Don’t let stress harm your health. Here’s how to counteract the effects of a hectic life

Gut

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Whether it’s work or money worries or a delayed train, the average adult spends two hours and 11 minutes of every day feeling stressed.

A recent survey revealed that being late for something and running out of time are most likely to cause us stress, followed by getting stuck in traffic and health issues (for family as well as yourself). But, even happy things – such as relationships, birthdays and Christmas – rank among the highest stress triggers.

Now, experts are warning that prolonged stress (that panicky ‘can’t cope’ feeling we get when under pressure) – caused by ‘fight or flight’ hormones cortisol and adrenaline being pumped around the body – has an enormous impact on health.

Here’s what stress could be doing to you – and how to combat it.

Stress problem: Weight gain

Stress triggers the hormone cortisol that causes abdominal fat storage, says Dr Marilyn Glenville, author of Fat Around The Middle (£9.99, Kyle Cathie). ‘It stimulates the appetite and encourages the body to release blood sugar into the bloodstream to provide energy for the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Because this fuel isn’t used to get away from a physical danger, it’s stored as fat.’

Stress solution:

Keep blood glucose levels stable in the face of stress-induced cortisol surges by increasing consumption of slow-burn, low-GI foods (whole grains, vegetables, pulses, fish and meat) and eliminating high-GI foods (processed foods and cereals, sugar, white bread, couscous, beer, wine, fruit juice and coffee).

And exercise – but don’t overdo it: while moderate exercise can ease stress as well as burn fat, too much will increase cortisol production. Eating a magnesium-rich diet (dark green leafy vegetables, Brazil nuts and seeds) can also help to reduce the effects of stress on the body.

Stress problem: Gut issues

The majority of British adults have suffered from some kind of gastrointestinal problem.

And, research from Mintel suggests that stress is the most likely factor, closely followed by poor diet, lack of sleep, alcohol consumption and viruses. ‘The bowels are extraordinarily susceptible to stress and mood,’ says Dr Helen Webberley, the dedicated GP for Oxford Online Pharmacy.

‘The typical symptoms of wind, bloating, pain and diarrhoea, that we see with irritable bowel sufferers, are well known to be worse during stressful times.’

Stress solution:

Look at good stress relievers that also help gut problems: Therapies such as hypnotherapy, massage, reflexology, acupuncture and homeopathy can calm the mind and also reduce nervous tension in the gut.

Stress problem: Infertility

When stressed, we produce a hormone called prolactin – the same hormone produced by breastfeeding women in order to inhibit ovulation – making conception more difficult, says Dr Gillian Lockwood, medical director at Midland Fertility (midlandfertility.com).

Stress solution:

Try hatha yoga, advises Dr Robert Greene, co-author of Perfect Hormone Balance For Fertility (Three Rivers Press; £15.99 from amazon.co.uk). Taking a weekly class or using a DVD at home a few times a week can have a huge impact on lowering the stress hormones that can affect fertility, he explains.

Stress problem: Memory loss

Researchers from Ohio State University found that long-term stress can cause memory loss and inflammation to the brain. ‘When you’re anxious, it’s harder to focus properly and remember information,’ explains Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology and health at Lancaster University.

And high levels of cortisol over a prolonged period may even kill off brain cells leading to memory loss in later life. One study found that highly stressed older people are twice as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, which is often a prelude to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

Stress solution:

Get into the habit of writing lists, using an appointment diary and the reminder on your phone. And eat oily fish, such as mackerel or salmon, twice a week or take a good fish oil supplement.

People with higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil preserve bigger brains as they age, research shows. In particular, they maintain more nerve cells in the hippocampus, the brain’s key memory centre.

Stress problem: Headaches

One study found a ‘clear link’ between the amount of stress in people’s lives and how often they experienced a headache.

Those most seriously affected had a 6% rise in ‘headache days’, said researchers reporting at the American Academy of Neurology’s 66th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. Susan Haydon, of the charity The Migraine Trust, said: ‘Migraines and stress are strongly linked.

Indeed, anxiety, excitement and any form of tension and shock may all lead to a migraine attack.’

Stress solution:

‘Although stress is often unavoidable, it’s important to reduce the effects of other migraine triggers during stressful times. You can do this by eating regularly, drinking plenty of water and getting adequate sleep, which can also help you deal with stress,’ advises Susan.

Stress problem: Depression

At first, stress gives you a buzz but, eventually, your mood crashes and the body has to use up its ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters to neutralise stress hormones, according to Professor Jane Plant, co-author of Beating Stress, Anxiety & Depression (£10.99, Piatkus).

Stress solution:

Get active: numerous studies have found that the release of feel-good endorphins through exercise is beneficial for stress and depression.

In fact, studies from Duke University in North Carolina found exercise was as effective as modern antidepressants.

Stress Problem: Sleep

We are sleeping an hour and a half less each night than we did 25 years ago, and a national survey by Bensons for Beds found that 46% of us regularly achieve only five to six hours’ sleep per night – well below the recommended seven to eight hours.

Worryingly, a report by the Sleep Council found that 72% of those questioned blamed stress for sleeping problems.

Stress solution: Arianna Huffington, author of The Sleep Revolution (£8.99, WH Allen), extols the joy of changing into comfy pyjamas to signal to her body that she’s sleep-ready. Making a ‘gratitude list’ before bed, she says, ‘focuses my mind on the blessings
in my life – rather than on the running list of unresolved problems’.

Try listening to mindfulness apps to wind down. Keep a pen and paper by the bed so you can jot down worries instead of ‘looping’, where the same stressed-out thoughts go round and round unresolved.

Or try yoga tips such as mentally scanning your body from head to toes to help you drop off.

Stress problem: Early ageing

As stress decreases the skin’s barrier function, antioxidant levels and cell turnover, the end result can be an uneven texture, redness and accelerated ageing. One US study found that women who were most threatened by the anticipation of stressful tasks looked older at a cellular level, some by as much as 10 years.

Stress solution:

Protect against premature ageing by using a dedicated sunscreen (SPF 30) daily, between May and November instead of a moisturiser and apply foundation on top, says consultant dermatologist, Dr Nick Lowe.

‘Just 15-30 minutes of sun exposure a day in the UK is enough to cause significant damage.’