National Stress Awareness Day

According to a recent survey reported by CNBC, “roughly 63 percent of U.S. workers said they regularly engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking, to combat work-related stress.”

The Wall Street Journal has previously run pieces about how chronic stress can increase cholesterol levels (and have equivalent detrimental effects on heart health as a poor diet) and how workplace burnout is reaching epidemic proportions – especially among the highest-performing individuals.

These articles in mainstream business publications do a good job of highlighting the particular problems with mental wellness and physical health that are associated with “chronic stress” versus short-term stress (which can often be “good” in certain ways).

Any type of stress, but especially the low-grade, chronic stress that we experience at work and in our stressful “too-busy” lives, leads to both behavioral changes (less exercise, eating more “comfort foods,” drinking, smoking, etc) and biochemical changes (higher levels of stress hormones like cortisol), which can suppress immune system function, increase blood pressure and cholesterol, elevate appetite, reduce sex drive, lead to memory and emotional problems, and increase fat gain – especially in the abdominal region (belly fat). Chronic stress can also lead to wide-ranging alterations in our gut microbiome – leading to mental wellness challenges including depression. anxiety, and burnout.

As the author of several books on these topics, a lead researcher on several research studies, and co-founder of Amare, the “mental wellness company” –  I continue to be fascinated by the strong association between nutrition/supplements and how we feel. The growing scientific database demonstrating the close mood state and metabolism effects of chronic stress highlights how strategic nutrition and lifestyle choices can activate many of the body’s own internal “anti-stress” protective pathways, thus protecting your physical health and mental well-being at the cellular level.

For almost two decades, I have run a program (where I live in Utah), that teaches people about the link between chronic stress and health (especially fatigue, weight gain, and depression). Our program generally reduces perceived stress levels and stress hormones by ~20%; increases levels of “good” bacteria by ~30%; and elevates mood, energy, and overall well-being by ~50%. Some of the “standard” recommendations to combat stress apply – such as being physically active, eating balanced meals, getting enough sleep, etc. But, we also educate people about what we’ve found to be our “top five” ways to resist the detrimental health effects of chronic stress:

1. Have an “Outlet” (a hobby or some diversion outside of work)…

2. Do whatever you can to make the sources of your stress more “Predictable” or learn to develop more “Control” over those stressors (e.g. by identifying patterns related to when your stressors might appear)…

3. Hang out with Friends (avoid social isolation) – tough times are always easier when you’re around other people…

4. Put the stressor in Perspective with other parts of your life – by learning to tell the difference between “big” issues and “little” issue. Ask yourself whether or not this source of stress will be important to you five years form now….

5. Look on the Bright Side (really). As simplistic as it sounds, the fact that you can look to “what is improving” in a given situation can help to psychologically buffer the stress in others areas…

We also look at (and measure) a wide range of “natural therapies” for controlling stress and improving emotional well-being. Our work has been presented at more than a dozen recent scientific conferences. Not long ago, I presented a study at the American College of Nutrition Scientific Conference that showed how chronic stress can reduce a parameter that we call “Vigor” (a combination of physical energy, mental acuity, and emotional well-being), and how a range of dietary ingredients (American ephedra, New Zealand pine bark, Green tea, Theanine, and others) can improve psychological parameters that are commonly disrupted by stress (e.g. mental focus, mood, tension, irritability, well-being). Next week, I will present some new clinical data at the Experimental Biology Scientific Conference demonstrating the stress-mediating benefits of microbiome modulation with probiotic/prebiotic/phytobiotic supplementation.

I think that it’s important for people to understand that chronic stress (including sleep deprivation) is “just as bad” for our overall health and well-being as eating poorly or being sedentary – but it’s also important to know that there are numerous “anti-stress” approaches that can help us to survive – and even thrive – in a world awash in stress. It’s not an overstatement to say that chronic stress is killing us – but we don’t have to let it happen to us. Fight back.

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