By Libby Weaver
The UK has had its fair share of distress in the last few months, including the most recent attacks on London Bridge over the weekend. Whether you are directly affected or not, these incidents impact adults and children in a variety of ways and for many, stress levels are high. In light of this, here are some ways to look after your health and your body in times of distress.
When we experience a stressful event, our body activates our stress response commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This is the ancient response system that is ultimately tied to our nervous system (specifically our sympathetic nervous system) and charged with the responsibility of keeping us alive. It changes our biochemistry in a very specific way.
If we needed to fight or flee from danger, we would need the use of our arms and legs; so in times of acute stress, our body shunts the flow of blood to our limbs. It also floods us with adrenalin: a (historically) short-term stress hormone that jolts us into action. Adrenalin is our high alert hormone—it makes us hyper alert to anything that might be dangerous in our surroundings.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s possibly because stress hormones are flooding your body and communicating to your body that it’s not safe to fall into a deep slumber that might be difficult to rouse yourself from should danger return. An adrenalin-affected sleep pattern may look like not getting to sleep easily, or waking up at regular intervals throughout the night. A sleep pattern affected by cortisol, our long-term stress hormone, may look like falling asleep with relative ease (unless you stay up later than 10pm and then you’ll get a second wind and stay up till at least 1am) and waking up somewhere between 2am and 3am with a racing mind that makes it near impossible to get back to sleep.
Good quality sleep is essential to help us repair and restore our body during times of stress. Doing everything you can to promote a good sleep cycle is one of the best things you can do for yourself during a period of stress. We need to communicate to our body that it’s okay to relax and science tells us the best way to do this is through long, slow diaphragmatic breathing. A daily routine of taking 20 long, slow breaths into your belly, or pausing regularly throughout your day to focus on your breath for a few minutes, can help make a difference to your body’s ability to relax enough to fall into a deep sleep. Any restorative practice like yoga, tai chi, qi gong or meditation will also help to balance our nervous system which, in turn, will help to restore our sleep.
Another system regularly affected by stress is our digestive system. With safety as our top priority and the vast majority of blood flow pushed out to our limbs, our body is not focused on digesting food. With digestion down regulated, our body’s capacity for absorbing nutrients is compromised. I probably don’t need to tell you that in times of stress, our nutrient requirements are only increased so promoting good digestion is also vitally important. On top of supporting our nervous system with good sleep and restorative practices, taking a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar or the juice of half a lemon in warm water 10-20 minutes before eating can help boost our stomach acid and improve digestion.
Making sure we eat well – whole foods, loads of vegetables – and minimising our intake of caffeine, alcohol, refined sugars and trans fats (all of which put added pressure on our body systems) is also highly beneficial. It may be a good time to boost our nutrition with supplements as when we are stressed our requirements for nutrients increases. A ground-up green vegetable powder can increase our overall nutrient intake, along with magnesium, vitamin C and herbs that support the adrenal glands and nervous system.