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Does Nutrition Really Affect Your Stress Levels?
If there is one thing everyone seems to want less of, it’s stress. When you think about it, what is considered a “modern” lifestyle really isn’t natural at all. The 9-5 work day, commuting, paying bills, the 24-hour news cycle, the stock market, traffic, busy, congested cities … it’s a lot to take in and process. Human beings have existed in their anatomically modern form for some 180,000 years, yet for only the last century or so have we lived at such a frantic pace. It has gotten even faster in just the last 10 years with the proliferation of social media and high-speed Internet.
Only a few millennia ago, our ancestors were hunting and foraging for their meals (and some humans still do). A couple thousand years is not even a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. It’s no wonder so many people find their lives stressful. In some ways, our brains were not evolved for this.
Over time chronic stress can take a serious toll on our health, leading to a weakened immune system and even earlier death. But there is some good news:
1. Our brains may not be “evolved” for the modern lifestyle, but they are highly adaptable. By making some simple changes in our lives, we can drastically reduce the levels of stress we experience.
2. Nutrition also plays a big role in your ability to withstand stress. In this article, we’ll explore how improving your diet can improve your quality of life.
How Chronic Stress Affects Your Health
In order to understand how stress affects your health, one must understand what the feeling we call “stress” actually is. Stress your body’s response to factors in the environment that it perceives as a threat to your survival. It is designed to protect you from predators and other physical dangers. While you probably don’t have to worry about those things today, this automatic response can still be triggered by things that occur in everyday life, such as drama at work or in a relationship, financial problems, etc.
While the stress response is meant to protect you, it can also be self-destructive. When you are continuously in a state of stress — that is, chronically stressed — it can have serious effects on your health. When you perceive a “threat,” your hypothalamus, a small primitive region in the base of the brain sends a signal to release adrenaline, which gives you energy, and elevates your blood pressure, heartrate, and alertness. It also produces the so-called “stress hormone” cortisol. This hormone increases blood sugar levels and helps you produce more energy in what the brain perceives to be an emergency situation.
When this “fight or flight” response occurs at an appropriate time, it may very well save your life. The problem is that it can be triggered at inappropriate times, such as during everyday stresses like those mentioned above. When you are chronically experiencing this physiological reaction all the time, it can wear your body down in a number of ways, including:
- Weakened immune system
- Weight gain
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Cognitive problems like trouble with memory and concentration
First things first
It is important to identify what is causing your stress so you can begin to take steps to eliminate those things. Sometimes simply saying “no” more often and taking on fewer obligations is all it takes. Other times it can be a matter of reducing the amount of time you spend around a certain person or group. Obviously, everyone’s situation is different, but no approach to reducing stress is complete without taking these steps.
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