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The Biology of Stress

Posted on 12th October, 2015 | Comments Off on The Biology of Stress

As we end Mental Health Week, I can’t help but reflect on the many causes of mental illness; and wonder if we understood biology a little better whether we could improve our stress experience. In this blog I outline our natural, instinctive and biological action to triggers in our life and invite you to reflect on how you might be able to support your mental health more proactively. It’s a big topic, I’m only offering a little insight but it may pique your interest to learn more.biology stress 2

Hormones and Neurotransmitters made within us provide the foundations for life. They exist for our survival – as a species and as individuals. Their interactions result in feelings and emotion. Love, hate, trust, mistrust, altruism, greed, motivation, energy – or lack of – are dependent on these chemicals.

Cortisol: the Stress hormone, makes us paranoid, erodes trust and sympathy.

Adrenalin: stimulated with Cortisol. Increases our heart rate, fat burning, sugar released into blood for quick energy.

Endorphins: Relieve pain, helps us feel good. We can do anything in the presence of high enough levels.

Serotonin: improves our mood and socialisation, gives us pride and significance. Increases connections and gratitude.

Oxytocin: the love hormone. Critical to bond with others. Creates trust, altruism and generosity. The reason why we will do anything for the people we love and admire.

Dopamine: responsible for reward, pleasure and moving towards our goals. Double edged sword for its role in addiction, as it swings between creating Stress and increase Calm.

Note that Cortisol always triumphs over Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins if we let it go unchecked. You can’t feel generous towards your team mates if the team environment is stressed.

Self Care, Nutrition and Fitness

Given the level of stress, anxiety, depression and unhappiness in our societies, we may need to rethink our approach to life and improve our own self care – not to be selfish but so we can continue to contribute in healthy ways to our family, work and community. Self Care happens when you:

  • Have a positive influence in our lives including a mentor and a support network; Have an ‘Attitude of Gratitude’. We can’t be selfish when we are feeling grateful.
  • Develop Resilience to stressors
  • Exercise 4 times per week – helps to deal with stress and keeps you fit (Endorphins)
  • Eat a healthy diet – stress uses up lots of nutrients especially minerals
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol, smoke or use drugs – reduce coffee (Dopamine/addiction). Dependency never helps.
  • Get help when you need it – especially if you feel overwhelmed and not coping.
  • Are organised, have regular routines and plan your day, including meal times. Ticking things off our ‘to do’ lists increases Serotonin.
  • Have time out for YOU including Relaxation –music, reading, have a bath, watch a funny video, deep breathing and exercise. (reduces Cortisol)

General Food Guidelines:

  • Protein – Salmon, sardines, mackerel/mullet, tuna, Eggs, Tofu, Kangaroo
  • Legumes: soy beans, lentils, kidney beans
  • Healthy Oils – Olive, Avocado, linseed/flaxseed, Nuts and Seeds, Fish.
  • Vegetables – All different colours – fresh as a salad or steamed not fried
  • Fruit – Berries, Citrus, Figs
  • Wholegrains – Brown Rice, Wholegrain bread,
  • Drink Water, Herbal Tea, Mineral Water

AVOID: Fast food, processed food, fatty and sugary foods ie. Lollies, softdrink, fried food.

Emergency Help

Seek expert herbalist and nutritionist advice, especially if taking Medication, Breastfeeding or Pregnant! Don’t do it alone…

  • Herbs – St Johns Wort, Kava, Withania, Lemon Balm to name a few
  • Amino Acids – N-Acetyl Cysteine, Tyrosine, Tryptophan
  • Cofactors – B vitamins, Antioxidants, Anti-Inflammatories, Fatty Acids