Whether you’re driving the kids to after-school clubs, trying to become a partner in a big law firm, or both, it’s hard to find people who don’t consider themselves very busy. Pensioners also complain about too much work. But the dark side of our increasingly hectic pace of life is the stress we expose ourselves to.
A work crisis hits, the WiFi goes down, the plane is delayed and we’re angry – and producing more of the stress hormone cortisol than our bodies need.
To be sane, you need to calm down.
Today, in part two of my series of tips for living longer, healthier lives, I’ll explain why stress is so bad for us.
Candle meditation is a great way for beginners to relieve stress
You may have wondered why you catch a cold or flu when you finally take a break? Well, that’s because every stressful moment we bang on our stomachs damages our defenses.
Our immune system is constantly under attack and we stay healthy most of the time because the trillions of cells in the body are always working to protect us.
But when our bodies are exposed to too many chemicals — and that includes the hormones released during times of excessive stress — our fairly powerful defense systems can falter under too much pressure, and this dysfunction leads to ongoing inflammation.
As I explained in yesterday’s Chron, when any type of threat – bacteria, toxins, trauma, even extreme temperatures – injures our tissues, our tissues become “inflamed” as part of the immune response.
This is usually temporary and the inflammation is crucial in triggering the process by which the body protects and heals itself.
But in some situations, inflammation lasts too long and can lead to DNA damage because too many defense cells (white blood cells) follow the body’s call and join the fight.
Sometimes these cells attack our own organs or otherwise healthy tissues and cells.
These attacks age our tissues, affect our overall health and, in some cases, can lead to autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease or multiple sclerosis. Researchers call this response “inflammaging” (inflammation plus aging).
HOW STRESS ACCELERATES THE AGING PROCESS
In just 30 minutes, anxious thoughts can weaken your immune response
When you are stressed, your body produces the stress hormone cortisol. In short bursts, cortisol limits inflammation. However, when you’re constantly stressed and develop high levels of cortisol, your body adapts to the high levels of this hormone, and it ultimately leads to increased inflammation — and therefore inflammation. This reduces your ability to fight infection.
In just 30 minutes, anxious thoughts can weaken your immune response.
The elevated cortisol involved in chronic stress also correlates with increased appetite and weight gain. It can lead to binge eating with unhealthy snacks or excessive alcohol consumption, both of which can cause nutritional deficiencies and a further weakened immune system. For this reason, maintaining cortisol balance is essential to health.
Cortisol is your body’s emergency room 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 reduced inflammation.
Everyone experiences stress differently, so there are a number of ways you can reduce it, including breathing exercises and meditation.
Try these proven techniques to deal with it.
EXTINGUISH THE FIRES YOU LIGHT
BREATHE LIKE A LION
Called Simhasana in Sanskrit, the deep breathing technique Lion’s Breath can help relax your face and jaw muscles, relieve stress, and improve your cardiovascular function.
Sit leaning slightly forward with your hands on your knees or the floor. Spread your fingers as wide as possible over your knees.
Breathe in through your nose. Open your mouth wide, stick your tongue out and point it down towards your chin.
Exhale forcefully and carry the breath over the root of your tongue. As you exhale, make a “ha” sound from deep in your stomach.
Breathe normally for a few moments. Repeat up to seven times.
Meditation turns off what psychologists call “monkey mind,” that constant loop of fear and worry that creates mental chaos. When you meditate, you sweep away that clutter. The goal is to become invisible and unavailable – even if it’s just for ten minutes a day.
Your body already has the tools to meditate and uses them. The reticular activation system (RAS) — a network of neurons in the brain — determines how you perceive and respond to the outside world. Broadly speaking, it controls your consciousness and stores all the data you collect through your senses.
For example, in a noisy restaurant with a friend or partner, you can block out all background noise to focus on your conversation. This is your RAS in action. It allows your mind to work in the background and keep your systems active without bombarding them with constant sensory input.
Your RAS creates an intentional filter for the focus of your choice. It sorts the sensory input and displays only what is relevant. You can harness the power of your RAS to focus on the moment.
TRY STARE AT A FLICKING CANDLE
Candle meditation is great for beginners. Light a candle and dim the light so that the flame becomes the focal point of the room. Place the candle on a table at eye level and sit 2 feet away from it. Keep your back straight to allow your diaphragm full range of motion.
Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes. Take a few deep, slow breaths. Relax and release all the tension in your body.
Concentrate solely on the flame. Watch as it flickers, changes shape, emits a halo and flashes in different colors. If your mind wanders, don’t worry. Just lead it back to the flame.
You may need to cage your mind multiple times. The more you practice 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 that you breathe out
When you breathe in, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide, the waste product that you breathe out. When you take a deep breath, air fills your lungs and your lower abdomen rises. But many of us don’t breathe deeply enough, which limits the range of motion of the diaphragm, resulting in the lower part of the lungs not getting enough oxygen-rich air.
It can make you feel out of breath or anxious. Breathing problems can also cause fatigue, panic attacks, and other physical and emotional problems because they interfere with the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Deep breathing, on the other hand, can lower or stabilize your blood pressure while slowing your heart rate. To do this, you need to breathe deeply and slowly.
4-7-8: A METHOD YOU CAN TRUST
This exercise naturally relaxes your nervous system. Until you master it, do it while sitting with your back straight. After that you can do it lying in bed.
Place the tip of your tongue against the edge of the tissue behind your upper front teeth. Exhale fully through your mouth and make a hissing sound.
Close your mouth and breathe in slowly through your nose for a mental count of four.
Hold your breath and count to seven. Exhale fully through your mouth and again make a hissing sound while counting to eight. Repeat three times.
MAKE SURE YOU GET A GOOD NIGHT KIP
Sleep may not feel like a priority at times, but a lot of important activities take place in your body when you’re resting, including the production of infection-fighting molecules. Sleep is just as important to the best physical and mental health as food and water.
Less than seven hours risks all the negative consequences you can imagine, while more than seven hours gives your body enough time to reboot.
The tripling of sleep deficits over the past few decades has contributed to the obesity epidemic, in part due to the disruption of hormones — including those that control hunger — that occur when our sleep is disrupted.
Unfortunately, obesity compromises the immune system, which in turn opens the door to infection and disease.
A few nights of poor 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 by countless wheels over centuries. When a vehicle heads slightly east, it does not change ruts. As several thousand cars head east, they form a new lane, directing future drivers to a different destination.
When it’s time for you to sleep, your circadian clock kicks off the process.
At various points in your sleep-wake cycle, your brain also releases a variety of hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol, histamine, and norepinephrine, which counteract sleep to help you wake up, but when you’re under chronic stress, yours produces Body too much of these hormones, especially cortisol.
Studies show that sleep deprivation damages memory, motor skills and the brain. But you have the power to change all of that.
The following daily habits will lead to a better night’s sleep:
TAKE SOME SUN
Daylight has a strong influence on the circadian rhythm. Daily sun exposure helps sync your internal clock.
Exercise promotes cardiovascular health and sleep quality. You don’t have 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.
RESTRICT ARTIFICIAL LIGHT
Turn off the TV an hour before bedtime. Dim indoor lights with a dimmer or use a low-wattage bulb.
If you spend too much time in front of a computer screen or smartphone, consider glasses that protect you from blue light, which can damage the retina.
AVOID PSYCHOACTIVE DRUGS
These include caffeine, alcohol, and a wide range of drugs that contain psychoactive substances. Talk to your doctor about medications that might affect 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 relax, as can meditation and deep breathing.
Avoid intense reading before bed. You want to switch off your intellect rather than activate it.
© dr Leo Nissola 2023
- Adapted by Libby Galvin from The Immunity Solution: Seven Weeks To Living Healthier And Longer by Dr. Leo Nissola, out 10th February from Countryman Press for £23.99. To order a copy for £21.59 (offer valid until 12 February 2023; free UK postage on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.