1 July 2018

Newsletter Volume 1: The Stress Factor

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Newsletter Volume 1: The Stress Factor

This past few weeks we’ve been doing a lot of research on the impacts of chronic stress on the mind and body, uncovering how stress-related hormones like cortisol and adrenalin can effect sleep quality, weight, emotion regulation, memory, muscle breakdown or growth, and appetite…just to name a few!

How stress triggers a response

Have you heard of the SAM (Sympathomedullary Pathway) axis and the HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal) axis? Both play important roles when responding to stress.

The first, SAM axis, sends a message from the brain to the body to increase adrenalin by as much as 500% in response to perceived danger or threat. This adrenalin then causes our heart rate to rise rapidly, blood pressure to increase, and endorphins to be released, helping us react swiftly. Our immune system is also deployed into action in preparation for injury or impending infection.

The second, the HPA axis, produces cortisol following the huge spike in adrenalin. In the short term, this has an extremely beneficial impact helping to improve our responsiveness and regulate our immune system, preventing it from becoming overactive or destructive. In the long term however,it’s a very different story.

What does cortisol overload do?

Constant cortisol elevation leads to immune system suppression. This means we’re more likely to catch viruses and infections, causing sickness. It can also make our cells resistant to the actions of cortisol, leading to issues such as auto-immune disorders* and ongoing inflammation.

Other complications associated with long-term cortisol production include disrupted sleep patterns, muscle breakdown, excessive gastric acid causing heartburn and reflux, altered brain chemistry, digestive issues, infertility, increased fat storage, increased appetite, reduced sensitivity to insulin, and reduced levels of human growth hormone (HGH).

*Auto-immune disorders include Coeliac Disease (gluten sensitivity), Crohn’s Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Psoriasis, Graves Disease, Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Asthma… and more!

Stress and exercise: what not to do.

It’s not uncommon to hear that exercise can assist with the management of both acute and ongoing stress. What and how much exercise however, is a more hotly debated issue.

Our bodies are constantly trying to reach a level of equilibrium or balance. If we are training too hard, at a high intensity, several times per week; it is likely that we may suffer from exercise-induced stress, where levels of cortisol in our system are too high and we’re feeling the effects of burnout. Compound this with stress incurred from work, family, technology, societal pressures…etc and we have a recipe for disaster.

If you are feeling the affects of stress, and are looking at exercise to help you, perhaps re-evaluate your balance of training. Are you doing too much of one thing? Do you have an adequate amount of stretching and low intensity classes like Yoga, Pilates or even Meditation to balance out the potential impacts associated with pro-longed high intensity activity? Other factors you can look at modifying to promote the calming effects of exercise include:

  • Training in environments surrounded by natural light and trees, or in cooler lit spaces with soft music
  • Training with friends or in a group to promote release of feel good endorphins
  • Switching your training to the morning before work, instead of at night, when ideally cortisol is decreasing to allow for adequate sleep, rest and recovery.

"Our bodies are constantly trying to reach a level of equilibrium... training too often at a high intensity can cause exercise-induced stress."

Hydrotherapy and stress

Benefits of training in water not only include increasing the pain free range of motion when compared to land based exercises, but also promotion of strength and flexibility while minimising impact on joints. This is especially beneficial for sufferers of Osteoarthritis and Osteoporosis.

In addition to this, studies have proven that immersion in water can result in a corresponding heart rate reduction of between 10-25%, and a 50% heart rate reduction within 30 seconds of swimming underwater. This is incredible news for anyone suffering from effects of chronic stress (chronic stress will increase your resting heart rate, thus increasing susceptibility to heart conditions), and are looking to exercise to enhance relaxation.

The science behind this lies in understanding something called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve acts as a direct interface between the brain, and key organs and systems. Basically it keeps us “in sync”, and also has the ability to calm our bodies down following the fight-or-flight state (stress) induced by adrenaline.

A Note from The Wellness Workshop
Looking for stress management strategies for your workplace? The evidence-based Stress Management Workshop provides a range of practical, simple and effective tools to reduce the symptoms of stress, risk of burnout and better manage the overall response to perceived stress.

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