Health & Lifestyle
University of Canberra alumnus and Accredited Practicing Dietitian Robbie Clark shares his tips for beating chronic stress.
As humans, we are not strangers to stress. It is a by-product of our busy lifestyles and because many of us move through life at such a relentless pace, stress is something we have learnt to live with.
Whether it is emotional, psychological, physical, chemical or nutritional, our bodies respond to stress in the same way. It wears down our health reserves, making us more susceptible to health complications.
If stress is chronic, it is difficult to overcome. We suffer a lot longer as our body responds to its effects.
Chronic stress has been associated with biological ageing, oxidative stress and inflammation, and suppression or abnormal regulation of immune function. It can impair our brain structure and it increases our susceptibility to infection and conditions such as depression, heart disease and various types of cancer.
Stress can lead to serious mental and physical health problems. It can also take a toll on your relationships and affect your performance at work. A build-up of stress over time may cause you to become more isolated and you may find yourself avoiding social situations as they may make you feel more anxious. This can cause a breakdown of friendships and support networks, which are important during stressful times.
MUSCULOSKELETAL SYSTEM - Muscle tension is a reflex reaction to stress. Chronic stress causes your muscles to be in a constant state of tension which can trigger other reactions in your body such as headaches and migraines.
RESPIRATORY SYSTEM - Your respiratory rate increases when you respond to stress, leading to heavier breathing which can have major effects on those who suffer from asthma or lung disease. More intense breathing can trigger panic attacks.
CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM - Acute stress leads to a higher heart rate and stronger contractions, causing the blood vessels and the heart to dilate. This is due to an increase in the stress hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
ENDOCRINE SYSTEM - Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands and while it is needed to maintain normal physiological processes during times of stress, prolonged elevated cortisol levels can lead to hypertension, glucose intolerance, diabetes, fatigue, muscle loss and increased infections.
GASTROINTESTINAL SYSTEM - Stress impacts on your digestive function by impairing gastrointestinal barrier function and altering intestinal microflora. You may experience symptoms such as nausea, cramping, gas, pain, bloating, diarrhoea or even constipation.
REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM - Chronic stress in men can affect testosterone production, sperm production and maturation, and may even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. In women, stress can affect menstruation and may cause absent or irregular menstrual cycles, more painful periods and a change in the length of a woman’s cycle.
The good news
Stress is a process, not a diagnosis. We experience stress when there is an imbalance between the demands being made on us and our resources to cope with those demands. The level and extent of stress a person may feel has a lot to do with their attitude to a particular situation.
To avoid the negative impact of stress on your central nervous, immune, musculoskeletal, digestive, endocrine, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, it is important to implement some stress management strategies.
You can reduce stress in a number of ways. Common strategies include yoga, meditation, deep breathing, massage, hypnosis, exercise, planning a holiday and seeking professional help.
Five ways to manage stress
A diet consisting of unprocessed foods, healthy fats, vegetable or fish protein, seven or more brightly coloured vegetables and fruits every day, whole grains, nuts and plenty of water will boost antioxidants, vitamin and mineral intake and reduce inflammation caused by stress.
Supplements can assist with various hormone imbalances that contain natural nutrients and herbs that have been clinically proven to assist your body in coping with stress and associated side effects.
Quitting smoking will greatly help your efforts to reduce stress. This behaviour is heightened under times of stress, as it increases inflammation which exacerbates the body’s response to stress.
Exercise and appropriate rest and recovery are very important. Aim for low to moderate intensity sessions as exercise increases cortisol levels. Aim to exercise for 30 minutes most days with as much incidental activity as possible.
It is important that you sleep for approximately seven to eight hours a night. Avoid eating, exercising and drinking alcohol or caffeine within two hours of going to bed. Sleep in a dark, quiet, cool room and use ear plugs or an eye mask if necessary.
Robbie Clark completed a Master of Nutrition & Dietetics at the University of Canberra in 2010. He is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and sports nutritionist with more than 10 years’ experience and is the director and co-founder of TheHealthClinic.com.au, Australia’s first online nutrition and allied health clinic. Throughout his career, Robbie has worked in clinical community dietetics and health, corporate health and private practices. He is an expert on men’s health and is regularly featured in the media.
Words by Caitlin Judd