What is stress and what happens when we are stressed?
Stress is a natural survival reaction designed to protect us in case of danger. When we are confronted with a stressful event, our HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis is activated causing a spike in adrenaline and cortisol to deal with the threat.
A number of physiological reactions are set in motion:
- we sweat to cool down our muscle
- there is increased blood flow to our extremities and this in turn increases our heart rate, allowing us to run away or fight
- our breathing becomes shallow and rapid to allow oxygen to get to our muscles
- our immune system, reproduction system and digestion shut down to conserve our energies to deal with the threat
All of this is essential for survival. The problem is when we are in a constant state of stress in our daily lives: when demands outweigh our resources & reserves, an increased in cortisol kicks our sympathetic system into overdrive and causes inflammation all through the body leading to diseases, poor social interactions/relationships, low cognition and unhappiness. If left unchecked, it can become pervasive and lead to burnout, and/or anxiety disorder and many other health issues.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress is very individual and can manifest itself in many ways. Here are a few ways it can impact us:
- Weight gain: stress dysregulates our hormones that regulate our appetite (ghrelin, leptin, insulin), leading to an increase in fat storage
- Poor mental health: anxiety, mood swings, anger, lack of focus/concentration, memory issues, poor decision-making, depression, headaches, migraines…
- Being prone to infections due to lower immunity
- Disruption in blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rate
- Poor digestion leading to gut issues such as poor or disrupted bowel movements, bloating, flatulence, stomach/abdominal pain, heartburn…
- Disrupted sleep, which in turn feeds into more stress, thus causing a vicious loop and causing energy issues, making us feel constantly tired
- Physical pain….
Truly stress impacts all body functions. But do not despair: there are many things that can be done to regulate our stress. The goal is to switch our body from a sympathetic state (fight or flight) to a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) by activating the vagus nerve. Activation of the vagus nerve quiets the stress response.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve, also known as the vagal nerves, are the principal nerves of our parasympathetic nervous system. They run from our brain to our large intestine, carry signals all through our body and control important functions such as our digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, mood, taste, speech, micturition and immunity among others. As such, they are crucial to our health and wellbeing. By stimulating the vagus nerve, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system.
How can we stimulate our vagus nerve and reduce our stress?
There are a number of things that can be done naturally to support our vagus nerve and reduce our stress. Here are a few:
- Eat well and regularly: have 3 meals a day with protein at every meal, lots of fruits and vegetables (fibre) to support digestion, healthy fats (oily fish, EVOO, avocado, nuts and seeds) and healthy complex carbs
- Drink at least 2L of water per day and cut out sugar, caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes that deplete water levels in our body
- Eat mindfully: chew your food well
- Exercise moderately and regularly
- Seek the advice of a nutritionist to choose the right supplements: B vitamins, magnesium, ashwagandha…
- Reduce cortisol: slow down!
- Prioritise your sleep
- Build up resilience. Resilience is the capacity to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or stress. It allows transient symptoms with minimal impacts. Look at:
- breathing exercises with expirations longer than inspirations
- increase oxytocins: touch, bonding, avoid loneliness
- practice gratitude
- implement “me time” activities in your weekly schedule: listen to music (soothing or happy playlist), laugh more, sing, go outside, take time out, see friends…
Stress is a natural and essential reaction, critical to our survival. But it needs to be kept in check or it can quickly overwhelm us and lead to impaired physical and mental health. By putting into place strategies to stimulate our vagus nerve, we can regulate our stress response and lead a healthier life.
What about you? Are you suffering from stress and would like to learn how to manage it more effectively? If you are looking for more advice, feel free to get in touch on 07788 444 199 or [email protected] or https://biovitalnutrition.com/contact/. I would love to help you. And if you have found this article interesting, please feel free to share it or comment on it.