Why Managing Stress is a Priority for all your Health Goals

Stress is like a middleman who stands in the way sabotaging your health goals. 

Whether your goals are to lose weight, improve gut health, stop getting every cold that’s going around, get more sleep, have more energy or get fitter, if stress is not managed, you’ll likely end up spinning your wheels but getting nowhere fast.

Stress negatively impacts every system in your body

Not convinced? Keep reading.

Brief note: this article has been kept deliberately simple for ease of reading, we’ll touch on a little of the science though as it’s helpful for you to understand how all this relates to you.

Infographic courtesy of EHS Today

How do you know if you’re stressed?

Stress is often confusing. You may not think you’re stressed when you are, as it’s not always about what’s going on in your head. We tend to know when we’re getting stressed mentally by our circumstances, but we don’t always recognise when our body is stressed. 

Physical stress can be caused by anything from lack of quality sleep, long working days, long haul flights, having little relaxation time, unbalanced blood sugar levels, food intolerances, undiagnosed imbalances (eg. suboptimal thyroid function), inflammation, conflict in the workplace or home, chronic artificial blue light exposure, gut imbalances or toxicity. 

Point 1: stress comes in many guises and we may not be aware of the stress load the body is having to manage. 

Ok, so what if I am stressed?

When consistent low grade stress becomes the body’s normal way of being, this can be a problem. You may not realise you’re chronically stressed because you’ve become accustomed to being this way. In fact, you can become addicted to living like this. For a period of time it can even be positive and you can experience drive and focus. However, this won't last.

The cumulative impact of chronic stress can lead to fatigue, gut issues (such as IBS), poor concentration, anxiety, depression, difficulty losing weight, intense food cravings, shoulder and neck tightness, thyroid imbalances, feeling cold, tiredness, hormonal imbalances (reduced testosterone, oestrogen dominance), headaches, loss of libido, poor sleep or insomnia, water retention, weakened immune system (frequent illnesses), inflammation, increased belly fat, need for caffeine/alcohol and ultimately burn out.   

Bringing us to point 2: managing stress is vital if you want to be healthy. 

What happens when the body’s stressed? (a simplified version)

In the most basic terms if your brain senses a threat, (which could actually be anything, because this happens beyond your conscious awareness) then your stress response becomes triggered. 

Your body prepares to fight or flee a situation, stress hormones are released (you’ve probably heard of adrenaline and cortisol) and a part of your nervous system gets activated. 

We’ll talk about that as it is relevant for you to gain a simple understanding of. 

There are two arms to your autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic (SNS), stress driven side and the parasympathetic (PNS) calming side. 

Is Your Life Balanced? 

Think about it like we’re either on one side or the other. As you can see (picture above) on the sympathetic side which is when the body prepares us for getting out of danger, health issues arise if this is the everyday picture. The reason being,  the body dials down digestion, reproduction (i.e libido is squashed), the immune system, in fact anything that is unnecessary in the temporary crisis so we have full energy to fight or flee a situation. 

This is normal and natural, what isn’t is living like this chronically over the long-term. 

The initial stress response is only meant to be short term so we could survive from real threats such as predators. Our body is wired in exactly the same way as it was when we lived in caves. Which was great when we needed to flee wild animals and other dangers. But not so great today, where we experience constant stressors on a daily basis, be that from work or family life, or something as simple as a traffic jam or watching the news.

Ongoing Stress

In a chronically stressed state your cortisol levels stay high. Cortisol, often thought of as our ‘stress hormone’ is needed in adequate amounts for ‘get up and go’ in the mornings and to deal with stressors throughout the day. 

If stress is persistent, cortisol levels cannot keep up with the demands resulting in low levels (adrenal insufficiency), AKA - burnout. 

The quality of your health is determined by balance

Stress is part of life. Some stress is actually considered to be good for us, such as working on goals and pushing yourself to be more. The aim is not to try to eradicate stress entirely, but to ensure it’s balanced out with enough recovery. 

In a relaxed state (PNS dominant) the body can digest and absorb nutrients from food more readily, heal and repair muscles and tissues, build strength, reduce muscle tension, help you to sleep better, cravings lessen/become nonexistent, improved capacity to focus and think clearly and helps you to develop a stronger immune system.

Point 3- we need both the PNS and SNS to work optimally - the focus and drive which comes from SNS activity and to effectively shut off the SNS and engage the PNS to slow down, relax and recover. 

How to achieve this balance

Managing stress requires a thorough look into the sources of the main stressors in your life. These may or may not be obvious, and this is where our Lifestyle Assessment analysis comes into play. Using our tracker, which collects heart rate variability (HRV) data, we can determine when you’re in a SNS or PNS dominant state and whether, overall, you have a balance between the two.

Here are examples of an unbalanced day and more balanced day of stress and recovery. 

The red lines show stress (SNS) or green which is recovery (PNS). The blue is activity which we’ll ignore as it’s not relevant to this current discussion)

Unbalanced day

This line graph above shows an extremely unbalanced stress and recovery rate. This is what a day of stress looks like, even during sleep hours the body is still stressed and only a couple of green lines can be seen.

Balanced day

In the line graph above, the day is far more balanced as you can see there are some green lines during the day and the night time is consistently green.

But, what can you do about this? 

By taking a Lifestyle Assessment we can put together a plan of action for you based on the data collected. This will consist of lifestyle and dietary adaptations which could include eating foods to balance blood sugar, providing nutrients to support adrenal output, and taking steps to schedule in rest and relaxation activities. 

More rigorous investigation may be needed to find the driver of chronic stress if you don’t respond well to the initial plan, which is done through a comprehensive blood test

Taking our Lifestyle Assessment and working alongside a professional to manage your stress levels takes a lot of the guesswork out of your wellbeing. This helps you get into recovery as quickly as possible, so your body can repair, calm and you can achieve your original health goals with more ease.

By Kali Harmen - VA Health Warrior

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