Deadlines. Relationships. Finances. Moving. Hectic Schedules. Family. Children. Work. School. Life. It’s called stress. And today more than ever, it’s easy to find ourselves overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life. So, let’s start at the beginning: what is stress? Meet the nervous system. A complex collection of nerves and cells located throughout the body that collect messages from sensory receptors (think the five senses) and send these signals along the spinal cord to the brain. Here the data is interpreted, and appropriate actions are signaled backi. We’ve all had the experience of lightly burning ourselves on the stove only to find that our body has responded before our brain has consciously recognized the heat. The action can occur in milliseconds.
When we feel threatened, our nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which signal immediate action. Heart rate, blood pressure, breathing all increase while your muscles contract and your focus sharpens. With speeds of up to 268 miles per hour nerves signal “danger” and your body responds with action. And these responses actually increase our strength, stamina, speed, reaction as well as enhancing our focus. Obviously when we are in danger this is a good thing. But what happens when we experience periods of ongoing stress? When our daily lives become unruly? When we live in a world of deadlines and demands, of juggling and multi-tasking?
Unfortunately, our nervous system doesn’t distinguish between emotional and physical threats. Whether there’s a tiger chasing you on the tundra or you’re going through a major relationship breakup – your body reacts the same. Today we live in a world of road rage, mass shootings, keeping up with the Joneses, bills, having it all... in short, we live in a world queued up to cause us stress.
In August 2018, major book retailer Barnes and Noble announced a 25% increase on book sales related to the topic of anxiety. Anxiety disorders now affect more than 40 million people every year (that’s 1 in every 5). In 2017, The World Health Organization said stress became a 'Worldwide Epidemic. 'According to the American Psychological Association 75% of Adults report experiencing moderate to high amounts of stress. Study after study around the world show that we are experiencing more and more stress on a daily and often chronic basis. So, what happens when our bodies become locked in stress overload?
When our stress response keeps firing day after day, there are physical and psychological impacts to our body:
Liver: When our bodies enter “fight or flight” our liver secretes glucose to give us an added boost. Which explain why chronic stress is linked to type 2 diabetes.
Digestive System: The parasympathetic nervous system controls digestion, repair and relaxation. Under stress our sympathetic nervous system activates, and blood flow is diverted to the brain and muscles which are critical for responding to danger. This slowing of the digestive system interferes with the regular contractions of the muscles along the digestive tract and decreases secretions needed for proper digestion. Over time, this can result in spams in the GI tract, an increase in acid production as well as intestinal permeability and may also have an influence on flora in the GI. Additionally, chronic stress is often tied to overeating (hello Haagen Dazs) and overconsumption of alcohol. As well as drug use. All of which can have a double negative impact on an overtaxed digestive system.
Muscles: Under stress our muscle tense to protect the body from injury. Which explains why muscle aches and tension headaches are one of the first symptoms of stress. Over time, chronic tension can lead to overuse of medication and lack of exercise which only further the cycle and impact of stress.
Blood Pressure: Stress causes dramatic, temporary spikes in your blood pressure. If those temporary spikes occur frequently, such as every day, they can cause damage to your blood vessels, heart and kidneys, and can lead to chronic high blood pressure.
Immune System: Immediate stress stimulates our immune system which help us avoid infections and heal wounds. But chronic stress overtaxes and weakens our immune system making us susceptible to viral infections and colds and actually increases our recover time.
Okay, we get it. A little stress can help us perform under pressure, but chronic stress is bad for the whole body. So, how do we begin to unravel this knot of stress? Buyer beware, there is no one single stress cure out on the market. Avoiding stress is about adapting a healthier lifestyle. And there are a variety of proven ways to reduce stress in our daily life which we will cover more fully in a moment. But, let’s start with a little-known stress reliever: vitamin C.
It’s become common to think of Vitamin C in terms of shortening the common cold, but the truth is vitamin C is so much more. The basics: vitamin C (technically known as ascorbic acid) is an essential nutrient. Meaning that it is an essential organic molecule required by the body to function. It works its magic for enzymes to functionii, as an antioxidant, and for the immune system. Like some other essential nutrients, Vitamin C, cannot be synthesized (or created) by the human body – we have to consume it. In its role as an antioxidant, Vitamin C inhibits oxidation. While oxygen is required for life, it also ages us. There are two functions of antioxidants. You often find ascorbic acid as an additive in food, because is counteracts deterioration. In the body antioxidants function slightly differently. Inside the body, oxygen splits into a single atom with an unpaired electron called a free radical. Free radicals are also a natural by-product of our metabolism. They can also be found in foods, medicines, water, air pollutants, exposure to x-rays, industry chemicals, even sunlight. Free radicals and oxidative stress are a buzzy topic. Even now studies being conducted to assess their role in health. However, we do know that when free radicals go unchecked, they cause damage to cell, proteins and even our DNA in a process referred to as oxidative stress. Free radicals and oxidative stress are a complex subject which we will focus on another time. Sufficed to say that there are over 200 diseases associated with oxidative stress. And antioxidants like vitamin c, step in and terminate the damaging chain reaction of free radicals by giving an electron to the free radical, thereby neutralizing it. And if that isn’t powerful enough, vitamin c also plays a key role in the maintenance of blood vessels, skin, bone and cartilage, as well as the moderation of our moods and energy. In addition, vitamin C has been shown to kill cancer cells and treat cardiovascular disease. Pretty incredible. But, how can vitamin C help with stress?
Vitamin C is needed to manufacture several important mood-alternating neurotransmitters including dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Dopamine creates feelings of pleasure and reward. It is involved in brain functions such as memory, attention, motivation and even regulating some body movements. Many drugs including alcohol increase dopamine. Norepinephrine and epinephrine play critical roles in our fight and flight response which we covered above. Epinephrine also called ... wait for it, adrenaline. Yes, this is the hormone that increases heart rate and blood sugar levels and relaxes muscles in the airways to improve breathing. Epinephrine gives the body added energy. Norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline) functions very similarly to epinephrine except that norepinephrine also causes your blood vessels to narrow, which increases blood pressure. Additionally, norepinephrine increases alertness, arousal and speeds up our reaction time. A sudden rapid rise in norepinephrine can cause panic attacks, while really low levels can cause depression.
Meanwhile, vitamin c helps to reduce stress by clearing out cortisol in the bloodstream. Cortisol is THE key stress hormone. Released by the adrenal glands, cortisol regulates blood pressure and increases blood sugar, it controls our awake/sleep cycle, boosts energy, reduces inflammation and manages how our body uses carbohydrates, fats and protein – all critical in the fight or flight response. However, when your body is in high-alert, cortisol can also shut down functions like digestion and reproduction, even the immune system or growth process. Vitamin C not only reduces cortisol in the bloodstream but also has a known impact on reducing blood pressure.
Here’s where the research comes in. Many studies have demonstrated the effects of high dose vitamin c in reducing stress in animals. In 2015 a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial studied the effects of oral vitamin c supplementation and its impact on anxiety in school students. Using the Beck Anxiety Inventory, the study provided evidence that vitamin c plays a therapeutic role for anxiety and led researchers to believe that antioxidants may be beneficial in the prevention of anxiety. In an earlier and widely cited double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, American and German researchers subjected 120 male and female participants ranging in age from 20-40 to a five-minute mic'd and video recorded oral presentation audience, followed up with another five minutes of mental arithmetic performed out loud. The experimental group received two 500 mg sustained-release vitamin C capsules four times a day for 14 days. The results? In researcher Stuart Brody’s own words “Blood pressure just before the stress, and up to 40 minutes after, was significantly lower in the vitamin C group. The subjects on vitamin C also reported significantly less stress and anxiety after the stressful situation. We also found no greater incidence of side effects associated with the supplement, compared to the placebo.” Need more reading material on the impact of vitamin C on Cortisol?
Okay, you get the idea. It’s clear that vitamin c plays a crucial role on clearing cortisol from the bloodstream and that this has a definitive impact on stress. But this conversation would not be complete without returning to the topic of adapting a healthier, and less stressful lifestyle. First, there are important physical markers of staying healthy like reducing depressants/stimulants (such as alcohol and nicotine), ensuring you get plenty of restful sleep every night, and sticking to a fitness regimen. All of which lay the foundation for a healthy body and mind. And a healthy body is better able to handle stress when it does come knocking on your door.
Additionally, particularly during episodes of stress, it is important to create a calming environment for our mind (consider mediation or journaling) as well as initiating more life balance by prioritizing what is important - create a flexible schedule if needed or take a realistic look at your time management. Often, we simply need to accept our limitations and learn the art of saying no or setting boundaries at home or work that take our needs (and needs are different for everyone) into consideration. Remember: taking care of yourself allows you to take care of those around you.
Perhaps one of the most important things we can do is to create a support system. Fostering relationships and staying connected to friends and family enables us to talk through our trials and triumphs. Which not only releases tension but allows us network of people to lean on when need help. You don’t have to do it all. Having grandma pick up the kids from school, or a neighbor to grab our mail and feed the cat while we are on that business trip can provide a real sense of security in our lives.
And last but not least, learning to unplug and set aside time for YOU as well as taking control of areas of our lives that feel unmanageable (hello car repairs, educational goals, savings account, even finally dealing with those boxes that have been sitting your garage) these are all game changers in restoring our energy and managing that invisible mental checklist. Even simple things like scheduling limits on your social media time and turning off technology can play a big role in adapting ensuring success with a long-term battle with stress. And, if that doesn’t work just be sure to have some vitamin c on hand.
i Our nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic (“fight or flight” response) and the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”).
iiEnzymes serve a wide range of important function in the body and are vital for life. Enzymes (usually proteins) are utilized in speeding up chemical reactions within cells. They serve a wide range of important functions in the body