Girl in BC wearing sequined sweater
You might think stress isn't a problem for you. Though to really assess the role stress plays in your life, you need to fully understand the various ways in which stress can present itself. It can be immediate and short lived, such as narrowly missing a crash on the highway. Or it can be chronic, lasting anywhere from days to years, as we're faced with a divorce, an illness, loss of a job or a death in the family. Here are a few interesting, and overlooked, examples of stress that might surprise you plus ways they could be sabotaging your health:
1. Get social to reduce stress
A powerful study completed by researchers at Northwestern University showed just how strongly our social and emotional experiences affect our hormonal balance and overall health. Subjects who went to bed feeling lonely, sad or overwhelmed exhibited high levels of cortisol (linked to abdominal-fat storage) and a low mood the next day. This study was the first to prove that experiences influence stress hormones just as stress hormones influence experiences. Interestingly, individuals who got out of bed with low cortisol reported fatigue throughout the day.
Bottom line: Whether you’re active on social networks (such as Facebook) or were thinking of joining a social meet-up group - it's a great way to lower cortisol and reduce stress.
2. Plug your ears to cut cortisol
It's true — loud noises boost stress levels. If you live in a noisy area, or frequently travel, I recommend trying earplugs or noise-cancelling earphones to cut cortisol spikes caused by noise. Taking this small extra precaution can give you a surprising leg-up on stress. Not to mention, you'll be amazed how much better you feel at the end of a flight or a day's work without the added stress of sounds hammering in your ears.
3. Improve your commute for less ab fat
Millions of North Americans commute to work every day. If you're one of them, stop to consider how your daily travels could be contributing to belly fat (and not just because of all that sitting). Researchers from Cornell University have found a link between a longer commute to work, whether by car or by train, and greater feelings of frustration, irritation and stress. The research team measured the salivary cortisol of 208 commuters taking trains from Jersey to Manhattan. All of the subjects had routinely high cortisol readings, proving that commuting is a stressful aspect of work for many people. For some, commuting can be the most stressful aspect. Certainly we need to consider commuting stress as an important, although often overlooked, part of environmental health.
Bottom line: If you’re destined for a lengthy commute each day, reduce your cortisol levels by filling your iPod with your favourite songs (and listening with noise cancelling earphones), picking up an e-reader, downloading movies onto your iPad, or even journaling. You may need to try a few different modalities to get your stress down, but the goal is to arrive at your destination calm, cool and relaxed.
4. Make it short, sweet and intense at the gym
Whether we engage in strength training or aerobic activity, cortisol is released in proportion to the intensity of our effort. Both high-intensity and prolonged exercise cause increases in cortisol, which can remain elevated for hours following a workout.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina have linked strenuous, fatiguing exercise to higher cortisol and lower thyroid hormones. Remember, thyroid hormones stimulate your metabolism, so depletion is not a desired effect of exercise! The same study found thyroid hormones remained suppressed even 24 hours after recovery, whereas cortisol levels remained high throughout the same period. As you can see, more is not always better.
Bottom line: For the right balance, I recommend short, intense, 30 minute strength training sessions three times a week plus at least one yoga session.
5. Put the bliss back in your marriage
Professor Janice Kiecolt-Glaser from Ohio State University has made some interesting discoveries about stress hormones and (allegedly) happily married couples. She analyzed cortisol in newlywed couples after they had a 30-minute conversation about a few areas of disagreement in their marriage. The results showed high cortisol and weakened immune-system markers. After a transition period, Kiecolt-Glaser had the couples talk about how they met, what attracted them to each other and other positive aspects of their relationship. The cortisol levels fell, as expected, in 75 percent of the participants.
Bottom line: This is a great argument for why you should keep the communication open with your partner and if needed, head to counselling to improve the relationship - remember, your cortisol depends on it.
Chronic stress can also greatly reduce your short-term memory and ability to focus. Be sure to manage it with the tips provided, plus consider deep breathing, regular sleep or massage for daily management.
Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet. Her newest release, The Carb Sensitivity Program, is available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.
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