Whether you're driving the children to after-school clubs, trying to become a partner at a major law firm or both, it's hard to find people who don't consider themselves super-busy. Even retirees complain of having too much to do. But the dark side to our increasingly frenetic pace of life is the amount of stress we are putting ourselves under.
A work crisis hits, the wi-fi goes down, the plane gets delayed and we are left feeling mad – and producing more of the stress hormone cortisol than our body needs.
To be healthy, you've got to calm down.
Today, in the second part of my series giving you tips on how to live a longer and healthier life, I will explain why stress is so bad for us.
Candle meditation is great way for beginners to de-stress
You might have wondered why it is that when you finally take a break, you catch a cold or the flu? Well, that's because every stomach-churning, stressful moment we put ourselves through is damaging our defences.
Our immune system is constantly under attack and most of the time we stay healthy because the trillions of cells inside the body are always at work to keep us safe.
But when our bodies encounter too many chemicals – and that includes the hormones released during periods of excess stress – our defence system, which is quite strong, can falter if put under too much pressure, and this malfunction results in prolonged inflammation.
As I explained in yesterday's Daily Mail, when any kind of threat – bacteria, toxins, trauma, even extremes of temperature – injures our tissues, they become 'inflamed' as part of the immune response.
This is usually only temporary and the inflammation is crucial in triggering the process by which the body protects and heals itself.
But in some situations, the inflammation lasts too long and can result in DNA damage because too many defence cells (white blood cells) heed the body's call and join the fight.
Sometimes these cells attack our own organs or otherwise healthy tissues and cells.
Those attacks age our tissues, eroding our overall health and can, in some cases, lead to autoimmune conditions such as coeliac disease or multiple sclerosis. Researchers call this reaction 'inflammaging' (inflammation plus ageing).
HOW STRESS ACCELERATES THE AGEING PROCESS
In as little as 30 minutes, anxious thoughts can weaken your immune response
When stressed, your body produces the stress hormone cortisol. In short spurts, cortisol limits inflammation. However, if you are continually stressed and develop high levels of cortisol, your body adjusts to the high level of this hormone and it ultimately leads to an increase in inflammation – and so, inflammaging. This lowers your ability to fight infections.
In as little as 30 minutes, anxious thoughts can weaken your immune response.
The raised cortisol involved in chronic stress also correlates with increased appetite and weight gain. It can lead to binge-eating unhealthy snacks or excessive alcohol consumption, both of which can cause nutritional deficiencies and a further weakened immune system. That's why maintaining cortisol balance is essential for health.
Cortisol is your body's emergency department, there for momentary crises but not a substitute for daily good habits. Managing stress by reducing its triggers – toxic thoughts, places, people – can help unlock the secrets to better immune health and lowered inflammation.
Everyone experiences stress differently, so you can decrease it in a variety of ways, including breathing exercises and meditation.
Try these proven techniques to help deal with it.
EXTINGUISH THE FIRES INFLAMING YOU
Meditation turns off what psychologists call the 'monkey mind', that constant loop of anxiety and worries that creates mental chaos. When you meditate, you sweep that disorder away. The goal is to become unseen, unreachable – even if only for ten minutes a day.
Your body already has the tools to meditate and uses them. The reticular activating system (RAS) – a network of neurons located in the brain – determines how you perceive and react to the external world. In broad terms, it controls your consciousness, gatekeeping all the data you collect through your senses.
For example, in a loud restaurant, with a friend or partner, you can tune out all the extraneous noise to concentrate on your conversation. That's your RAS in action. It allows your mind to work in the background, keeping your systems active without bombarding them with constant sensory input.
Your RAS creates an intentional filter for your focus of choice. It sorts through the sensory input and displays only what's relevant. You can harness the power of your RAS to concentrate on the moment.
TRY STARING AT A FLICKERING CANDLE
Candle meditation is great for beginners. Light a candle and dim the lights so the flame becomes the focal point of the room. Place the candle at eye level on a table, and sit in front of it, 2ft away. Keep your back straight to allow your diaphragm a full range of motion.
Set a timer for ten or 15 minutes. Take a couple of deep, slow breaths. Relax and release any tension in your body.
Focus solely on the flame. Observe as it flickers, changes shape, emits a halo and flashes a variety of colours. If your mind wanders, don't worry. Just lead it back to the flame.
You may have to corral your mind several times. The more you practise it, the easier it becomes.
MASTER THE ART OF DEEP BREATHING
When you breathe in, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide, the waste product you exhale
When you breathe in, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide, the waste product you exhale. When you take a deep breath, air fills your lungs and your lower belly rises. But many of us don't breathe deeply enough and this limits the diaphragm's range of motion, resulting in the bottom part of the lungs not receiving enough oxygenated air.
You may feel out of breath or anxious as a result. Breathing problems can also cause fatigue, panic attacks and other physical and emotional problems because they disrupt the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Deep breathing, on the other hand, can lower or stabilise your blood pressure while also slowing your heartbeat. To do this, you need to breathe deeply and slowly.
4-7-8: A METHOD YOU CAN COUNT ON
This exercise naturally relaxes your nervous system. Until you master it, do it seated with your back straight. After that, you can do it while lying in bed.
Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth. Completely exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound again, to a count of eight. Repeat three times.
MAKE SURE YOU GET A GOOD NIGHT'S KIP
Sleep might not feel like a priority sometimes, but a lot of critical activity takes place in your body when you rest, including the production of molecules that fight infections. Sleep is just as important as food and water for the best physical and mental health.
Fewer than seven hours risks all the negative outcomes you can imagine: while more than seven hours gives your body enough time to reset.
The threefold increase in sleep deficits in recent decades has contributed to the obesity epidemic, partly due to the disruption of hormones – including those that govern hunger – that occurs when our sleep is interrupted.
Unfortunately, obesity impairs the immune system, which in turn opens the door to infections and disease.
A few nights of bad sleep won't destroy your overall health but a chronic pattern of poor sleep can lead to increased calorie intake, weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other problems.
Think of a road with ruts carved over centuries by countless wheels. If one vehicle goes slightly east, it won't change the ruts. If several thousand cars drive east, they'll form a new rut that will take future drivers to a different destination.
When it's time for you to sleep, your circadian clock sets the process in motion.
At various points in your sleep-wake cycle, your brain also releases a variety of hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol, histamine and norepinephrine, which counter sleep to help you wake up, but if you are under chronic stress, your body produces too much of these hormones, especially cortisol.
Studies show that sleep deprivation harms memory, motor skills and the brain. But you have the power to change all that.
The following daily habits will lead to better rest at night:
GET SOME SUN
Daylight has a strong influence on circadian rhythms. Daily exposure to sunlight will help synchronise your internal clock.
Exercise benefits cardiovascular health and sleep quality. You don't need to be a triathlete to reap the benefits. Even a moderate walk can help and it's also a great way to get some daylight exposure.
LIMIT ARTIFICIAL LIGHTS
Turn off the TV an hour before you want to be asleep. Dim indoor lighting with a dimmer or use a low-watt lamp.
If you spend too much time in front of a computer screen or smartphone, consider getting eyeglasses that protect you from blue light, as it can cause retinal damage.
AVOID PSYCHOACTIVE DRUGS
This includes caffeine, alcohol and a wide range of medications containing psychoactive substances. Talk to your doctor about any medications that might be interfering with your rest.
It sounds simple, but in our go-go-go world we often forget to relax. A warm bath or yoga can help you unwind, as can meditation and deep breathing.
Before bed, avoid intense reading material. You want to unplug rather than activate your intellect.
© Dr Leo Nissola 2023
- Adapted by Libby Galvin from The Immunity Solution: Seven Weeks To Living Healthier And Longer by Dr Leo Nissola, to be published by Countryman Press on February 10 at £23.99. To order a copy for £21.59 (offer valid to February 12, 2023; UK p&p free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.