Being healthy is much more than just looking good; it is creating a body that can help you weather a financial storm, an emotional storm or surviving a pandemic. When pushed to the limit and life asks everything from us, we need a reserve in our tank. Just like having money in the bank helps you weather a financial storm. Having impeccable health will help you get through a global storm. We aren’t going to talk exercise and nutrition. Most professionals know their value. In this piece we will target the health benefits of having optimal stress management practices.
Any time we are gripped with angst by challenges beyond our control our sympathetic nervous system is activated. You had a bad disagreement with a family team and now you cannot fall asleep. You spoke to your HR person, but the scenario is still playing out in your head. Three minutes of progressive muscle relaxation and nasal breathing can help to quieten your overactive sympathetic nervous system and will help get you to sleep reports sleep scientist Matthew Walker PhD.1 We say, “easier said than done.”
What’s the science behind the mind body connection? Julia Enders MD author of the book Gut, reports as long as we have a current pressing problem to solve the brain directs all its energy toward finding a solution.2 What gets left out? Digestion. Breakdown and the absorption of nutrients through the body’s 26 feet of gastrointestinal tract takes a load of energy. So digestion slows and voila – the body has more time to extract calories and result…we gain weight.
What kind of studies have been done with stressful careers and the body’s vitality? An article in the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine verified the intense cardiometabolic and psychological disturbances placed on first responders dealing with fight or flight events at work.3 It measured the chronic physical breakdown that happens when the body-mind is in constant activation. The consistent elevation of inflammatory chemicals, the suppression of the immune system and over time, distress and feelings of helplessness. However it showed that fit first responders had lower cortisol released and a lower heart rate response. This meant their systems weren’t thrown off as much as their unfit colleagues. Besides these physical benefits they perceived events as less threatening and were better able to harness a response. This is one of the reasons throughout their history first responders are given access to excellent fitness facilities and health care for themselves. Summary statement – fit people perform better during crisis.
Regular exercise habits also have powerful antidepressant ability. In the American College of Sports Medicine Journal February 2012, they found an inverse relationship between physical activity and depressive symptoms.4 Whenever we have prolonged sympathetic nervous system activation it is fatiguing and leads to a feeling of helplessness. It is one of the most destructive and disabling mental disorders and is mentioned as one of the highest causes of disability in the western world. Sieverdes researchers and associates showed that even moderate exercise intensity is effective for supporting emotional health. You do not have to run a marathon to enjoy the mental health benefits.
How much exercise do we need? It could be a 60 minute Zoom video conference call with your dental team led by a local yoga instructor. If on your own, YouTube has numerous fun total body exercise videos where no equipment is needed.
ACE, the American Council on Exercise, recommends two to three days a week of total body strength training for muscle toning. Flexibility training – at least two days a week for 10 minutes holding a static stretch for 20 – 30 seconds. Aerobic activities? There’s a new science of HIIT or interval training which recommends only minutes a day but the gold standard is 30 minutes from 5 days.5
We like to eat ice cream to calm our nerves. Janet Tomiyama PhD in a UCLA study of 59 women saw those who ate fatty sugary comfort foods when stressed had a down regulated response to stress. From a physiological point of view the body is able to modulate the amount of cortisol in the body. What’s wrong with stress eating? What is wrong with buying your favorite treats or goodies in bulk and then keeping them beside you when you are into your third hour Netflix? The modulated cortisol is good as this catabolic hormone is tempered and your body is brought back to homeostasis. But over the long term… weeks, months and years our pancreas is not able to keep up with the gustatory deluge, elevated A1C levels occur, our arteries thicken and we gain weight.
What’s the best thing to do? Choose an activity other than eating when you have a stressful event happen. For example: shutting off the incessant drama of 24 hour news and going for a short walk. Calling a supportive friend. The simple act of boiling water and adding fresh mint (aids digestion) or cinnamon sticks (helps manage blood sugar) and sipping it would be comforting and bring a mindfulness to consumption activities.
With heightened anxiety and the HPA or Hypothalamic – Pituitary – Adrenal system firing without a break – by evening time the body mind is almost too tired for sleep. High levels of cortisol are incompatible with the pineal gland releasing melatonin. Blasting through a commonly held sleep myth – melatonin doesn’t help you get to sleep it helps you stay asleep. And without its nightly peak, sleep does not hold its usual immune system strengthening power. This is why shift work is called the “graveyard” shift because it slowly but surely damages the worker.
When our schedules are thrown out of whack and we are in the middle of any kind of crisis this oxygen hog of an organ makes even more exhaust. Facing challenges all day, putting out family fires, taking hours of virtual online CE, chatting with family members in other countries all promote the need for neural pruning cleansing at night. The brain hates unfinished business. It needs a nightly reboot and recovery. One of the ways it does this is with the glymphatic system. This highly specialized system flushes cerebral spinal fluid between all the neurons, cleansing and purging free radicals and toxins from the hard-working brain. This process goes on by day but while we sleep it is turned up 10-20 times the daytime rate. And people who don’t sleep well do not tap into the rejuvenating or cleansing effects of this physiological sewer system.
Mindfulness is another way to train the body mind. It is a learned skill and takes practice to do it automatically when our world is rocked by unknowns. Sitting still to relax and meditate is an effective stress management strategy. Herbert Bensen, cardiologist and founder of the Mind Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston had demonstrated circulating amounts of stress hormones decreases with mindfulness exercises.6
Looking beyond the quick fix of alcohol or OTC sleep aids or just barreling through tough times you can see there are some easy “go to” tools for us to process emotion and replenish our physical bodies. By utilizing these selfcare strategies you will not only survive but thrive during the storms of life.
- Walker M. Why We Sleep © 2017 Scribner
- Enders J. GUT © 2014 Greystone Books
- Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine 2010
- Pedersen BK et al. Muscles, exercise and obesity: skeletal muscles as a secretory organ. Nat Rev Endocrinology 2012; (8) 457-465
- American Council on Exercise ACE www.acefitness.org
- O’Brien M The Healing Power of Sleep © 2009 Biomed