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Sunday
Jul032011

Style Your Life to De-Stress

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

There is not a single, all-encompassing solution to managing stress. You can’t find a pill to make stress disappear either. Even if there was a pill that could relieve a symptom or two from chronic stress, it’s unlikely anything could be created to handle all the potential problems associated with the condition. However, there are a variety of things you can do to lower stress and improve health. Last week, we looked at the various ways cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, changes over time when chronic stress is experienced. Today, we’ll look at lifestyle and exercise modifications you can make to improve how stress impacts your body. Next week, we’ll discuss nutrition and nutritional supplements.

Choose to respond instead of react

Years ago, I listened to a series of tapes from motivational speaker Zig Ziglar. During one of the segments, he talked about the difference between responding and reacting. In medicine, when the body reacts to some kind of medication, it’s seen as a bad thing. The body is taking action against the medication. In the case of stress, if we’re constantly reacting to issues in our lives, we may become frantic, angry, short-tempered, and even place blame on others for our circumstances. Of course, this tchoice often leads to higher levels of stress.

Ziglar also talked about the benefits of responding to life’s circumstances as a positive approach. When we respond, we take a few steps back and consider the situation and the best course of action. Rather than making a decision based on emotion, it would be based on logic. When we make a logical decision, we’re able to set emotions aside and handle the circumstances more constructively. The suggestions to follow and those we’ll discuss next week (related to nutrition and supplementation) can help in handling stress, but they’re only effective if you choose to do them.

Play!

If you watch kids in the middle of playing a game they really enjoy, it’s as though they lose track of time and anything else going on around them. They forget it’s dinnertime. They don’t even realize it’s getting dark. They just play. It’s a lesson we could all learn from them.

Play doesn’t mean we should find a kickball league, or learn how to play hop-scotch again (unless you still really like playing). What it does mean is that it’s important to spend some time doing things you enjoy, just because you enjoy them. What are some things you love to do but have set aside to replace with more “productive” things? Is it reading a good non-fiction book, or the newspaper? What about going for a scenic walk just because you enjoy being in the woods? Maybe you’d love to cook a fancy meal but resort to easy meals to save time. Once a week, you might enjoy creating a more extravagant (and healthy) meal for your family.

Do you like board games? Basketball? Maybe there isn’t time for a full round of golf, but what about just going to the driving range? Making time to play can be really hard for those people who feel they have to make every waking moment more productive, but if you can reduce stress by playing more, you’ll likely be more productive when you need to be. What stress management idea can be more fun than playing more?

Sleep

The importance of sleep has been discussed in previous articles. Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to a variety of health problems including weight gain, metabolic dysfunction and even degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Many of these issues can be traced back to sleep deprivation’s effect on stress. When you disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, you disrupt hormones that affect sleep, hormones that affect blood sugar regulation, and can even disrupt your fat metabolism.[i] Unfortunately, some people trying to get more sleep can be kept awake by the stresses in their lives, which adds more stress, which keeps them up…and the cycle continues.

We’ll talk about improving the ability to fall asleep in the next paragraph, and next week when we look at nutrition. No matter what other changes are made, though, if you don’t actually get in bed early enough to get eight hours of sleep, there’s no chance to get enough sleep. If you’re among those people who have elevated evening cortisol levels (see last week), you could have a hard time falling asleep early enough. In fact, you may think you’re made to stay up late. Though you may feel energetic at night because your body has adapted, staying up late is not healthy for long-term health. So, at a minimum, make it a point to get in bed early enough. To do that, you need to turn off the lights.

Turn off the lights

Do you notice what time it gets dark outside? How does that compare with when you turn off the lights in your home? If you’re like most people, it’s dark outside for hours before you turn out the lights in your home. If it’s dark outside, your body is expecting it to be dark inside as well. Growing research shows that artificial light can be detrimental to getting sleep.[ii] Melatonin is a hormone secreted at night to help us fall asleep. Extended hours of artificial light at night can disrupt the body’s ability to produce melatonin appropriately.

If you feel like you’re too energized to fall asleep at night, turn off the lights, shut down your computer and turn off the television. Even the lights from your cell phone, alarm clock or other small electronic devices may even be enough to keep you from achieving the quality sleep you need. Mark Sisson, from Mark’s Daily Apple has a great article specifically on this topic. Bottom line, if the lights are turned on late at night, so are your stress hormones.

Exercise

No doubt you’ve heard many times that exercise is good for stress reduction, but the wrong approach to exercise can make matters worse. Much of the benefit of exercise comes from the hormones secreted during and after exercise. Cortisol is one of the hormones affected.

Those with elevated cortisol levels, shown in two examples last week, will likely benefit from moderate to low-intensity exercise. Studies show it does not increase cortisol levels the way high-intensity exercise does. Moderate to low intensity is typically at about 60% of maximal exertion.[iii] If you’re using a heart rate monitor and doing heart rate training, you’d probably be in the middle of zone three or lower (using a five-zone heart rate system).

Though exercising at lower intensities does not typically raise cortisol, and may even lower it, some individuals may still become fatigued if the duration of exercise is too long. Those battling with high cortisol levels, or even excessively low cortisol levels would be best suited to durations to 45 minutes or less. If you pay close attention to how you feel following the exercise session, you should recognize whether the duration or intensity is too much to recovery properly.

High-intensity exercise such as sprinting or resistance training with short rest periods may still be used by some people facing high levels of stress and cortisol, but the duration should be significantly reduced. High-intensity exercise can significantly increase cortisol levels, so those who already have high levels of cortisol should be cautious.

Those who have adrenal fatigue actually have low cortisol levels. Though these low cortisol levels are not desirable, attempting to stimulate higher cortisol production by performing high-intensity exercise doesn’t work. When someone is in a state of adrenal fatigue, their body won’t secrete cortisol when faced with stress. If they do high-intensity exercise (a form of stress), they’ll force their body through the activity, but won’t produce the hormones to recover efficiently. This type of workout can leave them feeling drained for hours, or even days, after the workout.

When it comes to exercise, listen to your body. If you work with a personal trainer, be sure to communicate with him or her about how you’re feeling and how you’re sleeping following your training sessions. Exercise is incredibly important to your health, but the wrong type of exercise can be detrimental.

Summary

Be smart about how you exercise. Find some time to play. Get more rest. These recommendations shouldn’t be too complicated. The real challenge is to implement them on a regular basis. Find some time to play each week. Resist the temptation to overdo your exercise and get to bed on time…every night.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


[i] Prasai MJ, Pernicova I, Grant PJ, Scott EM. An Endocrinologist’s Guide to the Clock. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011;96:913-922

[ii]The Endocrine Society. Room light before bedtime may impact sleep quality, blood pressure and diabetes. EurekAlert! 13 Jan 2011. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-01/tes-rlb011211.php

[iii] Hill EE, Zack E, Battaglini C, Viru M, Viru A, Hackney AC. Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: The intensity threshold effect. J Cndocrinol Invest. 2008;31:587-591

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Reader Comments (2)

Hi Tom,
Thank you for the article on stress and cortisol. I have heard before that working out too hard can increase cortisol levels, and doesn't that defeat the purpose for exercising to reduce stress and belly fat?
How does a person find out what level of exercise they should do to reduce stress and cortisol? Is there a test that a person can take to see the levls of cortisol in their body? Will that test tell me the intensity I can workout at too?
Thank you!!!
Em

July 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmma

A good article on life style change for de-stressing. As you said yes 30 to 50 minutes of physical activity, nutritious food, along with taking life easy are good for de-stressing.

Rajesh

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