Better Mind – Better Life™
As Winter fades away and Spring begins to unfold, it is time to enjoy warmer weather. In some areas, this means a departure from freezing nights and more rain. Winter can be a good time to stay home, and sip hot chocolate on a perfect picture window day. Spring is time to get out and take a walk.
It is time to get out and experience the world around us. Good experiences help make good memories and a happier life. In contrast, long-term stress can drag us down. For this sort of stress, there are tactics that can be learned and practiced so that you have a supply of ready-to-go responses to stressful situations. There are several strategies that can be applied to reduce the negative effects of stress on our lives.
Now that you know there are solutions to stress and ways over, under, around or through stressful situations, it is time to look at what stress can do to you. Unchecked, stress has been shown to:
Increase cortisol levels
Increase blood pressure
(Whitworth, Williamson, Mangos & Kelley, 2005)
Cause imbalances in lipids, such as cholesterol and triglycerides
(Whitworth, Williamson, Mangos & Kelley, 2005; Whitworth, Saines & Scoggins, 1984)
Increase blood glucose levels
(Whitworth, Williamson, Mangos & Kelley, 2005)
When life is interesting and not too stressful, cortisol levels are highest in the morning. Healthy-normal levels of cortisol in the morning help to keep us from feeling achy and stiff, while promoting appetite. The body tends to maintain a set point or level of cortisol that matches the level of stress that is experienced in life.
When high levels of stress are experienced, high levels of adrenaline are released into the bloodstream. Adrenaline signals the body to prepare for immediate activity. The heartbeat quickens, blood is shunted away from internal organs and toward the muscles. Blood glucose levels rise. Under intense stress, all long-term activities are temporarily suspended in order for the body to prepare for immediate action. The immune system is suppressed, activities supporting brain cell regeneration are greatly diminished.
When the need for increased muscle tension and vigilance passes, soothing cortisol is released into the bloodstream. Elevated cortisol levels tend to remain after adrenaline release has diminished. Repeated stressful events in life can lead to an increase in the set point for cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels over a long period of time are associated with damage to the cardiovascular system and a reduction in life expectancy (Epel et al, 2004).
In our modern world there are stressors that get the adrenaline flowing and the glucose-rich blood pumping to our muscles. Many times these stressors are followed by no actual need for physical activity. At this point, two courses of action are possible, one can ignore the twitching of muscles that rivals that of a cat about to pounce; or one can take steps to use the energy at hand. Using the available energy is better for the body. If no action is taken, the system takes longer to return to a lower state of arousal and the body is burdened with taking all of the unused energy sources out of the bloodstream over a longer period of time. You can help your body deal with excess glucose by taking a walk. Walking for thirty minutes engages the largest muscles in the body in metabolizing glucose. The end result is reduced glucose levels, improved clarity of thought and improved muscle tone.
Taking a thirty minute walk when stressed is an excellent tactic to blunt the negative, sometimes toxic effects of stress. If one adds a glass or two of water to this routine, the body will bounce back to a relaxed normal state much faster than if the excess energy is ignored and no action is taken.
As a tool for improving overall health, walking for 30 minutes a day for five out of seven days a week has shown benefits in the control of blood glucose levels (Knowler et al, 2002). A thirty minute a day walk has been shown to set a stressed brain back on the path to normal brain cell replacement activities (Ströhle et al, in press). Walking for 30 minutes has been shown to sooth anxiety and to be as effective as some prescription medication for the reduction of depression (Ströhle et al, in press). Increased health benefits come with walking for an hour or an hour and a half. Walking for 30 minutes a day helps maintain or slightly reduce weight. Extending the time of a walk from thirty minutes to an hour can lead to weight loss.
Walking leads to the release of endorphins and other peptides that make us feel good and mask pain. The peptide release that occurs in a one hour walk could easily mask minor discomfort that comes with ill-fitting shoes. Over the period of an hour, a minor discomfort could lead to a really irritating sore or abrasion. When you extend your walk time, you are venturing into new territory with respect to peptide release. Take care as you extend your walk time to ensure that the feet are not suffering. By example, the first time that you extend your walk time from 30 minutes to an hour, consider taking off your shoes and socks at the 45 minute point to examine your feet for redness or irritated contact points. It is better to stay with a steady routine of walking than to overreach your current level of preparation and thereby damage your feet.
Stress comes to us in many forms. Some forms of stress are good for us, others are not so good. Consider the effect of gravity on our bones. The effect of Earth’s gravity on our bodies puts an expected level of stress on our bones. This stress is good because it energizes electrical signals in the bones and body to maintain healthy bone activity, such as regeneration. In space, astronauts do not have the benefit of gravity as it is on the surface of the Earth. This loss of gravity is one of the reasons why astronauts suffer bone loss while away from the surface of the earth. Stress always has an effect on our body. The effect of stress may be beneficial, exciting or even enjoyable. When stress is not connected with a desire or goal, then stress is more difficult to endure.
Sometimes reasonable expectations are violated. This is seen when the life that a person has built over several years changes in an unpredicted or uncontrollable way, as in the loss of employment, or in the loss of a spouse. Such a change may be so unexpected and so challenging that the change is taken as a threat to a person’s deepest expectations or continuing existence.
When an unexpected loss occurs in the blink of an eye, anger may arise spontaneously and unexpectedly. When this sort of anger is upon you, observe the anger and observe what is passing through your mind. Do not attempt to explain what you are observing, just observe. Take time to consider what is bothering you and look for tools, tactics and strategies for relieving or coping with the stress. The power of observation is a key to overcoming anger.
In addition to practical tactics for overcoming stress, there are strategies that will provide benefits over a longer period of time than the tactical time frame. Walking is both a tactic and a strategy. Continued walking over a six month period has benefits that begin to exceed those of some drugs used for insulin resistance and depression. At one year the advantage of walking is tremendous. Other strategies include the use of a good quality B multivitamin supplement. The addition of a vitamin D3 supplement is reasonable, especially going into winter. For those of us over 30, the addition of Omega 3 oils and some PS (phosphatidyl serine) is a good thing to consider.
Note: The suggestions in this article are not intended to be medical advice or to be appropriate for any particular person or individual circumstance. For personal evaluation of the usefulness of physical activity or nutritional supplements featured in this newsletter seek the advice of a health care provider in your area.
Epel, E.S., Blackburn, E.H., Lin, J., Dhabhar, F.S., Adler, N.E., Morrow, J.D., & Cawthon, R.M. (2004). Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 29:163-166. [On-line]. Available: http://www.pnas.org/content/101/49/17312.full.pdf+html
Knowler W.C., Barrett-Conner E., Fowler S.E., Hamman, R.F., Lachin, J.M., Walker, E.A. & Nathan, D.M. (2002). Reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes with lifestyle intervention or metformin. New England Journal of Medicine. 346:393-403.
Ströhle, A., Stoy, M., Graetz, G., Scheel, M., Wittmann, A., Gallinat. J., Lang, U.E., Dimeo, F. & Hellweg, R. (in press). Acute exercise ameliorates reduced brain-derived neurotrophic factor in patients with panic disorder. Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Whitworth, J.A., Saines, D. & Scoggins, B.A. (1984). Blood Pressure and Metabolic Effects of Cortisol and Deoxycorticosterone in Man. Clinical and Experimental Hypertension 6:795-809.
Whitworth, J.A., Williamson, P.M., Mangos, G. & Kelly, J.J. (2005). Cardiovascular consequences of cortisol. Vascular Health and Risk Management 1:291-299.