases energy levels, muscular strength and feelings of being able to cope with life’s demands.
Together, Magnesium, Phosphorous, Silica and Vitamin B6, support the nervous system and muscles, improving strength and resilience, and helping maintain a balance between tension and flexibility.
Aside from the physical support and resilience they provide, they help maintain clear communication via nerves and brain cells. This encourages good memory and retention of information, clear thinking, and the ability to act effectively on your intentions. It also helps reduce brain tiredness.
The best sources for this combination of nutrients are whole seeds, nuts, legumes and grains, including the skins & husks for the silica.
Psychological stress reduces iron levels in the blood and decreases red blood cell production. This leads to reduced energy and oxygen supply to body tissues, muscles and the brain, as well as reducing the efficiency of waste removal, all of which further add to feelings of weakness, fatigue and overwhelm.
Iron gives you the energy to move forward. It puts that ‘fire in your belly’ which gives you the motivation to act and create.
The best foods to supply iron are red meats and animal liver. Dark green and red leafy vegetables, as well as dark red-purple veges in general, also supply iron.
Non-haem iron (from plant sources) is not as easily absorbed by the body as haem iron (from animal sources). If you eat your greens and vegetables along with a little bit of red meat, the haem iron will help the vegetable iron to be much better absorbed.
The B group of vitamins are another very important factor in giving you energy and endurance.
In every cell, these vitamins are involved in converting carbohydrates to supply energy for all of the body’s chemical processes, for muscle activity and for brain function.
This intricate involvement with energy production means that a deficiency of B vitamins can lead to fatigue, not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. It diminishes your endurance and ability to deal effectively with life’s constant challenges. It reduces your ability to think clearly, solve problems and take the initiative needed to create positive situations in your life.
Having a good supply of B vitamins also improves your ability to be relaxed and enthusiastic about life.
Optimism, Enthusiasm, and a Relaxed Outlook
Aside from keeping you high in energy, the B vitamins act as co-factors in many of the body’s different metabolic processes and have important roles in maintaining brain & nervous system health.
This affects how ‘stressed’ you feel, and how much tolerance and clarity you have.
The B vitamins help you start the day with enthusiasm, singing and laughter.
They improve your quality of life, lift your spirits, give you that ‘on top of the world’ feeling, and increase morale, stamina and joy.
They help you cope efficiently with all the little upsets, annoyances, frustrations and general demands of daily life, and help you keep a positive frame of mind in the face of these.
In light of their intricate metabolic involvement, a deficiency of B group vitamins can result in all kinds of psychological symptoms, both mild & serious, such as low spirits, loss of initiative, depression, anxiety, irritability, poor memory & concentration, insomnia, chronic tiredness, loss of appetite & enthusiasm, and various psychiatric disturbances.
You can have a bad day, every day, without a good supply of B vitamins.
If your diet consists of junk foods, white bread, white pasta, and refined grains, you’re probably low in this vitamin. You need to regularly eat lots of whole seeds, nuts and legumes, and some wholegrain products (brown bread / pasta / rice) to get enough vitamin B.
If you have a very busy life and stressful lifestyle, and can describe yourself as a ‘walking nervous breakdown’, it’s also a good idea to supplement vitamin B regularly, on top of a normal healthy diet.
Vitamin B makes everything in life seem easier to deal with.
Together, vitamin B6 and magnesium, help keep muscle tension down, reducing overall physical discomfort, and they encourage your ability to relax after a stressful day. They help you let go of the day’s dramas and have a more relaxed sleep, which makes you better able to face the next day.
Magnesium also gives you the will and self-discipline to commit to a challenge, or a path of action, and see it through to success. It makes you level-headed and strong-minded.
With a good supply of magnesium and the whole B group, you can be more at peace with whatever is going on in your life, and feel that you’ll be able to handle it.
You can maintain a relaxed approach to life and have a clearer perspective for better decision-making. This naturally reduces your tension, anxiety, and stress.