Stress Awareness Month: Ways to reduce Stress and support Mental Health
April is recognized as National Stress Awareness Month and followed by Mental Health Awareness in May. Stress has become a ubiquitous part of modern life, and the impact it can have on our physical and mental wellbeing cannot be underestimated. Chronic stress can lead to a host of health problems, including heart disease, depression, and even cancer. As such, finding ways to reduce stress is essential in order to function on a daily basis, for preventive health care and our relationship with the world around us (our ability to show up for ourselves and others). Let's explore some ways to reduce stress from a natural and holistic perspective. Here are a few coping mechanisms to support our nervous system in order to regulate our behaviour, cognition, and emotion:
Eat a balanced diet: Food is not food, food is medicine. When we eat a balanced diet, we provide our body with the nutrients it needs to function properly. A healthy diet can support the body's stress response by providing the necessary nutrients to support healthy adrenal function, which plays a critical role in regulating the stress response. The adrenal glands produce cortisol, a hormone that helps the body respond to stress. A diet rich in whole foods, healthy fats, quality protein and nutrient-dense vegetables can help support healthy adrenal function. We can also reduce the negative impact that stress can have on our body by eating foods that are rich in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables and by consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids to reduce inflammation in the brain and improve mood. Did you know that what you eat directly impacts your mood and that every food you consume impacts the neurotransmitters in your brain? Read more about the mind-gut connection, how it impacts our mental health and cognitive function, and the key micro and macro nutrients to protect our brain function.
Exercise/Movement: Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and mood boosters. Regular exercise has also been shown to increase the volume of gray matter in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. You don't need to be a fitness enthusiast to benefit from exercise; even light to moderate physical activity, such as walking or stretching, can be helpful.
Adequate Sleep: When we sleep, our body repairs and regenerates. Our brain processes and consolidates the memories and experiences of the day and restores brain function. Sleep deprivation can increase the activity in the amygdala, making it more difficult to regulate emotions and cope with stress. It is important to make sleep a priority above all else. It is more important to sleep than to squeeze in a workout. We often neglect rest and recovery, but getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night will significantly improve productivity and regulate cortisol levels (the hormone that is closely linked with the body's stress response).
Mindfulness/Meditation: Mindfulness techniques and meditation can help reduce stress by improving our ability to regulate our emotions. Mindfulness meditation increases the activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for executive function and decision-making. It also decreases activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions like fear and anxiety.
Focus on your breath: One of the most effective ways to reduce stress is by focusing on your breathing. This technique is based on the principle that slow, deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's "rest and digest" response. When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "fight or flight" response, becomes activated. By focusing on slow, deep breathing, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system. When you’re feeling stressed, and struggling to focus, try boxed breathing: Inhale for 4, hold breath for 4, exhale for 4, and hold for 4 - visualize forming a box shape.
Spend time in nature: Spending time in nature reduces stress by promoting relaxation and emotional regulation and reducing negative emotions. Nature reduces stress by decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity and increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity, leading to a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. Additionally, nature exposure can reduce inflammation, which is a common underlying factor in many chronic diseases like stress. Nature exposure can also stimulate the production of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that are associated with improved mood and well-being. If you work a 9-5, or sit at a desk all day, simply step outside for 10 minutes.
Chronic stress can be debilitating and overwhelming. It can have serious negative impacts on both physical and mental health, such as increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. It can also lead to changes in gene expression and cellular function, further contributing to health problems over time. It’s something that many of us struggle with, but a functional medicine approach can be incredibly advantageous. Functional medicine is a holistic approach to healthcare that considers the interplay between the environment, lifestyle, and genetics in the development of chronic disease. When it comes to stress reduction, functional medicine emphasizes the importance of addressing underlying imbalances in the body and brain that contribute to stress. Each of the stress reduction techniques mentioned above have a unique impact on our brain and body.
By focusing on eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, practicing mindfulness meditation, focusing on our breath, and spending time in nature we can develop a comprehensive and holistic approach to stress reduction. One that addresses the root causes of the problem rather than just treating the symptoms.
By: Chloe Tilp, CNP