Nutritional biochemist Dr Libby Weaver on how to identify chronic stress, but also how to avoid it through biochemical, nutritional and emotional methods.
Ongoing stress can affect our body in myriad ways, but many people may not necessarily link this to the changes they experience in their body. For example, it’s easier to explain away a bloated tummy as the result of something we’ve eaten, than it is to connect it to the pressure we were feeling to meet endless tight work deadlines, the worries niggling away at us about our weight or health, or an uncomfortable conversation we had.
Yet, the latter scenarios can all be just as likely to have affected our digestion as the actual food we consumed. Perhaps even more so.
Another reason why many people don’t necessarily connect the dots between their stress and their symptoms, is because so many have now come to view their consistently high stress levels as ‘normal’, as well as the recurring symptoms they experience (which may be common, but not normal). Or, they perceive that others around them have more stress to deal with, so they’ll often say that their stress “isn’t that bad” or that they have nothing really to complain about.
So, what should you look out for when considering if stress, and feelings of being overwhelmed, might be affecting your body and health (provided other more serious reasons have been ruled out)?
Signs and symptoms of chronic stress include:
- Low energy
- Sugar cravings
- Feeling irritable or anxious
- Reflux and indigestion
- Bloating, tummy cramps and/or changes to bowel habits
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Waking up unrefreshed, despite enough hours in bed
- Feeling tired but wired
- More frequent infections – you seem to catch whatever is going around
- Low libido
- Thinning hair
- Irregular periods or periods stopping altogether (and pregnancy and other causes are ruled out)
- Premature ageing of the skin – you notice changes in your skin that seem to be occurring more rapidly than would be expected with the natural ageing process.
Of course, there can be other factors contributing to many of these symptoms and if they are unexplained and ongoing, it’s best to check in with your doctor. However, if you suspect that stress is likely playing a role, there is so much you can do to start to address this.
In my work, I like to consider any health challenge through three lenses – the biochemical, the nutritional and the emotional. So, let’s explore how you can apply this to help your body better cope with the demands of our fast-paced, modern life.
How you can help your body biochemically
From a biochemical perspective, you can influence the stress hormone production in your body through how you breathe. Long, slow breaths that move your belly out on the inhale, and back in towards your spine on the exhale, activate the calm arm of our nervous system, which results in a decrease in stress hormone levels. This truly can make such a difference, plus it’s free and can be done anywhere.
Of course, the goal is to produce fewer stress hormones in the first place so truly getting to the heart of what daily stress is really all about for you can be vital as well, which often blends the biochemical with the emotional pillar. For example, when you run late and if this stresses you out, are you really just worried about what the person on the receiving end of your running late might think of you? Many of our daily stresses stem from concerns about the disapproval of others although it may not look like that on the surface.
How you can help your body nutritionally
When you’re churning out stress hormones, it’s especially important that you’re including a variety of whole foods to provide your body with the nourishment it needs. Nutrients of particular importance include magnesium, vitamin C and B-group vitamins.
How you can help your body emotionally
We can do all the ‘right’ things in terms of nutrition and incorporating restorative practices, but if we’re not turning off the tap on our stress, so to speak – or at least turning it down to a dribble – it’s going to be difficult for us to truly get the relief we need. So, the emotional part involves pulling back the curtains on our everyday stresses and what is actually at the heart of them.
Exploring our perceptions of pressure and urgency can be so vital in helping us to change how we view and respond to potentially stressful situations, and can ultimately transform how we experience each day.
Dr Libby has just released a new book called The Invisible Load: a guide to overcoming stress and overwhelm. You can read more about it at www.drlibby.com