You all know that feeling you have when you have a close call with your car,
or you almost fall down that flight of stairs. That feeling in the pit of your stomach, or maybe that tingling you have in the scalp, the feeling that your hair is standing on end. Some call it fear, some call it stress, some call it fight or flight response, but in the end it’s just a chemical reaction to environmental factors. High stress situations elicit response from the brain and endocrine system, releasing hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine. These hormones act to give your body the extra energy it needs to deal with the external threat. As humans evolved, our bodies honed this process, and thus we survived as a species and evolved to a point where we really don’t very often need this reaction, but it persists none-the-less.
Stress can be a good thing, when we are exercising at a moderate or high level of intensity, stress response helps give us the extra energy we need to keep working at that level, and yes, during those rare occasions when we really do need that burst of energy, stress allows for it. So why is stress normally attributed with many health risks today? Because stress does not need to be brought on by physical threats, it can be triggered by anything that a person finds disturbing or frightening. And when stress is brought on by these types of fear based emotions, it can leave us at high stress levels for extended periods, with little or no reduction of hormone levels that would accompany the physical threat stress was originally intended for. When we remain at high levels of stress, the hormone release continues. These hormones tell the body to keep the energy levels at the muscle site high, and in some cases block the helpful hormones normally released in the body to burn off these extra energy levels. This leads to things such as high blood pressure, immune system degradation, ulcers, metabolic problems, digestive tract problems, energy depletion, and lower levels of testosterone (for men) or estrogen (for women).
In keeping with my normal theme, when trying to lose weight or reduce body fat, long term high stress levels are a killer (literally). These hormones play havoc with your ability to accurately predict your resting metabolic rate, and usually end up in reduced fat loss over the long term. With no way to easily attribute this uncharacteristic lack of weight loss, some may think they are “doing everything right”, many people turn to diet drugs, extreme diets, super intense and long exercise regimens, or extreme calorie deficits to fix the issue; ironically, these types of behavior generally end up raising stress levels even higher, further hampering weight loss. Many times the end result is depression and malnutrition. Other times the end is a chronic disease or catastrophic injury resulting from one of the above behaviors. If stress could speak, it’s favorite quote would be “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” from The Wizard of Oz, because stress is difficult to pinpoint, and usually medical professionals diagnose the negative results of stress induced illness as the root cause, not as the symptom which they actually are. More and more, doctors are being trained to look deeper than just the symptoms, and into the lifestyle that may cause the problem.
So how do we deal with stress? Sometimes prescription drugs are a solution, but usually this is a last resort. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress, moderate or high intensity exercise releases endorphins into the body, giving a feeling of joy and pleasure, which lowers stress levels. Many times a person simply needs to learn to deal with the issues that are causing their stress instead of putting it off, and yet other times relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga are the solution. Stress relief can be as simple as a good book and some time with the phone unplugged. Of course one of the BEST ways to combat stress is to have a full, restful night’s sleep.