Stress is a human reaction to life’s challenges – everyone’s got it! What really counts for good health is how well you cope with stress every day.
During the hectic holiday season when it’s common to skip meals, sleep less or overindulge in rich party foods, there’s no better time to learn how to be stress hardy. Making the effort to develop positive stress-coping habits will allow you to feel strong, focused and ready to handle whatever life throws your way, not only throughout the holiday season but all year long.
To develop the best possible defense against stress, it’s important to understand what stress is and how it impacts the body. Stress is the body’s response to any physical, emotional or environmental demand made upon it. Stress isn’t something to be feared but is a natural part of living. We can’t avoid stress, but the encouraging news is we can dramatically strengthen our body’s ability to adapt to it.
All of us have a number of personal but unique stressors that we experience in a given day. Something that causes distress in one individual – driving, for example – might not even affect another. Regardless of what brings on the stress response in each of us, once it’s evoked, the body goes through a reaction process that involves three distinct stages.
Stage 1: The Alarm Reaction. Often called the “fight or flight response,” this stage is our body’s immediate reaction to a perceived threat. Whether that threat is something physical (such as a car swerving toward us) or something psychological (such as a person verbally attacking us), the adrenal glands – our “stress glands” – kick into action, releasing a flood of hormones that provides us with a burst of energy. Our blood pressure and heart and breathing rates all speed up, and blood sugar levels rise as the liver releases stored sugar into the bloodstream. All of this primes us for quick action, but when the danger passes, our heightened alertness ceases and the body returns to its normal function.
Stage 2: The Resistance Stage. If stress continues for a long time or if we’re exposed to a continual onslaught of stressful events, the body shifts into a stage of resistance to mobilize itself for a longer fight. During this stage, the adrenal glands draw on nutrient and energy reserves to increase their size and function and provide the body with longer-term energy. This adaptation mechanism is necessary and helpful for a while, but it takes its toll on the body. When the stress continues for too long, cell-damaging free radicals are formed in the body, and the adrenal glands and cardiovascular and immune systems become exhausted from being in a constant state of arousal.
Stage 3: The Exhaustion Stage. When the body’s nutrient and energy reserves become depleted from unrelenting stress, the body or specific organs fall into a state of exhaustion. In this last stage of our body’s adaptation to stress, the adrenal glands can no longer function sufficiently because of the excessive demands placed on them, resulting in chronic fatigue and a diminished ability to cope with stress.
The body’s short-term stress-handling mechanisms were designed, so to speak, for our ancestors, who faced short periods of physical danger – occasional run-ins with ferocious animals, for example. Although we don’t normally face this type of stress today, we actually experience a greater stress load than did our ancestors in the form of an accumulation of physical, environmental, emotional and even spiritual stress factors. These elicit bodily stress responses which tax our overall health. Fortunately, we now have the advantage of knowing how to make ourselves more resilient to the extra stress we face. By developing stress hardiness, we actually can delay the onset of the stress response, help diminish the harmful effects of stress and be better fortified to cope with life’s unexpected changes and pressures.
Avoid Stressful Substances
The first step in developing stress hardiness is to avoid unnecessary substances that increase the body’s stress load. These include drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and even chemical additives contained in processed foods. Decades ago, Selye discovered that exposure to toxic chemicals elicited the body’s stress response and caused enlarged, overworked adrenal glands and suppression of the immune system. Everybody knows working too hard and sleeping too little are both stresses that should be avoided whenever possible, but fewer people are aware that refined processed foods with preservatives and additives are just as much a source of subtle but continuous stress on the body.
Another common stress inducer to avoid is caffeine. Although caffeine-containing foods such as coffee and chocolate may seem to give us a lift when we’re stressed, they deplete nutrient stores and often increase nervousness, especially in anxiety-prone people.
Balance Your Blood Sugar
The foods we eat every day may play the most crucial role in whether or not we’re stress hardy. A diet rich in nutrient-dense natural foods is essential to provide resistance against stress because the body uses large amounts of nutrients during these times. In contrast, a diet that consists of nutrient-robbed refined carbohydrates makes us less resilient to stress.
Like caffeine, refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour products rob the body of its nutrient reserves and weaken the adrenal glands. This makes people feel more tired and less able to cope with stress in the long run.
Maintaining balanced blood sugar levels in the body is the key to stress hardiness.A balanced blood sugar promotes increased mental focus, better moods and more long-term energy. To maintain blood sugar balance, reduce all forms of sugar in the diet (even concentrated fruit sugars),eat adequate protein and fat, and replace pasta and bread with low-starch vegetables such as broccoli, greens and zucchini. Protein is a particularly important nutrient because it supports adrenal function, staves off sugar cravings and the body uses large amounts during stress.
Get Support from Supplements
A diet that minimizes wide blood sugar swings can go a long way toward building the body’s resistance to stress.Nutrient supplements are essential to support optimal adrenal function and stress hardiness. This is because the body needs significantly higher amounts of nutrients when it’s under stress. For example, it can need as much as two-and-a-half times more vitamin C than usual.
To give the body a solid nutritional foundation to encourage resistance to stress,try high-potency multiple vitamin/mineral as well as additional potassium, vitamin C and pantothenic acid to prevent adrenal atrophy and exhaustion. B-complex vitamin and the minerals zinc and manganese also help increase stress hardiness. The clan of B vitamins, known as the “antistress vitamins,” supports nerve function. Both zinc and manganese help the body absorb and utilize the B vitamins.
If you’re extremely “stressed-out” or have poor adrenal function, supplements of animal-based adrenal glandular extract can provide additional support.
Glandulars supply natural enzymes, proteins, nutrients and hormone precursors that help the adrenals boost hormone production. Under a doctor’s supervision, start with a low dosage of adrenal extract and gradually increase the amount you take until you notice a stimulatory effect, he says. Then decrease the dosage to just below that level. As the adrenal glands rebuild and you become more stress hardy, you can slowly reduce the amount you take until you no longer require the extra nutritional support.
Another way to improve the function of your adrenal glands is to take an herbal adaptogen such as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) or Panax ginseng (Chinese ginseng). An adaptogen is a tonic that normalizes body function and helps make people more resistant to stress. Both types of ginseng fit this description. Both Siberian and Panax ginseng possess balancing, antistress actions.
How To Cultivate Endurance
Like ginseng, regular exercise reduces stress and promotes stress hardiness. Research shows it elevates mood and decreases anxiety and tension.
Consistency in exercise appears to be the key when it comes to stress hardiness. Although exercise initially places stress on the body, regular exercise encourages the body to adapt and become more resilient. To gain exercise’s significant benefits, he suggests doing an activity you enjoy for a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes at least three times a week. If you haven’t been exercising regularly, start slowly and proceed at your own pace. Brisk walking may be the very best exercise because it has a low risk of injury. Injury, as you may have guessed, is another stress to the body.
The Psychology of Stress
As most of us know though, optimal health also depends on factors that are mental, emotional and spiritual in nature. Although stress from any source always affects the body, it’s not enough to be physically strong. Research shows that to be truly resistant to stress, it’s important to be psychologically hardy.
Three C’s” – that keep people well even when they’re under great stress:
1. People who have hardy personalities see stress or change as an inevitable part of life and as a challenge or opportunity for growth instead of a threat.
2. They have a deep commitment to their work and personal relationships, which gives them meaning, direction and excitement.
3. They feel they can control problems either through their actions or through their attitudes toward those events.
A positive attitude toward stress and life in general, then, appears to be the critical starting point to stress resistance. If we combine an optimistic outlook with optimal nutrition and regular exercise, we create a formidable combination to combat the negative effects of stress. Just as germs don’t make us sick if we have strong immune systems, stress won’t make us ill if we’re mentally and physically hardy.