People have been living in a storm of stress during the ongoing pandemic and political turmoil, which has had a negative impact on our well-being.
A little bit of stress is good, and essential for survival, but severe or prolonged stress can increase the risk for stress-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and others.
Chronic stress is thought to contribute to excess inflammation throughout the body that plays a critical role in the onset and progression of stress-related disease, along with elevated levels of the hormone cortisol.
“Some concerns with consistently high levels of cortisol include elevated blood glucose levels, weight gain, increased appetite, GI issues, hypertension, and suppression of the immune system,” explained Felicia Porrazza, a Philadelphia-based registered dietitian who helps stressed-out clients find natural ways to improve their overall wellness.
Dr. Caroline Messer, a New York City-based endocrinologist, always talks to her patients about managing stress. “It’s unbelievably important for their sense of wellbeing,” she said.
“Often when patients come in with hair loss, fatigue and insomnia, they assume there’s a direct hormonal underpinning, but these symptoms can actually be stress-mediated with a secondary increase in cortisol levels,” Messer said.
Here’s how to start making healthy changes to reduce your stress levels.
Meditation practice leads to decreased physiological markers of stress in a range of populations, according to a 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis of 45 studies. Specifically, meditation can help to lower cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate.
A consistent meditation practice also helps us better respond to stressful situations, according to Ellie Burrows Gluck, a Vedic meditation teacher and the co-founder and CEO of MNDFL, a meditation studio in New York City that also offers live-streamed, at-home practices with meditation experts at MNDFL TV.
To meditate, simply bring your full attention to your breath, inhaling and exhaling through the nose. When your mind starts to wander, come back to your breath without judgment.
If you would like some support for your meditation practice, a guided meditation app can help you get started. Martha McKittrick, a New York City-based registered dietitian who provides nutrition counseling and wellness coaching to many stressed-out clients, likes Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer and Buddhify.
Find a hobby you enjoy
That can mean practicing an instrument, painting, cooking or playing with your children.
“I think anything that takes you away from day-to-day concerns is helpful for lowering stress levels,” Messer said.
“The key is to focus on what you are doing to block out the rest of what is going on. I play classical piano, and I love to bake with my kids … and (when I engage in these activities), I forget about the pandemic and work stressors.”
Schedule daily movement or exercise breaks
Engaging in regular physical activity is a great way to help manage stress and strengthen your immune system, too.
Aerobic exercise, which increases heart rate and the body’s use of oxygen, boosts levels of endorphins, which work directly on opiate receptors in your brain to reduce pain and boost pleasure, Messer explained. Exercise also reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, specifically adrenaline and cortisol, explained MaryAnn Browning, founder and CEO of Brownings Fitness in a previous CNN interview.
Messer advises patients to engage in aerobic exercise for 30 minutes, three times per week. “Aerobic exercise allows the muscle and liver to remove glucose from the bloodstream, increases metabolism, and can improve sleep patterns.”
Try riding on a stationary bike or simply taking a brisk walk. “As long as you are pushing yourself,” Messer said. And if you don’t want to go outside, you can just walk around in circles in your apartment while you talk to people, according to Browning, who added that she is able to get up to 23,000 steps in a day by walking and conversing at the same time.
Boost intake of stress-reducing foods
Foods like salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring are a rich source of stress-busting omega-3 fatty acids known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
Vitamin C-rich foods, like red and green peppers, oranges, grapefruit and kiwi, may be helpful in lowering psychological stress and blood pressure, according to one study.
And fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, kefir, tempeh and sauerkraut contain friendly bacteria known as probiotics, which have the ability to reduce stress and cortisol levels.
Avoid strict dieting
Limiting calories to very low levels has been shown to increase cortisol levels.
“If you are cutting back on calories too much in attempts to lose your ‘pandemic weight,’ you may actually be doing your body harm,” McKittrick said.
Eating enough carbohydrates is important, too, since they prompt the brain to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect in the body, according to McKittrick. On the flip side, diets that are very low in carbs can boost cortisol levels, she explained.
It’s also important to avoid long stretches without food. Doing so can cause drops in blood sugar, which can cause irritability and worsen stress, according to McKittrick. Try to eat something every four hours or so.
Cut back on caffeine
High amounts of caffeine can boost cortisol levels and intensify the effects of stress on the body, McKittrick explained. It’s important to pay attention to how your body reacts to caffeine; you might need to cut back or try herbal tea instead if you are feeling stressed.
Improve sleep hygiene
Sleep deprivation can contribute to higher stress levels, and stress can also contribute to poor sleep quality, ultimately compounding stress.
Aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep is key, as it helps to decrease cortisol and your adrenal load.
If you have trouble getting that amount of sleep, taking two naps that are no longer than 30 minutes each — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — has been shown to help decrease stress and offset the negative effects that sleep deprivation has on the immune system.
If you find you need additional support, meeting with a sleep psychologist can help in establishing healthy sleep/wake cycles, Messer said.
Research has shown that yoga can help in reducing cortisol levels and blood pressure.
Engaging in a regular yoga practice has helped me to reduce my stress levels. My girls and I love the YouTube channel Yoga with Adriene and have made it part of our bedtime routine!
“I recommend acupuncture to my patients when other avenues have failed … and a lot of patients swear by it,” Messer said. Feeling calmer and sleeping better are some of the touted benefits, she explained.
Getting outside and spending some time in nature can help relieve stress, improve your mood and boost feelings of happiness and well-being, according to the American Heart Association.
Research has revealed numerous health benefits from being in nature, McKittrick explained. Being near green spaces in particular has been associated with reduced stress, and is associated with reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Listen to music
Playing your favorite tunes can also reduce stress levels, according to McKittrick. Upbeat music may be helpful as a mood booster, while slower music can help to quiet your mind, relax your muscles and release stress.
Seek support and connection
Being isolated can cause an increase in cortisol levels, Messer explained. “Humans are meant to be social, it’s through our social connections that we keep our stress levels down,” she said.
If you can’t be with a friend or loved one in person, a phone call or Zoom meeting can help you stay connected.
Now that you have these tips, let’s get started. Pick one stress-busting strategy to start with this week, and then add another one the following week. Put reminders on your calendar so you will have your own personalized week-by-week plan for combatting stress.
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Building on these behaviors will boost your confidence and empower you to continue creating a lifestyle with lower levels of stress and improved health and wellness. That’s a silver lining while surviving a storm of stress, isn’t it?!
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.