Stress: what’s the fuss?


A stress response is normal and offers protection to both humans and animals alike, but only if it is produced in small quantities and is well managed, says local nurse Fiona Flaherty

The prime cause of stress is our high-tech, fast-paced, unrelenting lifestyles, plus economic and personal uncertainties leading to chronic stress as a major cause of ill-health worldwide. 

Cortisol, the main stress hormone, is continually produced and released from the adrenal glands into the bloodstream. Normal cortisol levels are not detrimental. A normal cortisol rhythm should peak in the morning hours, then steadily decline throughout the day, with the lowest levels at night. 

How do I know if I am stressed?

  • You crave carbohydrates and possibly eat more than 50% of your calories after 5pm.
  • You suffer from depression, anxiety, nervousness, irritability and weight gain.
  • You find it difficult recovering from exercise, musculoskeletal injuries and get sick often.
  • You have difficulty sleeping, with vivid dreams, sweating at night and loss of libido. 
  • You feel light-headed upon standing and need caffeine to keep you awake.

If this describes some or all of your symptoms, you are most likely experiencing the effects of stress and subsequent high cortisol levels. A general rule to remedy this is to focus on ‘real’ food. Avoid packaged, heavily processed and non-organic foods as these increase the toxic load to the liver and add stress to the body.

Better food choices include non-starchy vegetables, which have a detoxifying ability, including the cruciferous family (cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and sprouts) plus dark-green leaves. Protein should be included at every meal to help with stabilizing blood sugar and to improve immune function. Fats, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, are anti-inflammatory and found in foods like salmon and chia seeds. Water is also important for everyone, as it will hydrate cells and detoxify the body. 

While exercise is recommended as one of the best forms of medicine, too much exercise at the wrong intensity level and duration can be more inflammatory. It is best to exercise when your cortisol is closest to its normal range. Cortisol levels peak about 40 minutes into exercise, so limit cardiovascular activity to less than 40 minutes at a time.

Sleep helps by reducing cortisol and restoring the adrenal glands. Work towards eight hours of uninterrupted sleep between 10pm and 6am. Artificial light tricks the body into releasing more cortisol, so switch them all off. A weekly massage and dry sauna have also been shown to decrease stress levels.

Fiona Flaherty is a registered nurse and nutritional therapist based in South Woodford and Harley Street. For more information, call 07973 601 862 or visit meducatehealthcare.com 

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