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  • Writer's pictureSharon Pitt

The impact of stress

We all experience stress at some time, some more than others. Many of us cope with stress easily and recover quickly, while for others it can take a great toll on our physical and mental well-being.

Some stress is necessary

Stress is necessary for survival. We have all heard of the ‘flight or fight’ response. In life-threatening situations this is vital. Stress can also help us in less serious situations too. Such as before an exam or interview. The production of stress hormones increases your pulse and breathing, prepares your muscles and increases brain activity.

We produce two different stress hormones from our adrenal glands, which sit on top of our kidneys. Adrenaline is the more immediate hormone, which increases the heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, has a longer term effect. It increases glucose in the blood, increases the use of glucose by the brain and helps repair damaged tissues. Whilst doing so, cortisol also shuts down non-essential functions. For example suppressing the immune, digestive and reproductive systems.

Cortisol follows a daily pattern

Cortisol follows a diurnal (or daily) pattern. A sharp rise in cortisol upon waking is what gets us up and going in the morning. Continued production keeps us alert, gradually dropping until reaching their lowest levels in the evening. This gets us ready for sleep.

What happens when stress is long-term?

But what happens when the stress is continuous? Those life-saving reactions then begin to have a negative effect on our health. They disrupt the normal daily pattern of cortisol.

With today’s lifestyle many of us are chronically stressed. For example, trying to juggle many things, such as a career with bringing up a family. Particularly in the current climate, there is much uncertainty and worry over the Covid-19 pandemic. Or perhaps you are just a natural worrier.

Chronic stress affects many different systems within the body and can have an extensive impact, for example:

· Lowering immunity

· Increasing blood pressure

· Increasing the risk of diabetes

· Weight gain – particularly around the middle

· Anxiety and depression

· Memory and concentration problems

· Gastrointestinal/digestive issues

· Sleep problems

· Fertility problems

With the wide-reaching effects of stress on the body, it is important to identify and deal with stress as soon as possible. Anything you can do to reduce chronic stress and the inappropriate continuous production of cortisol will relieve the impact on these systems. This will not only improve your long-term health but also make you feel better.

Stress takes many forms

Stress can take many forms. Psychologically-induced long-term stress can be caused by many factors, from school or work stresses to money, family and social worries. However, less known is the fact that stress can also be caused by physiological factors. For example, poor blood sugar control can result in excess production of cortisol. Whatever the cause of the stress, the body will react in the same way, by over-producing cortisol.

While the initial response to ongoing stress is to produce too much cortisol, eventually your adrenals may not produce enough. This results in adrenal fatigue. This isn’t the same as the medical condition, adrenal insufficiency. However, many people with adrenal fatigue benefit from an improved diet and balanced lifestyle to help with their symptoms.

Measuring cortisol levels

Many health problems are rooted in long-term stress. The first step on your road to recovery is to assess the health of your adrenals. This can be done by measuring cortisol levels on waking and over the course of the day. The best way to assess these levels is by saliva tests, which your nutritionist can organise.

Identifying the underlying cause

The second step in managing stress is to work with a practitioner to identify the underlying cause or causes of your stress. This is often both lifestyle and diet-related. Then you will be ready to make important changes to your diet and lifestyle, which will help you restore your health and get you back on track.

Dr Sharon Pitt is a registered nutritionist at Nutrition First, with 18 years’ experience. Nutrition First is a small and personal nutrition consultancy providing expert nutrition advice, based on sound scientific evidence.

At Nutrition First we see patients with a whole range of conditions at all stages of life, as well as helping those who simply wish to maintain and optimise their health.

We can provide you with a tailored plan to help you assess and manage stress. Contact us at Nutrition First to see how we can help you.

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