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The Science Behind Stress And Self-Care

By Rebecca Kesner

I think we’ve all been there. 

A problem shared is a problem halved

So, we talk about what’s bothering us. And then we hear this:

“Don’t let it get to you. You worry too much. It’s not worth getting stressed about.”

Completely well intentioned, but let's be honest - useless.

Work, family, financial - stress is incoming from all angles, and in small amounts it’s a natural response to the daily challenges. But when it builds up over longer periods of time, it can have harmful effects on both body and mind. A piece of grit in your shoe - you can ignore it for a short time, but if you’re running a marathon, it will cause major problems.

How do we really keep stress in check?

If you’ve started your own research about this, the chances are you’ve been bombarded with targeted ads selling you self-care solutions. A lot of these have little science behind them and when tried, if they don’t work - can lead us to the conclusion that stress is inevitable and it’s just something we have to deal with.

We need the right tools to tackle it with.

Mental health is complex and different for every individual. But help should be accessible. 

The aim of this article is to help better understand the physiological and neurological effects of stress. By understanding what is happening in our brains and bodies, we’re better equipped to choose the right tools for us.

In this article, we’re looking at what stress is. We’ll explore how it can affect the body and mind and what steps we can take to protect our physical and mental health.

What is stress?

Stress: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.

Stress is a natural reaction to challenges and perceived threats. In small doses it’s normal, expected and even beneficial. But if left unchecked, it can have a snowball effect, and may eventually lead to negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, uncertainty, and even depression.

The culprit: cortisol.

Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body respond to stress, but prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol can lead to a range of health issues including weight gain, weakened immune system, and anxiety. It can also influence your cognitive functioning.

Yep. Stress can make you stupid. 

Rather than giving you ‘the edge’, the drive that’s needed to push through and keep going, stress can disrupt the body’s natural balance, and cause it to act in ways you wouldn’t expect. 

When we experience stress, our bodies release this hormone along with adrenaline (epinephrine), which triggers the body's fight-or-flight response. And whilst this was great back in the day when our ancestors were fighting off bears and tigers, our demands are now less life-threatening. The fight or flight response is a maladaptive response to modern day life. 

The Role of Cortisol

 Cortisol: The rapid response unit to stress

Cortisol plays a crucial role in the body's response to dealing with stress. If you think of cortisol as a person, it wears a high-vis jacket, holds a clipboard, and shouts orders at everyone.

When called upon, cortisol’s main job is damage limitation and ensuring efficiencies are made to deal with stressors. It has an access-all-areas pass and it isn’t afraid to use it. Cortisol holds the power to regulate whatever is needed to deal with the situation effectively. 

But cortisol still thinks it’s dealing with a sabre tooth tiger. 

In its efforts to preserve energy and formulate a plan to flee, cortisol tag-teams with adrenaline to take control. 

  • Adrenaline raises your heart rate and blood pressure to boost energy. 
  • Cortisol increases sugars in the bloodstream to help provide an immediate energy source.
  • Cortisol amplifies your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. 
  • Anything non-essential to the fight or flight plan is stood down. Digestion, fertility and immunity are all curbed to streamline the mission.

Cortisol has the best intentions, but too much of it can have adverse effects. 

The Effects of Chronic Stress on The Body

The thing about stress is you can’t touch it. We know it’s there, but it’s like an unknown entity…we can’t pinpoint a start, a finish, or an area it affects most.

It’s not visible - but it’s everywhere.

Stress also manifests itself in physical symptoms. 

In 2021/22, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of the United Kingdom, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health and 55% of all days lost due to work-related ill health.

When we’re talking about day-to-day functioning, stress affects all systems of the body: 

  • Musculoskeletal: When we’re stressed, our muscles tense up. Normally when stress passes, our muscles relax. When tense for long periods of time, it can trigger other reactions in the body. Tension headaches and migraines are associated with chronic muscle tension in the shoulders, neck and head.
  • Respiratory: The respiratory system supplies oxygen to cells and removes carbon dioxide waste from the body. When we’re stressed, the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts which can cause shortness of breath and rapid breathing. This can exacerbate pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Cardiovascular: The heart and blood vessels work together in providing nourishment and oxygen to the organs of the body. Momentary stress can cause an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle. Blood vessels dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and raising blood pressure. Ongoing sustained stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
  • Endocrine: When we experience stress, the brain initiates a sequence of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This is the primary driver of the endocrine stress response. This stimulates production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol. These are important for regulating the immune system and reducing inflammation. Chronic stress can result in impaired communication between the immune system and the HPA axis. This impairment has been linked to the future development of physical and mental health conditions, including chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, depression and immune disorders.
  • Gastrointestinal: The gut has hundreds of millions of neurons that are connected to your brain by a two-way communication superhighway. Butterflies in the stomach? That’s your gut-brain connection. Stress can affect this gut-brain communication, and may trigger pain, bloating and irritation. Your gut is home to millions of bacteria. Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria which in turn can influence mood. 
  • Nervous: Our nervous system includes the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). 

    These have a direct role in physical response to stress. The SNS raises the alarm and contributes to the ‘fight or flight’ response. The PNS calms things down and facilitates recovery. The SNS signals to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. This tag team causes the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels to dilate and glucose levels in the bloodstream to increase.

    Once the stressor has gone, the PNS steps in to take things down a notch. This involves reverting everything the SNS has done. E.g. promoting bronchoconstriction to counteract increased respiration. Over a prolonged period of time, this constant raising and calming of the autonomic nervous system causes fatigue and wear and tear which can take its toll on other bodily systems.
  • Reproductive: Excess amounts of cortisol can affect the normal biochemical functioning of the reproductive system. Reduced libido, low sperm motility and morphology are all linked to stress.

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 The Effects of Chronic Stress on The Brain

When our brains detect stress, it calls upon the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. 

The amygdala structure is the ‘fear centre’ of the brain. It detects stress and tells the HPA axis to respond. When given the signal, the HPA axis instructs the organs to react to stress by going into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

The amygdala also shares a special connection with the prefrontal cortex. One of the jobs of the prefrontal cortex is to regulate our thoughts and emotional responses. 

It’s like that friend that gives really good advice. 

The prefrontal cortex helps the amygdala see things in a less stressful light, resulting in the ease of cortisol production.

The prefrontal cortex isn’t just an agony aunt. 

This area of the brain is implicated in planning, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. And likewise with every other system involved in managing stress, it’s not their only job, and this constant raising and calming causes fatigue in other areas:

  • Structural Changes: Prolonged stress can lead to structural changes in the brain. It can shrink or inhibit the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in memory and learning. 

  • Emotional and Mental Health Issues: Stress can contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. It can increase feelings of irritability, mood swings, and difficulty in regulating emotions. 

  • Impaired Cognitive Function: Chronic stress can impair memory, attention, and decision-making abilities. It makes it harder to concentrate, affects problem-solving skills, and leads to mental fatigue. 

  • Disrupted Sleep Patterns: Stress can interfere with sleep, leading to insomnia or poor-quality sleep. Sleep deprivation can further impact cognitive function, mood, and overall brain health.
  • Increased Risk of Neurodegenerative Diseases: Some research suggests that chronic stress may increase the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's Disease or Parkinson's Disease. 

  • Impact on Neurotransmitters: Stress can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, affecting mood, behavior, and overall mental well-being. 

Ways to Manage and Reduce Stress.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month so self-care is at the top of our to-do list. And there’s plenty of steps we can take to reduce stress in our lives. Here are some tips for stress relief and the reasons why they work:

  • Avoid alcohol: You might want to reach for a glass of something strong in stressful times, but alcohol increases cortisol secretion levels.

  • Exercise regularly: The hippocampus plays a crucial role in how we feel. It’s responsible for emotional processing, learning, and forming short and long-term memories. This area of the brain is responsive to aerobic and resistance exercise. A raised heart rate will increase blood flow to the brain which in turn delivers oxygen.  

    Physical activity also increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is known to help repair and protect brain cells from degeneration as well as help grow new brain cells and neurons.

    A study in Japan, showed even just 10 minutes of light, gentle activity can result in meaningful change in the brain.

  • Mindfulness: Research shows that mindfulness practices such as yoga can affect the anatomy of the brain. The 2019 review of studies showed that physical activity combined with breathing exercises had a positive effect on the hippocampus region that’s involved in learning and memory processing. 

  • Diet: Cortisol can stimulate the appetite and encourage stress-related eating. Choose foods that reduce inflammation in your body. These in turn will reduce cortisol levels. 
    Nuts: replenish B vitamins and potassium which helps lower blood pressure.
    Vegetables including red peppers and leafy greens are packed with vitamin C and magnesium which help lower inflammation and cortisol.
    Omega-3s have been shown to reduce anxiety. Complex carbs like oatmeal are digested more slowly than refined carbs, so they don’t spike blood sugar levels. 

    Look at introducing a prebiotic such as chicory root, garlic, onions and leeks into your diet to feed the friendly bacteria in your gut which will assist the gut-brain connection. 

  • Sleep: It’s housekeeping for the head. Sleep has huge benefits for brain health. During sleep our brain stores new information, solidifies memories, clears out harmful toxins, provides emotional therapy, and even regulates appetite.

  • Supplements: Introducing natural supplements into your diet gives you peace of mind you’re getting what you need:
    Ashwagandha: An adaptogenic herb known for its ability to reduce anxiety and improve mood.
    Rhodiola Rosea: Another adaptogen that can stimulate and sustain cognition-critical neurotransmitters including norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. 
    L-Theanine:  A naturally occurring amino acid that promotes a state of calm, relaxed tranquility while simultaneously sharpening attention.
    Magnesium: An essential mineral involved in over 300 biochemical reactions within the body. It plays a crucial role in managing stress responses.
    Citicoline: Shown to boost brain cell membrane formation by 26% and brain energy by 13.6%. Citicoline also supports neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine, while supplying brain-protective antioxidant activity. 
    Bacopa Monnieri: Bacopa's active bacosides are antioxidants that enhance other brain antioxidants. This synergistic antioxidant activity helps protect brain cells from the age-accelerating effects of free radicals. 

Serious about self-care.

May is mental health awareness month, and to understand the best methods of self-care, it’s crucial to understand the science of stress. When it comes to self-care, knowledge is power. Stress is a natural response, but when it becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on our well-being. 

If we make better choices in our lifestyle, we have more autonomy over our mind and body.  

Life is busy - work, travel, social, family commitments - when you get a moment, it’s easy to prioritize life admin or Netflix over looking after yourself. 

Take small steps, literally. 10-15 minutes of walking can have a meaningful impact. Pushed to fit it all in? Supplements are your friend. Easy, safe and scientifically proven to enhance cognition, Mind Lab Pro® v4.0 stacks 11 research-backed nootropics in precise doses and advanced forms - that complement each other for optimal focus, clarity, memory, mood, and long-range cognitive health.

Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in perfect harmony. - M.K Gandhi

These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

This article is an opinion and explanation of current research given by the author. It is not an expression of a medical diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on as such.

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