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Lifestyle and stress


Written by:
Nikolaj Lehman( www.jui.dk )
Life style coach, educator and speaker within health etc., personal coach, Cand. Polyt. in chemistry of environment.

A healthy and good life is not just a life without diseases. There are many well people that are not healthy or have a good life. A good life is a life on the top – a life where you enjoy your body’s full capacity. It is surprisingly few people that are aware of the fact that they only use and experience a very limited part of their full body capacity. And even more surprisingly, only few of those who are aware of it, actually do something about it.

Everybody has experienced those days where everything feels frictionless. You are in a good mood, feel floating, well and full of energy. Your work is exciting, you enjoy things, you are tolerant and everything seems to come together. This is the way you should feel most of the time, and it is actually possible. It is all about energy. It takes energy to be well, energy to work, energy to take care of the family, energy to perform physical activities, energy to be happy, energy to be social, energy to eat properly etc. Moreover, you must have energy reserves to resist possible negative influences and incidents.

The important thing is to accumulate as much energy as possible. This can be achieved by building up energy, but definitely also by limiting energy loss. Energy loss can be reduced by removing possible leaks (inappropriate lifestyle, diet, stress etc.) and by optimising your energy consumption. It is not possible to live without using energy, but energy can be used in many ways. You can choose to ride to work on a bicycle with a defect wheel, or on a bicycle with straight and balanced wheels: the route is the same, the energy consumption is different.

There are many forms of energies. Food is energy, for good or bad. Sleep is energy. Money is energy (You are in a slightly better mood when the pay check rolls in on your account). So saying, you can build up and save energy in several different ways. All influences, which your body is exposed to every day (food, sleep, stress, exercise, thoughts and so on) are some sort of energy. The question is just, how this energy is affecting the body – positively or negatively? Therefore, it is of great importance to have an understanding of the way your body is reacting to different influences.

The body can be regarded as a bank account, where there is a fixed amount of resources (money) available at any time. These resources are used to perform vital functions as well as daily functions. The amount of available resources on the account is determined by the sum of earnings and expenses on the account. Earnings, which will make the resources of your body rise, are e.g. healthy and nutritious food, enough water and sleep, physical activity and a positive mind. Expenses, which are deducted from the account, include nutrient-poor food, too little water, lack of activity, stress, over consumption of inappropriate products (alcohol, tobacco, etc.).

The body has an amazing ability of maintaining and rebuilding itself. It can therefore put up with excesses, as alcohol once in a while, sweets or for that matter hard exercise. However, it can only maintain itself proportional with the amount of resources it holds. The greater amount of resources available, the greater becomes the possibility of maintenance and rebuilding. In relation to picturing the body as a bank account, it corresponds to the body having a fixed interest rate, which provides a return proportional with the balance on the account. If you have a greater amount of earnings than expenses on the account, the balance will rise as well as the interest yield, which will make the balance rise again. If you ensure to reduce the amount of negative influences (expenses) and increase the amount of positive influences (earnings), you build up a solid account. The body can always become better, if it holds the required resources to work with. The body would then be better at tolerating small excesses without putting the account in danger.

If the resources of the account decrease (caused by too large expenses), the return of the same fixed interest rate becomes lower, leaving the body with less to work with. As long as the interest yield is larger than the expenses, which means that you have a great amount of resources in advance, your body’s account will not be in danger. This shows how important it is to have energy! On the contrary, if the expenses become larger than what the interest rates can bring in, it will give rise to a definite fall in resources. If talking about fixed expenses, the fall in resources becomes more significant as the return of interest rates become lower and lower.

It is thus about optimising the turnover on your account: reducing expenses consisting of a lower energy loss, and increasing earnings by increasing the processing of energy. However, in many cases it is primarily about reducing the amount of influences that causes any form of stress to your body. Stress comes from different sources and has many shapes, and is not only the type we know form work. Stress can enter your body from physical exercise, food, water, sleep etc. In order to know how a given influence is perceived by your body as stress, you need to understand the body’s physiological reaction on influences, the so-called stress mechanism.

Stress mechanism

The body is a fantastic organism, partly because of its complexity and partly because of its incredible integrity. An integrated system is characterised by having a perfect interaction between all parts of the system. Even though the body consists of many different systems (muscles, organs, immune system, nervous system and so on), they are fully integrated with each other in a close team work of chemical, biochemical, electrical and mechanical processes.

Countless processes that help in maintaining life are taking place in the body every second. These processes are controlled by the above mentioned interaction between the body’s physiological systems. All systems are mutually addicted and sensitive, which means that an impact of one system has influence on one or several of the other systems. It is like a series of connected tubs filled with water: if you pour more water in one of the tubs, the water level rises in the others as well. An example of mutual impact is the thought of a forthcoming performance, like an exam. The thought influence the heart, which begin to beat faster and a feeling is spreading in your stomach. Your sense of hunger is affected and your craving for sweets might increase. This well-known situation clearly reflects the interaction between different parts of the body.

We expose our body daily to a long series of influences, like physical activity, noise, cold, warmth etc. Every influence will push your body more or less out of balance, and the body’s reaction will to the extent possible be to redress this balance. Every impact on your body can be considered as a type of stress, which can either have a positive or negative influence on the body. Actually, it is not really the stress/influence itself that is positive or negative, but rather the body’s response to it. As an example, physical activity does give a positive response in some cases, whereas in other cases it results in injuries from excessive load.

Even though the word stress has a negative connotation, it is used here as a term for any kind of influence, no matter if it has a positive or negative impact. The mechanism behind a body’s stress is in many cases the same regardless of the stress type. However, as we will see in the following, it is most often the duration of the response to the stress, which has importance for whether the stress will have a positive or negative result.

The stress response

In order to understand the mechanism behind the stress response and its impact on body functions, it is necessary to describe the body’s different physiological systems, such as the nervous system, hormone system, immune system and son on.
The nervous system and the hormone system are your body’s communication systems, which take place between the brain, spinal cord and the rest of the body. Every action in the body, conscious or unconscious, usually begins with activating the nervous system that sends a message through nerves, to a specific place as an organ (liver, brain, heart etc), a gland (adrenal, pancreas etc), or to another tissue (muscle, skin etc). The message results in the release of a specific hormone, which can be considered as a chemical messenger. Following, the hormone binds to the surface of cells/tissue and starts a specific process, which can be a muscle contraction, digestion, a feeling, or release of another hormone that has its effect another place. Every hormone give rise to a specific process in the relevant tissue, and there are many different kinds of hormones.

Processes in your body are more or less either conscious or unconscious. For example, muscle contractions that give rise to movement are normally conscious while controlling the digestion is unconscious. The nervous system can thus be divided into two systems, namely the somatic nervous system that controls conscious actions, and the autonomic nervous system that controls the more or less unconscious actions (even though the activation of the heart’s pulsation happens unconsciously, it is possible to make it rise consciously by e.g. thinking of something exciting). The function of the autonomic nervous system is to give us energy to move, or think of other things. If we had to control our breathing, heart, digestion, sleep, immune system etc. consciously, we would not have the energy to do much else!

The autonomic system can be divided into further two subsystems that are each others opposites. One system, called sympaticus controls all processes that are connected to activity, emergency, or what you believe is emergency. Sympaticus is activated when we get up in the morning, when we are physically active, stressed, afraid, must defend ourselves, are mentally sharp and analytical, or are about to have sex. In such situations, sympaticus sends messages that release hormones, which make heartbeats and breathing to rise, heighten blood pressure, metabolise fat deposits and carbohydrate deposits, as well as tissue in your body. This process happens in order to mobilise the energy (called catabolic process), send blood to working muscles, increase sweat production or give goose bumps. Sympaticus if often referred to as the ”fight or flight” system, and refers to situations where the need is to be energetic.
As an opposite, we find parasympaticus that is sympaticus’ diametrical opposite. They are as day and night. Parasympaticus controls processes connected to calmness and a relaxed condition, sleep, digestion and creativity. Messages from parasympaticus and the attendant hormones make the heart beat slower, reduce the blood pressure, send blood away from moving muscles and over to organs, set digestion in motion, ensure construction of tissue (muscles, among other things) and energy deposits (called anabolic process).

Both systems are usually not active at the same time – this would be like depressing the car’s accelerator pedal and brake at the same time. In order to illustrate the interaction between these two systems, imagine following situation: You drive out to the countryside to enjoy a picnic on a field with your girlfriend. The food has just been consumed, and you enjoy a quiet and relaxing moment. In this case, parasympaticus is dominating: the blood streams to stomach and intestine where the digestion is working, and a sense of almost paralyzing calmness spreads into the body. Suddenly, heaven brakes loose with thunder and pouring rain. Sympaticus takes charge straight away: the heart rate rises, digestion stops and blood is send to the muscles that will help you to sprint over to the car. You are very sharp and action fast and precise: you manage to pack blanket and basket without forgetting anything, you sprint away while taking your jacket on and finding the car keys, and in a jiffy you sit in the car with your girlfriend in shelter. If parasympaticus had the permission of continuing, you would not have managed to get to your car before the rain had stopped!
The activation of sympaticus is the body’s stress response in a positive sense. Sympaticus is vital, since it makes us capable of handling emergencies. Without it, we would simply not exist today. Stressed situations are in a fact beneficial for the body, since they train sympaticus that learns from them and improve the body to be better at handling situations from time to time. However, as you will see later, stress is only beneficial if it is replaced by sufficient long periods with a dominating parasympaticus. In other words, the system must recover in order to function optimally and become better.

The biochemical process

The way the body reacts to stress today, is physiologically and biochemically the same as it was 10,000years ago. What is different today is the type of stress factors we are exposed to. Before, generally very stressed situations of life threatening character occurred, like defence against animals and enemies, chasing for food etc. It was a more urgent way of stress and had a relatively short duration. Stress factors today are of different character, typically of a lower intensity but of a longer duration. The body’s response to stress is the same regardless the type of stress, the difference lies in the duration. We are primarily designed to handle urgent stress of short duration, since we have adapted ourselves under such conditions. The ability of surviving is connected to the body’s ability to react on urgent stress situations. As shown later, it is exactly the duration of the stress that is crucial to how well the body handles stress. Following, you will find a description of what happens physiologically when the body is exposed to stress. As mentioned earlier, the activation of the nervous system always gives rise to the release of a chemical messenger, namely a hormone. It is especially these hormones that will be described, since their impact on the body provide you with an understanding of how the body handles stress.

To make it more clear, we take the previous example as a starting point, where you get surprised by the rain. The first step of the stress response is that your senses (eyes, ears etc.) register the stressed situation. The nervous system communicates this information from the senses to the brain, from where sympaticus is activated. The activation of sympaticus gives immediately rise to the release the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline from (among others) the adrenal, which function is to rise the heart rate and blood pressure. At the same time, a signal is sent to stop the digestion process, the veins to the stomach and intestines are narrowed so less blood will stream. The total purpose is to increase the inflow of blood to the muscles, so energy for working muscles can be produced. The blood transports oxygen and nutrition to the muscles, in order to produce energy for working muscles. This takes place within just few seconds after the stress has been detected. You are now ready to perform what it takes to save you out of the situation.

The second step in the stress response, consists of a chain reaction with the release of a series of hormones different places in the brain and body. Some of these hormones (dopamine, endorphin) make you think clearly and reduce your sense of pain. After few minutes, the adrenal gland releases a type of hormones called glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, which is transferred through blood and out into the rest of the body. At that time, you are possibly already in your car and the danger is over. The function of cortisol is to increase the metabolism of tissue, glucose and fat deposits. This provides energy to the muscles that have performed the hard work, to hereby fill the deposits again (or in cases where there is need for further work - it is imaginable that you have parked your car some distance off). Cortisol reduces the activity in the immune system as well, to limit inflammation/infections in tissue that has eventually suffered during the stress reaction. Moreover, the cells become more or less insulin resistant in the presence of cortisol. The role of insulin is to store energy, which is the opposite of cortisol that is to mobilise energy. These two hormones are so to speak antagonistic to each other. The effect of cortisol can last up to an hour after the stress has been released, even at short stress situations. At long-term stress impacts, the duration of cortisol’s effect increases similarly.

This very simplified description of the stress response is an excellent surviving mechanism. The first step of the process is to ensure a quick reaction by increasing the activity of the circulation (heart, blood pressure), which corresponds to the increased need of physical activity. The second step ensures to mobilise nutrition through cortisol, partly in case of an eventual prolonged physical effort, and partly in particularly because of the following need to refill the energy stores consisting of ATP. Cortisol shows to have an appetising effect, which stresses the need of a refill.

Continuous stress response

As praised as you should be to possess a such mechanism, as little you should wish for it to go on, due to reasons we will go through in the following. The stress mechanism is namely as effective in handling urgent stress situations, as it is problematic in connection with long-term stress impacts.
First of all, it is not appropriate to uphold an increased circulation activity over a longer period of time (not even small increases), since it can cause continuous increase of blood pressure, including heart and blood vessel problems. Therefore, an increased resting pulse rate is inappropriate. Secondly, you do not want to have cortisol inside your blood circulation for too long. Cortisol is a hormone that can have an impact on many types of cells in your body. Furthermore, cortisol is not metabolised easily from your body, so the longer the stress lasts, the larger amount of cortisol is produced and thereby a longer period of time before the level is down to normal again. Increased amounts of cortisol in your body have shown to have following effects:

  • Weakening of the immune system: Cortisol has a so-called anti-inflammatory impact, meaning that it prevents the immune system to perform its job in controlling foreign bodies (bacteria, virus and more). Among other things, cortisol is used to medical treatment against inflammations. That is why you often become ill after a stressed period (exams, work etc.).
  • Reduced production of sex hormones and a reduced sexual lust.
  • Increased risk of developing insulin resistance/diabetes type 2, due to cortisol’s antagonistic effect on insulin.
  • Increased appetite, especially for carbohydrates (sweets, bread, fruit etc.): An increased intake of fast carbohydrates that cannot be stored because of cortisol turn them into fat in the liver and are deposited as fat tissue.
  • Digestion problems.
  • Increased metabolism of tissue, such as muscle tissue.
  • Certain bacteria and vira thrive in presence of cortisol. This concerns for example the herpes virus and the helico bacteria, which causes stomach ulcer. Visse bakterier og vira er trives ved tilstedeværelse af cortisol.

As it is shown, long-term stress without enough resting, have many unfortunate side effects. The above mentioned effects are amongst the well-documented. Besides, there a series of more or less documented effects on your memory and mind, such as depressions.

Long-term stress causes a greater consumption of important nutrients in the body, as vitamins, enzymes and specific amino acids. This increased consumption taxes the body’s own nutrient stores, and if the supply of these through food is not enough, the amounts in the body can become insufficient. The above mentioned nutrients are essential in relation to all reactions in the body, such as production of hormones and regulation and control of chemical processes. The above mentioned negative effects are thus direct results of nutrient insufficiency. A reduced access to nutrients does also have importance for how the following stress response becomes. The worse nutrient status is, the more often is the stress response negative, because the capacity of resisting stress is reduced, which again results in a greater consumption of nutrients. So saying, the body enters into a vicious downward spiral, where a reduced stress threshold leads to greater nutrients consumption and nutrients insufficiency, which then results in a further reduce of the stress threshold.

The body’s response to stress is like a shape of a two-egged sword. On one hand, when stress factors are long-term and frequent, it can have drastic consequences for your health. On the other hand, when stress factors are short-term and not to frequent, it is a fantastic surviving mechanism. Actually, it has been proven that an appropriate stress response, provides us with the opposite of the effects mentioned above, and that gives a better immune system, increased sex hormones and so on.
Whether the stress response becomes the “good” or the “bad” primarily depends on the duration of the stress factor and the body’s ability of resisting it. There are individual considerations: Stress is experienced differently from person to person. Generally you can say that the more stress factors you are exposed to, the more sensitive you become for further stress. When the body reacts to stress, it is on the expense of energy and it is therefore important that your body has the possibility of recovering. At insufficient recovering and/or inappropriate food, the body’s tolerance towards stress falls. In worst case, it becomes so low that all impact result in negative stress response.

It is also about adaptability: by exposing to stress in an appropriate way (relatively short-term impacts, interacted with sufficient long periods without significant influences and appropriate food) the body’s ability to handle stress is improved. This is called adaptation. A good example is weight training, where a well-prepared training program results in greater strength, and what was experienced as heavy weight before, is now feeling lighter. The same impact (weight) gives a less stress response because you have become stronger. Adaptation is thus a positive result of a good stress response. In other words, adaptation is an adjustment, but is not the same as getting used to. As an example, you can imagine that you move into a house near a trafficked road. In the beginning you notice the noise from the road and feel possibly annoyed. After a while, you almost don’t notice it. But the noise is still there, and affects/stresses the body, just in a more unconscious level. You have gotten used to it, but not necessarily adjusted or adapted. It is here that stress response becomes dangerous, since it is long-term and frequent and worst of all, you are not necessarily aware of it (before it is too late).

All influences on the body, whether it is exercise, noise, light and even food, is a kind of stress. The question is just if the body’s stress response becomes positive or negative. Influences do not necessarily need to come from the outside: the thought, imagination or expectation of a stressed situation releases a stress response. Have you not tried to lie down at night thinking of a coming exam or a difficult task/deadline, and felt that your heart beat raised and you had an oppressing feeling in the gut? Seen from an evolutionary point of view and the principle of a naturally selection, the entire mechanism around stress response actually makes sense. Do you have a good stress response, a good immune system, more sex hormones, good digestion etc. and are you better adapted? Ergo, you are a survivor – and in nature, it is the survivor that carries out their genes.

Sapolski, R.M.: Why Zebra Don’t Get Ulcers, 3rd edition. First OwlBooks Edition, 2004. ISBN 0-80507369-8
Wilson, J.L.: Adrenal Fatigue – The 21th Century Stress Syndrome. Smart Publications, 2001. ISBN 1-890572-15-2

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