But knowing how to manage chronic stress is crucial and a major predictor of longevity (1).
While some (acute) stress is perfectly normal, regularly getting stressed out can lead to dangerously high levels of stress hormones (2).
This article will explain the idea of allostatic load and how we can better manage stress.
It will also explore the links between mental health, nutrition, and other lifestyle factors.
What is Allostatic Load?
When we have repeated exposure to stress, we can refer to this as having a high allostatic load. In contrast, someone who manages stress well will have a low allostatic load.
The ‘allostatic load’ term was first used by McEwen and Stellar (1993), in a paper investigating the mechanisms of disease (6).
Since that time, it has been a popular theory on aging. The idea also explains why some people’s bodies break down at a younger age while others live a long, healthy life.
However, it’s important to note that stress doesn’t randomly manifest itself. In fact, other important lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep, and exercise all play an influential role (7).
Is Stress Always Bad?
Experiencing stress is a natural part of life, and it’s completely normal to worry about an exam or whether you can afford that summer vacation. In fact, stress can be an extremely positive factor as it can provide encouragement to reach your targets.
It’s when we can’t manage our stress, and allow it to cause behavioral and/or physical problems that it becomes dangerous.
Fortunately, if we know how to recognize and manage stress, we can better achieve homeostasis (stability).
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
In truth, the causes of stress are multifactorial, and everyone is different. So, what bothers one person may not be important to another.
But each of us has some stress in our lives, and to manage that stress we first need to recognize it.
Physical Symptoms of Stress
There are several ways in which the signs and symptoms of stress can manifest themselves physically.
Here are a few of the most important common symptoms:
- Digestive troubles: stress can often cause stomach-related ailments such as cramping, bloating and heartburn, and it can also worsen irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms (10, 11).
- High blood pressure: stress typically raises blood pressure, which is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular heart disease and stroke (12, 13).
- Blood clots: Stress can increase the likelihood of blood clots, in part due to the higher blood pressure (14, 15).
- Immune Dysfunction: Stress compromises the immune system and leads to weaker resistance against colds and infection (16, 17).
- Elevation in blood glucose: Feeling stress can elevate blood glucose, in both diabetics and non-diabetics. Part of this may be due to stress impairing carbohydrate metabolism (18, 19).
Stress and Blood Sugar
When we feel stressed, the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. This response is a physiological reaction that readies us for a dangerous/threatening situation, like spotting a wild tiger walking towards us (20).
In this situation, our body requires more energy to either run away or to fight physically.
So, in response, the body releases glucose for extra energy, which causes a temporary blood sugar increase.
There are also several mental symptoms of stress to look out for:
- Mood: People suffering from stress can experience feelings of anger, anxiety, and frustration with life (21).
- Lack of focus: The inability to focus on work and difficulties in concentrating are both signs of mental stress (22).
- Depression: Many people affected by stress have a constant battle with depression and feel down about life in general (23, 24).
- Addiction: When we feel stress, we sometimes turn to something that provides us with comfort. This process can lead to various forms of addiction, whether that’s to alcohol or food can vary on the person. The most common of these addictions are sugar/refined carbs, cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. From my experience, I know many individuals who experience junk food cravings when they are continuously feeling stressed out (25, 26).
- Lack of energy: Not only physically, but also with the will to do anything. A lack of physical and mental energy is a common manifestation of chronic stress (27).
Only when we know how to recognize stress can we learn how to deal with it.
The Relationship Between Diet and Stress
Most people only associate stress with chronic overworking or a hectic life. But a little-known fact is that what we eat plays a large influence on our mental state.
Also, stress affects what we choose to eat and this makes our diet an essential consideration for stress management.
Links Between Stress and the Food We Eat
Amusingly, if we spell ‘stressed’ backward we get D-E-S-S-E-R-T-S – and there’s a definite connection between these two:
- Poor diet negatively impacts pro-inflammatory responses to stress, meaning that we cannot optimally cope with stressful situations.
- Stress worsens our metabolic response to unhealthy foods. To put it differently, our body has more difficulty processing sugars and large amounts of refined carbohydrate.
- Feelings of stress influence food choice and make us opt for poor quality foods (28).
- Higher levels of omega-6 and low omega-3 lead to greater responses to stress and more pro-inflammatory hormones (29).
- In a recent study, female college students with higher perceived levels of stress ate more fast food and fewer vegetables (30)
As you can see, there is a negative cycle that develops between diet and stress.
First, we feel stressed, and so we seek some ‘comfort food’ to make us feel better. But this is just a short-term fix, and inadequate nutrition hampers our ability to cope with stress.
We have a greater stress response, and we choose to eat yet more unhealthy food.
Unfortunately, this makes for a continuous negative cycle that some people can never break.
Stress and Other Lifestyle Factors
So, while many of us strive to eat well and get lots of nutrients from our food – this is only half the battle.
For overall health – and protection against chronic stress – other lifestyle factors are also important.
These include sufficient sleep, physical exercise, and having time to relax and enjoy life.
Some research in this regard has found that;
- Sleep deprivation has links to increased levels of both acute and chronic stress in many research studies (31).
- In college students, individuals with the worst quality sleep often feel the most stressed out (32).
- Severe insomnia is related to a much higher level of stress (33).
- Exercise improves blood circulation to the brain and improves the physiological reaction to stressors (34).
- Regular exercise has an anti-depressive effect and protects against stress, improves stress regulation systems, and decreases symptoms of depression (35, 36)
Why Do We Get Stressed?
It’s an unfortunate reality that there are many stressors in modern life.
However, not all of these are stressful to the same level.
For example, the stress of dealing with an upcoming university exam would be an acute stressor (good stress) – it will soon be over.
On the other hand, being the CEO of a large company with unhappy shareholders would be stressful on an ongoing basis. A chronic stressor.
To relieve anxiety and avoid bad stress, we need to know what our stressors are and take steps to deal with them.
Here are a few of the most common stressors in society today:
- Anxiety about something you have to do (A, C)
- Being stuck in a traffic jam (A)
- Catching a cold (A)
- Concerns about weight/health (A, C)
- Constant deadlines at work (C)
- Divorce (A, C)
- Falling out with a friend (A)
- Feeling lonely (A, C)
- Financial worries (C)
- Grieving (A, C)
- Large workload (A)
- Problems with the boss at work (A, C)
- Unemployment (C)
- Unhappy relationships (C)
- Upcoming Exam (A)
Some of these are acute (A) and some tend to be chronic (C). Others may start as something acute, but end up being a chronic stressor due to poor coping mechanisms.
Whether it’s stress at work or in your personal life, the key is handling your response to stressful situations.
To do this involves knowing how to pinpoint — and deal with — these stressors.
Stress Management Techniques
Optimizing your allostatic load involves avoiding constant stress, which can be debilitating if left uncontrolled.
In the first place, once we recognize stress we need to know how to deal with it.
Eliminating stressors in the short-term means a lower allostatic load, reduced risk of chronic stress and health problems.
Here are some stress management tips and strategies:
Confide in Someone
While it’s an old saying now, it’s still very relevant: a problem shared is a problem halved.
Talking to someone about problems in your life can help you feel better. And social relationships are so important for psychological health, especially when it comes to stress and depression (37).
Having something to look forward to can make us happy and relieve stress.
With this in mind, scheduling a few things that you’d love to do each month can be a big positive.
As a result, when you feel stressed out at work, you can try to look past it and look forward to the upcoming event.
Eat a Healthy Diet Full of Nutritious Food
Following a healthy diet is paramount to beating stress.
It’s better to avoid pro-inflammatory industrial foods such as sugar, refined carbohydrate, and vegetable oil (38).
In short, avoid most things in a box and eat a variety of dairy, fish, fruit, meat, and vegetables.
Get Sufficient Sleep
Make sure you have an adequate sleep each day.
Specifically, it’s best to aim for at least 7 hours per night.
Go to the Beach – or a Forest
In a UK study involving 263 participants, exercise in a natural green environment led to improvements in anxiety, self-esteem, and depression (42).
Keep a Journal
If you don’t want to share your feelings with someone else, then writing them down in a journal can also help.
Getting your feelings on paper can give some perspective and a way to vent your frustrations.
Learn to Relax
Take some time out for yourself and don’t think about work or your problems. Drink some wine with your significant other, or just lie back in a dark room and listen to your favorite music.
Or do nothing at all. Sometimes temporarily disconnecting from the world can be refreshing and an excellent way to lower stress hormones.
Exercising several times each week is great for overall health and a big help in reducing stress.
If you don’t have the chance to go to a gym or join a club, that’s no problem. In fact, bodyweight exercises at home are a convenient way to include exercise in your life.
Why You Should Avoid Getting Stressed Out
Stress plays a key role in chronic disease, but too many people accept even extreme stress as a normal part of life.
Therefore, to improve health, protect against disease and gain longevity, we need to limit stress as much as possible.
Here are a few reasons why:
- Associations exist between stress and cancer susceptibility, adverse survival, and tumor growth rate (43).
- A broad range of research shows that stress causes hypertension and significantly increases heart disease and stroke (44, 45, 46, 47).
Stress is a cause of inflammation in the body, which contributes to a whole host of inflammatory diseases. These include but are not limited to cancer, dementia, heart disease, and stroke (48, 49, 50, 51).
Another key point is that stress can often negatively impact personal relationships and marriage.
While a little stress is okay, we should be wary of chronic stress.
Through living a healthy lifestyle and employing stress management strategies, we can keep our allostatic load as low as possible.
However, if you find yourself feeling stressed out all the time – then confide in someone and consider seeking stress counseling.