Many of us have heard that we should "reduce our stress”.
A certain amount of stress is normal and healthful … but stress caused by things beyond our control can do real harm.
Chronic stress is linked to heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma.
On a day to day basis, chronic, harmful stress can drain life of enjoyment, and make you feel crummy.
It would be great if we could remove the sources of harmful stress ... but that's not so easy.
For example, how many of us can fire an unreasonable boss, have a toddler get his or her own dinner, or move a burdensome project deadline?
The sad truth is that unhealthful stress is part of our multi-tasking lives in the 21st century.
The great news is that stress is like brushing our teeth to prevent decay… there are things you can do to protect yourself.
Just as starchy food sticks to teeth and causes decay, accumulated stress causes continual release of the hormone cortisol, which promotes inflammation and can actually damage parts of the brain responsible for memory and thinking.
When it comes to tooth decay, the solution is not to stop eating, but to brush and floss daily.
Likewise, simple daily habits can ease or neutralize the cumulative impact of stress caused by things beyond our control.
Exercise: An excellent stress-buster
In addition to helping physical health, exercise is can greatly ease the impact of chronic stress.
Exercise helps you glide above the day's aggravations, through repeated motions that shift focus from your mind to your body.
It also stimulates the release of feel-good chemicals such as endorphins … and generates a greater sense of well-being.
And, by concentrating your attention on the rhythm and beat of your exercise, exercise brings many of the benefits of meditation.
Lastly, our bodies and the movements and positions we put them in have been shown to have a profound effect on hormones, including stress hormones.
Balanced hormones fight stress
Testosterone and cortisol are the hormones most closely linked to stress and stress management.
Although it's a simplification, you can think of testosterone as the "confidence” hormone, and consider cortisol the "stress-reaction” hormone.
Stress becomes less harmful when your testosterone levels reach their highest natural level and your cortisol levels stay as low as possible.
Here are 5 simple ways to help balance your hormones and blunt the impact of stress:
- Power Poses: A study from Harvard showed that standing or sitting in a confident position ... so-called Wonder Woman or Superman poses ... for two minutes can cut cortisol levels by 25% and raise testosterone levels rise by 20%. (See the illustration below for some examples.) Take a confident stance before and during a stressful situation, and make it a habit to help reduce the impact of daily stresses.
- Walk, especially outdoors. Extreme exercise can produce stress all on its own. Walking outdoors is shown to boost levels of human growth hormone and reduce stress.
- Yoga incorporates breathing and stretching: two things that help our muscles relax and lower stress.
- Dancing – by yourselves or with others – shifts your focus to music and movement, leaving less room for stressful thoughts and obsessions. And studies show that ballroom dancing twice a week can lower the risk of dementia.
- Breathing is the most powerful stress-reduction tool I know. Breathing deeply and allowing your belly to expand stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. Try the following: breathe in through your nose for the count of 4, hold your breath for the count of 7, and exhale through your mouth for the count of 8. Practice three of these controlled breaths before each meal and before going to bed. You'll be amazed at the change in how you feel.
Power Poses - image credit:Amy Cuddy, Harvard University
To relax, get in the flow
We think of relaxation as not doing something.
The reality is that when we "relax” by watching TV or spending time on our iPads we actually add stress.
Instead, exercise or do something engaging to "get in the flow” and thereby turn on relaxation … and that something can be as easy as conscious, controlled breathing.
One more important thing is to remember that some of us exercise too much and/or too hard.
Exercise can be a significant stress on our adrenal glands, and if you push too hard while feeling fatigued, the result will be more belly fat rather than more muscles.
In short, exercise smarter, not harder!
Committed to your Vitality,
About Dr. Tami
Tami Meraglia, MD, is the best-selling author of The Hormone Secret, and a physician who's double board-certified in Cosmetic Medicine and Integrative Medicine.
Dr. Tami, as her patients call her, focuses on hormones and ways to boost and balance them.
Learn more about her and her passionate advocacy for women's health at drtami.com.