Most people understand that the part of our mind we call the unconscious is a real powerhouse that controls up to 90 per cent of the things we do. For example, it makes us breathe in and out, it tells our hearts to beat and it runs our immune systems that work to keep us healthy.
All of this happens automatically, without us even having to think about it. Importantly, the unconscious also dictates our moods and our mental wellbeing, often by releasing hormones into our blood stream and our nervous system.
Some of these make us feel good and some of them make us feel bad. This is where science has made huge advances in the past few years in our understanding of the effects hormones have on us and what we can do to influence how we feel.
When we’re under stress, the body responds by shooting into our systems powerful doses of adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline revs us up by increasing the heart rate, waking up the nervous system and preparing the muscles for action. It’s known as “fight or flight” because back in caveman days that was the choice humans had when faced by something that wanted to eat them!
Adrenaline is also a neuro-transmitter, which means it helps convey nerve impulses to vital organs. One thing it does is stimulate the pituitary gland to secrete cortisol.
Cortisol is an important hormone in small doses because among other things it controls the release of insulin to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. At times of “healthy” stress – for example when we hear a strange noise in the dark – it boosts our blood pressure, gives us a quick boost of energy and lowers our sensitivity to pain.
However, most of us lead high-stress lives – get the children off to school, go to work, rush round the shops, more work, dash home, cook the dinner, struggle to get the family to bed – so our cortisol level doesn’t get a chance to return to normal.
This constant stress state can have dramatic effects. In the short term, we can’t think straight, our blood pressure shoots up and our muscles lose some of their power. Long term bone density can decrease, our blood sugar goes dangerously out of balance, our immunity to disease is lowered and it takes longer for wounds to heal.
Cortisol is also known to encourage the body to store fat around the abdomen, where it can cause more health problems than fat elsewhere in the body, including diabetes, heart issues and strokes.
Stress hormones use up significant amounts of our reserves of vitamin C and B and the minerals magnesium and zinc. So when we’re under stress we need to make sure we eat even more healthily.
Stress changes how you eat and the choices you make. It makes you reach for the comforting sugary foods and a recent study suggests this seems to affect women more than men.
Stress means our bodies are awash with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which makes our blood sugar level go up and down like a rollercoaster.
We’re surrounded on all sides by sugar-packed comfort food so it’s easy for us to reach for a quick fix. But the stress which makes us go for the sugar produces more cortisol and we can become resistant to the insulin which controls our blood-sugar levels.
One of the effects of excess cortisol is that far more sugar is then stored as fat than is burnt as energy. And cortisol makes us store the fat around our middles, so that it is closer to the vital organs which might need it.
Constant stress means cortisol levels are high all the time – and you put on more and more weight.
So here are my tips for keeping calm and carrying on in the face of daily stress.
- Avoid sugary breakfast cereals. They make your body react in such a way that the old cortisol/insulin battle starts up.
- Too much caffeine raises your blood sugar level just like sugar does. So go for decaffeinated tea and coffee. It tastes just the same, but does you more good.
- Exercise. Go for a walk, go to the gym, go swimming, talk the dog out, go for a jog. Whatever works for you will help reduce the stress hormones whizzing around inside you.
- Things you can eat to lower stress include berries, which are full of vitamin C, green vegetables, which contain so many nutrients, and nuts to give you the B vitamins your immune system needs.
- Sleep! Make sure you’re getting enough of it! Lack of sleep is a huge contributor to weight gain and it’s one of the first things that suffers when we’re stressed.