Stress: Is it really The Silent Killer?

If you live in or around a city and have ever seen Mike Judge’s Office Space, you probably can relate fairly easily to the opening traffic jam scene. While a funny scene, it is a perfect example of how uncontrollable stress in our lives can actually be.

If you live in or around a city and have ever seen Mike Judge’s Office Space, you probably can relate fairly easily to the opening traffic jam scene. While a funny scene, it is a perfect example of how uncontrollable stress in our lives can actually be.  Unmanaged stress can quite easily lead to serious illness, and in some cases, death Whether trying to get to work on time or to drop the kids off at school, you are bound to be caught in traffic at least once throughout the day. Believe it or not, something as innocuous as a traffic jam can cause your stress levels to rise to a point that may have detrimental effects to your health.

It is important to understand that stress is a normal response to our environment; a response without which we might not be here today. Simply stated, our physiological and physical reactions to stressors from our environment have guided us through our evolution with what has come to be known as the “fight-or-flight” response.  This response is the body’s way of defending itself. One of the most commonly used examples to explain this is a scenario which involves coming across a bear while on a walk through the woods: Do you fight the bear, or do you run? Whichever your response, your nervous system immediately reacts and provides your body with the necessary tools for survival In response to the environmental stressor, your body increases the secretion of cortisol- a hormone that increases glucose production thus providing immediate energy to be used by muscles so that they are ready to fight or flee. Once the stressor (i.e. the bear) is successfully dealt with your brain begins to reverse the defensive steps taken and returns to homeostasis – equilibrium.

So what does a bear in the woods have to do with a traffic jam in the middle of the city? The truth is, the body has the same response to the bear as it does to the traffic jam- the only difference being that the traffic jam happens every day. This cumulative stress- coupled with daily stressors or work, finances, etc. - can have a catastrophic effect on your overall health. Once we fight or flee from the bear, our brain identifies that the stressor is gone and returns to a homeostatic balance to “relax”. When we are constantly bombarded with stressors, big or small, our brains never identify the stressor as gone and homeostasis is not achieved. While cortisol plays an important role in our body, when overproduced in response to our fast-paced, ever-stressful daily environment, it can wreak havoc on our nervous system ultimately affecting our overall health and well-being.  

Elevated cortisol levels works against our immune system and leave us more susceptible to chronic disease. It negatively affects our nutrition as it is responsible for regulating energy needed to meet the demands of our organs and muscles. Among the many diagnoses which can be brought about by chronically elevated cortisol levels, it’s important to know that chronic fatigue, insomnia, depression as well as weight gain and obesity, blood sugar imbalances which can lead to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and gastrointestinal problems are just a few of the many possible outcomes.

The good news is that despite the environmental stressors in our daily lives, which are often beyond our control, there are ways to effectively manage stress. Beginning or maintaining a consistent exercise program focused on heart health and following an ‘anti-inflammatory’ nutrition regimen has proved to be effective in combating the effects of elevated cortisol production.  Sleep is an excellent way for our bodies to heal. Getting the recommended 8 hours of shut eye each night allows our body the chance to ‘flush- out’ some of that excess cortisol. If you weren’t able to get those 8 hours and are lucky enough to take a nap, go ahead! Sleeping is a great to combat the negative effects of cortisol. While undeniably delicious, our afternoon coffee or tea can actually be working against us. Caffeine actually increases cortisol production- not to mention keeping us awake later on in the evening. But reducing or eliminating the amount of caffeine you consume each day, you are effectively increasing anabolic metabolism- which is a fancy way of saying you are allowing your body to ‘repair’ and rebuild itself from the inside out. In addition to a better balanced nutrition and exercise regimen, you can significantly improve your overall health and reduce stress by incorporating meditation into your daily routine. Taking 5- 10 minutes for you each day may seem impossible to some, but its benefits are well beyond what any medication can provide.

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