Stress and Your Health: Making Connections

If you’ve ever made changes to your diet or lifestyle and noticed an improvement in your mood – you’re not alone! In 1995, the World Health Organization (WHO) started evaluating the interaction between health and quality of life. Healthy People 2020 defines health-related quality of life as “a multi-dimensional concept that includes domains related to physical, mental, emotional and social functioning.” In other words, this concept focuses how the ‘little things’ take a toll on our minds and bodies without us realizing it. How can so much happen to our bodies without our knowledge?  One word: stress.

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When we are stressed out, we tend to…

  • Skip meals or rely on fast food
  • Drink coffee and not enough water
  • Crave junk foods
  • Do more “mindless” eating
  • Skip exercise
  • Fad or crash dieting
  • Sleep less than 7-8 hours

These habits can lead to mood swings, fatigue and exhaustion, poor concentration. Over time, they contribute to weight gain and development of chronic disease like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.  Most of all, they can cut down our quality of life.

Nobody wants to feel this way.  Luckily, a number of proven strategies can help you put mind over matter when it comes to your stress.  You can also learn to better manage common stress culprits – such as caffeine, lack of physical activity, and lack of sleep.  With the following pointers and tips, you can boost yourself to a better mood and work to lessen the impact of stress on your day-to-day.

Basic Strategies to Combat Stress

1.) Prioritize your to-do list based on your values. Be realistic and allow for more time to finish a task.  Consider sleep a high priority! If you aren’t getting at least 7 hours a night, something needs to change.

2.) Plan ahead.  Block a specific time in your week to plan meals and snacks for the week and grocery shop.  Keep a binder of quick and healthy recipes and snacks to make planning an easy, fun task.  Keep gym shoes and loose-fitting clothing in your car or bag so you are always prepared to fit in a quick walk or run when time allows.

3.) Savor your food.  To do this, incorporate the following tips during meals or when eating –

  • Stay off your computer or phone when you’re eating and focus only on enjoying your food.
  • Slow down. It takes 20 minutes for the hormones in your gut to tell your vagus nerve and your brain that you’re full.
  • Appreciate your food. Taking time to cook our food causes us to consider the effort spent and be grateful.
  • Focus on conversation with family and friends.
  • Be aware of how you’re feeling. Feelings of anxiety, fear, worry, and feeling rushed or busy can overwhelm the taste of food.
    • Take a deep breath and focus on what is enjoyable for you about the food (i.e. I’m excited to try a new healthy snack today!). Say to yourself “I can relax and enjoy this food.”
    • Savor each bite and think about the taste, texture, richness and contentment it gives you.

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Managing Caffeine Intake
Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant and a diuretic but we often abuse to boost our energy and make up for lack of sleep. There is no nutritional need for caffeine, however consuming more than 200-300 mg/day (the equivalent of 2-3 cups of coffee) can be harmful on your body. If you are regularly stressed out, anxious or have difficulty getting a good night’s sleep relying on coffee can actually make matters worse. Furthermore, if you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, reflux disease, stomach ulcers and have an irregular heart beat you should avoid caffeine all together.

Caffeine comes from a variety of sources, each giving your body a different amount.  Here are typical breakdowns for common caffeine sources: coffee (100mg per 8oz cup), tea (14-60mg per 8oz cup), chocolate (45mg per 1.5oz), sodas (45mg per 12oz) , and energy drinks (100mg or more per serving.)

The following symptoms may be signs of excessive caffeine intake. Be aware of increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, anxiety/depression, difficulty sleeping, nausea, restlessness/difficulty concentrating, increased urination, and dehydration. Take steps to lower your caffeine consumption if they apply to you.  The following tips can also help.

Tips for Managing Caffeine Consumption

  • Try sipping on herbal or green teas (no to little caffeine)
  • Fill an empty 2 liter bottle or gallon jug with water. Use permanent marker and write times to monitor progress.
  • Keep a water bottle with you at all times. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to drink it!
  • Harm reduction- “Today I will drink 1 less cup of coffee.”

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Managing Physical Activity
Physical activity affects our brain’s production of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.  Increasing physical activity improves our mental well-being. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) advises that healthy adults should aim for 150 minutes (or 2 ½ hours) of moderate cardiovascular activity throughout the week. That breaks down into 30 min, five days a week.  However, as long as activity adds up to 30 minutes and is continuous, even a 10 minute bout of activity is beneficial.

Your exercise regimen should involve cardiovascular work, strength training, and stretching.  Remember, a good cardio workout involves sweat, heavier breathing and an exerted effort. Although you may do a lot of walking in your day-to-day activities, strolling to the bus is not giving your hear the workout it really needs. For strength training, 2-3 sessions a week is recommended.  In strength training, focus on the “major muscle groups,” which means upper body, lower body and front and back of each area.  For example, biceps are on the front of your body and triceps on the back. Repeat exercises 12-15 times or do three sets/groups in a row to get full benefits. Finally, don’t forget to stretch! Stretches should be held for at least 10 seconds each muscle. Yoga or Pilates are great options for those who would like to remain active on off days.

Additional Tips and Suggestions for Increasing Physical Activity

  • Use a pedometer to track your steps!  Aim for 10,000 steps or about 5 miles each day
  • Take a quick walk outside after lunch or climb the stairs during commercial breaks.  Sedentary behavior (i.e. sitting on the couch for a long period of time) is a health risk in itself.
  • Every bit of activity helps!  Get off the bus or train one stop early, cleaning house, walking to the store/farmer’s market, playing with your kids, dance, go on a bike ride, walk and talk with a friend or family member.
  • Check out income-based gym memberships. Chicago Park District, YMCA, Planet Fitness are all great options.
  • Join a walking club or compete with friends or family.

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Sleep
Experts at the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute and the National Sleep Foundation recommend adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Why seven hours? While we may be resting, our bodies are still at work repairing and rebuilding cells in our immune system, regenerating hormones, making non-essential vitamins and minerals, and continuing other vital processes. When we don’t get enough sleep, normal metabolism and functioning can be altered.  We may experience excessive sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, headaches, lack of energy, problems with mood or irritability. If you regularly work night shifts or have a problem getting the recommended seven hours of sleep, read on.

Tips for Better Sleep

  • Minimize exposure to light- make sleep a priority! Try light-blocking curtains or wear an eye mask.  Avoid T.V., computer, or cell phones 1 hour before bed.
  • Make a ‘before bed routine.’  Take a hot shower or bath, have a glass of herbal tea, instill “quiet time” 30-60 min before bed (read a book, magazine or talkwith a friend of family member on the phone.)
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine several hours before bed.
  • Limit night shifts to five or less, with a day off in between. You can also avoid frequently rotating shifts or overtime work.
  • Speak with your doctor or a sleep specialist.

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Feel like you have a lot to work on? Don’t get overwhelmed. Make small goals that are easy to achieve and monitor your progress over time to keep and maintain good health. Write down the reasoning behind your goals (i.e. feel better, see my grandkids graduate, etc.), and post them somewhere where you will see them every day.

Remember, this is YOUR body; be nice to it. 🙂

-Erica

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