IT’S no longer just a problem we face on an occasional basis.
Stress has been called the health epidemic of the 21st century by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with research by the Mental Health Foundation finding that 74 per cent of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year, that they’ve felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
In fact, around one in 14 UK adults feel stressed every single day.
What’s even more concerning is that 16 per cent of adults have admitted to self-harming as a result of stress.
With November 2 marking Stress Awareness Day, it’s time to recognise the symptoms of stress and make efforts to reduce them, before they become even more of a problem.
While short term stress can be good, triggering a release of adrenaline in the body and kicking us into fight or flight mode to help us deal with certain situations, it’s the chronic, long term stress that leads to problems.
Dr Sarah Brewer, Healthspan’s Medical Director, explains that short term responses to stress help you mobilise energy and prepare for a sudden burst of intense exercise - your flight or fight response.
She says: “If the energy is not consumed however, it builds up and if prolonged, will drain your energy reserves.”
She explains that while short-term physical symptoms of stress are common when the flight or fight reaction is initiated - such as a racing heart and sweaty palms - they become more persistent and severe if you experience long-term negative stress.
Ignoring these long term symptoms can lead to bigger problems over time; stress has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer, to name just a few.
The list of physical symptoms associated with stress is a long one and includes dry mouth, muscle tension, a stiff jaw, difficulty swallowing, jelly legs, heart palpitations, dizziness, ringing in the ears, pins and needles, headaches and chest pain. None should be ignored.
Here, Dr Brewer tackles six physical symptoms of stress and how to deal with them, fast…
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Stomach in a lot of pain? It might not necessarily be something you ate.
“Stress leads to muscle tension which reduces blood and oxygen circulation within the muscle and a build-up of waste products such as lactic acid which can lead to cramping,” says Dr Brewer.
Be sure you’re not dehydrated by sipping on water regularly. Dr Brewer also recommends ensuring you have plenty of calcium and magnesium in your diet, as these are needed for muscle relaxation.
“Increase dietary intakes of dairy products, dark green leaves, seafood, nuts and seeds and drink sufficient fluids.
“Supplements containing calcium, magnesium and vitamin E are often recommended to reduce cramps too,” she adds.
To improve poor circulation, Dr Brewer says that taking garlic tablets, omega-3 fish oil supplements or ginkgo biloba extracts can help.
“Ubiquinol (coenzyme Q10) increases oxygen uptake in muscle cells and is often effective where circulation is poor.
“If you get regular or prolonged cramps, always seek medical advice.”
2. Shaking hands
“Adrenaline puts neuromuscular junctions on red alert ready to react quickly, leading to trembling and quivering,” explains Dr Brewer.
She recommends gentle exercise such as walking or yoga, as well as breathing exercises to help overcome this.
3. Panic attacks
“These are thought to be triggered by overbreathing, also known as hyperventilation syndrome,” says Dr Brewer.
“During times of extreme stress, your breathing pattern changes as part of the fight or flight response, so you take quick, irregular, shallow breaths that help to draw in more oxygen more quickly.
“This in turn means you blow off more carbon dioxide - a waste acid gas produced by your metabolism.
“If you continue hyperventilating, you will soon exhale so much carbon dioxide that your blood loses acidity and becomes increasingly alkaline.
“This affects the transmission of nerve signals and causes physical symptoms of dizziness, faintness and pins and needles,” she adds.
These symptoms can heighten your sense of panic so you tend to breathe even faster, blowing off even more carbon dioxide, which can then trigger a panic attack.
Dr Brewer says the classic advice to breathe in and out of a paper bag is designed to ensure you re-inhale some of your lost carbon dioxide to replace acidity and relieve your symptoms.
“CBD drops can also help reduce stress and anxiety,” she adds.
Although stress can leave you fatigued and exhausted, it can also keep you awake at night. Dr Brewer says insomnia is associated with the whirling thoughts that accompany stress and anxiety.
There are some supplements that can help though.
Magnesium, needed for the synthesis of melatonin, your natural sleep-inducing hormone, has been proven to help with insomnia.
Valerian is a traditional herbal remedy also used to treat insomnia linked with anxiety.
“It has a calming action to reduce anxiety and restlessness, to help you fall asleep and achieve a deeper level of sleep more quickly,” adds Dr Brewer. Try Healthspan Valerian SleepAid (£15.45 for 60 tablets).
You could also try 5-HTP, a unique amino acid that acts as a building block to make the feel-good hormone serotonin and sleep hormone melatonin.
“Taking 5-HTP helps you fall asleep more quickly and extends the length of time spent in REM (rapid eye movement, or dreaming) sleep, so you awake feeling more refreshed,” explains Dr Brewer.
5. Digestive issues
Ongoing stress can lead to problems in the gut such as bloating, gas, diarrhoea or even vomiting.
“This is due to blood being shunted away from the gut towards the muscles for the flight or fight response.
“The gut also naturally empties during extreme stress via vomiting and/or diarrhoea, which makes the body lighter for running.
“Once stress is over or ‘reset’ by exercise, the body returns to rest and digest mode,” says Dr Brewer.
Plus, she adds that stress also has a profound effect on your gut microbiome which, in turn, “affects the production of serotonin within the bowel wall which regulates bowel contractions”.
Serotonin is also involved in regulating mood within the brain so naturally, imbalances in gut bacteria can lead to a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms during times of stress, but it is often overlooked as a cause of ill health.
Dr Brewer recommends taking a probiotic to help with any gut imbalances.
6. Sexual difficulties
Libido lacking? “Stress is one of the most widespread causes of loss of libido, along with overworking, tiredness and lack of sleep,” says Dr Brewer.
“Excess stress is associated with a fall in testosterone and oestrogen levels, and an increase in secretion of prolactin – a hormone produced by the pituitary gland in the brain.
“Prolactin has a powerful negative effect on libido, and literally switches off the sex drive, as well as reducing fertility.
“Low sex drive is in itself a powerful cause of stress in relationships, so a vicious circle sets up.”
Improve a low sex drive by exercising, eating healthily and getting sufficient sleep.
For males, Dr Brewer adds that if anxiety and stress are resulting in erectile dysfunction, see your doctor or speak to a pharmacist about taking medication to help overcome this.
Ease stress, simply
Dr Brewer’s easy ways to dampen down long term stress
Keep a stress diary
A stress diary will help identify your main causes of stress so you can formulate sensible plans to overcome them.
“So you can find an inner spot of calm when all around you is in a state of tension or chaos,” says Dr Brewer.
“Stress can compromise nutrient intake by influencing appetite, food choice and depleting the body of micronutrients,” says Dr Brewer.
Try to focus on eating regularly and choosing nutrient-rich foods to help the body deal with the negative impact of stress.
If you have to, rid the house of foods which could make stress worse such as high sugar, high fat foods.
“Find time to sit down and eat slowly too. This will help avoid indigestion and heartburn.”
Take a multivitamin and mineral supplement
This will help to replenish micronutrients used up in the stress response and to safeguard against deficiencies.
“You may need extra B group vitamins if you are feeling tired all the time,” says Dr Brewer.
Exercise increases levels of the chemical norepinephrine, which helps to balance the brain’s response to stress and helps to balance stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
“All exercise will help but increasingly research is focusing on exercise which involves problem-solving, concentration and coordination like learning new dance moves,” adds Dr Brewer.
Pay it back
Helping others is a great way to reduce stress levels. Consider volunteering at a local charity branch, or, as Dr Brewer suggests, offer to spend free time walking dogs at a local animal shelter.