It’s that time of year already. They’ve been selling wrapping paper and toys at Costco for 2 months now and the cashier asked if I wanted to pre-order my organic turkey the other day. It’s the holidays! For the vast majority of us living in the 21st century, the holidays bring added stress to our lives – financial expenditures, travel, time with family, office parties. It’s just what the doctor ordered.
As a health care provider, I’m here to tell you that stress is pro-inflammatory. It can and does affect our whole organ system. I mean that our emotional issues have physical effects in and on the body. This probably comes as no surprise but perhaps if I can elaborate on HOW this happens, you can really grasp just how serious this is… and not just read this article and dismiss it as if you are not affected by it.
The Brain: Nothing is more damaging to the brain than stress. Stress atrophies the entire brain, meaning it shrinks it. Stress is inflammatory and degrades the blood brain barrier, the lining that protects us from toxins and infectious agents. If you thought Alzheimer’s or other neurological diseases were out of your control, think again (no pun intended!)
The Gut: Stress affects our gastro-intestinal track as it diminishes Secretory IgA – this thin protective lining. Without it, we are subject to foods & chemicals crossing the epithelial lining, igniting the inflammatory cascade. Additionally, when our body thinks we need to run from the lions and tigers, it opts to slow down digestion and put all its energy into fight and flight. (Now you know why you get constipated during travel – the body can’t distinguish between lions, and a trip to Disneyland. Stress is Stress.)
Our Hormones: Stress affects our hormones – estrogen, testosterone, DHEA and all their metabolites – as it “steals” precursors to make cortisol and cortisone. Left untreated, our monthly cycles can be disrupted, we lose our “spark” as testosterone is depleted, we suffer hair loss, and before you know it someone is suggesting an anti-depressant when really the root cause is stress. (Just in case you hadn’t really thought it through, a pill won’t fix bad relationships or finances and it’ll likely just make matters worse as you now are stressed, depressed, and dealing with side effects.)
Our Adrenal Glands: Stress affects our adrenal glands as they work harder and harder to keep up with demands – they are in charge of regulating blood sugar and electrolytes, as well as helping to produce those sex steroid hormones (estrogen and testosterone) as well as the anti-aging hormone DHEA. With too many jobs to do, someone always gets the short end of the stick. Surely you know someone who has gone through a trial of stressors and his/her hair quickly turns grey. It’s also harder to sleep as the excitatory neurotransmitters still pulse through our bloodstream, even at bedtime which just compounds the problem as you don’t get restful sleep.
Our Thyroid: The thyroid is termed our “sentinel” gland and is ULTRA-sensitive to stress, toxins, and any perceived threat. Under stress, it slows. everything. down. If we were lost in the desert without food or water, our slow metabolism would allow us to live longer on less. The problem again is that our body does not know the difference between job stress, work stress, a long to-do list, Disneyland…or lions and tigers.
Most of our stress today is self-induced and perceived. Most of us have enough food, water, a place to live, and are not being chased by bears and tigers. But we CHOOSE to be on the go. We CHOOSE to put our kids in after-school programs. We CHOOSE to have both parents working so we can have more money (and now hire a gardener and a housekeeper). But in our world today, we don’t create enough down time. It’s expected that we’re available via a cell phone 24/7. It’s normal to be surfing the internet in a café or at the beach.
So what’s a guy or gal to do? I’d be a fool to think that we’re all going to start meditating. Personally, it’s not a one-size-fits-all remedy. If you’ve tried it and your ever moving “gerbil brain” can’t quiet down, how about one of these things? Without adding to your stress, which of these would be a welcome relief?
1. Reframe how good we’ve got it, and practice gratitude. The vast majority of us create our own stress and have it better than most of the world.
2. Re-evaluate – Do you both need to work? Can one person in your relationship go part time or ¾ time… even though it means less money? Is what you’re doing worth it? If you’re a single parent, what can the kids help with? Is traveling soccer really what’s best for everyone?
3. Resurrect quality time – Without an ipad or smart phone – just you and a friend having coffee or tea. Remember those good old days when we did this?!
4. Remember to Pray – We are not alone and most of us believe in some higher power whether that is God or the Creator but letting go and trusting is very therapeutic.
5. Unplug – If I could wish anything on you and for you – this would be in the mix. If you took a break from your news feeds, would it really matter in the big scheme of things? (Check out my video on how to be smart about using your cell phone!)
6. Spend time in Nature – Time in the garden, the woods, with your house plants as you nourish them with new soil – there’s actually a word for this and it’s called “grounding” as we release our negative ions to the earth and soil.
7. Go for a walk even if its not aerobic – it’s all movement and exercise uses up some of those excitatory neurotransmitters…and it might allow you some much-needed fresh air and grounding!
8. Spend time with people or pets – When is the last time you made an effort to make a new friend? Do you remember how happy it makes your dog to play stick?
9. Cook, Sew or Paint – But only if that doesn’t ADD to the stress!
10. Take a nap!
11. Read by a fire or in warm coffee shop
12. Listen to calming music
13. Breathe – From the belly
14. Sing or hum throughout your day
15. Do a random act of kindness – Buy the guy or gal behind you at the coffee shop a drink
16. Donate – Clothes, time, money – giving is about the giver
So, what of all of that would feel good for you, and not like another thing on your to do list? What one thing can YOU commit to, for your journey to a healthy lifestyle?