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Stress and How to Diffuse It

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"After every stressful situation, we become a little older," says stress researcher Dr. Hans Selye. And Dr. Michael Roizen has estimated that American presidents age two years on average for every year in office.

The body responds to stressors—chemical, physical, nutritional, or psychological—by secreting stress hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones
  • Raise the blood pressure
  • Accelerate the heartbeat
  • Slow or stop digestion
  • Release fats and sugars from stores in the body
  • Cause cholesterol levels to rise, and the muscles to tense
Too much stress eventually inhibits the functioning of disease-fighting white blood cells and suppresses the immune response, leaving us susceptible to infection and disease. When the duration of the stress is sufficiently long the body eventually enters a stage of exhaustion, as it cannot cope or adapt anymore. [9]

Our body's levels of stress hormones are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) [11]. The ANS has two components that balance each other, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
  • The SNS turns up our nervous system. It helps us handle what we perceive to be emergencies and is in charge of the flight-or-fight response.
  • The PNS turns down the nervous system and helps us to be calm. It promotes relaxation, rest, sleep, and drowsiness.
Most stress management is aimed at turning up the PNS (or relaxation response) and turning down the SNS (or stress response).

Young people can easily reset their hormonal response system once acute stress subsides. As we age, our built-in mechanisms that keep stress hormone at just the right level gradually become less effective. At older ages, we continue to produce just as much cortisol as we did when we were younger, yet we are unable to turn down its level as easily. In this article, we'll look at how we can diffuse stress in daily life.

Health Hazards

To give you the motivation for stress management, here we list all the health problems that can be caused by stress.

  • Aggravate the mental anguish , amplifying anxiety and depression.
    • High epinephrine levels are associated with anxiety, while high cortisol levels are linked with drepression and feelings of helplessness or hopelessness.
  • Shorten the telomere
    • Telomeres are DNA at the end of your chromosomes that directly affect how quickly your cells age. As they become shorter and as their structural integrity gets weakened, then cells age and die more quickly.
    • The longer the stress, and the more stress we face, the shorter our telomere length and the lower our telomerase level based on a research.
    • Healthy lifestyle with stress management has been shown to prevent or even reverse stress-induced damage to DNA telomeres.
  • Damage the brain
    • Impair your memory
  • Suppress our immune system
    • Chronically elevated cortisol suppresses the immune system
  • Cause a heart attack or stroke
    • Rampaging stress hormones also cause more sugar to spill into the bloodstream, which, in turn, damages blood vessels, paving the way for heart attacks and strokes, said Dr. Michele Bellantoni, a geriatrics specialist at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Increase risk of cancer [10]
    • Cortisol and adrenaline together increase blood glucose levels; many tumors live on glucose.
    • Cortisol also promotes insulin resistance, causing glucose levels to increase through yet another pathway.
    • Cortisol also appears to stimulate the growth and metastatic potential of some tumor cells.
    • Norepinephrine, one of the stress hormones, along with cortisol, increases the invasiveness of ovarian cancer cells in lab tests; it also increases their secretion of enzymes important in angiogenesis and metastasis.
    • In general, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline contribute to faster disease progression, quicker cancer relapse, poorer natural killer cell function, and decreased cancer survival.
  • Delay wound healing
  • Promote inflammation
  • Cause you to gain weight[13]
  • Cause depression
  • Exacerbate diabetes, and worsen your sexual function
  • Makes you age faster even at genetic and cellular level
    • Cause hypertension
    • Age your skin
      • Unresolved stress releases inflammation-producing chemicals into the skin, which accelerates aging, not to mention more frown lines.

    Stressors (or Stress Triggers)

    The stress response is not only elicited as a response to psychological threats. It also occurs when the physiology is exposed to damaging conditions or disturbances that threaten to throw it out of balance. Thus the stress response occurs at e.g. physical exertion, physical trauma, extreme heat or cold, diet, environment and when the body is diseased. In summary, stress triggers can be from different sources: chemical, physical, nutritional, financial, or psychological. While short term stress is healthy, long term stress or chronic stress trigger diseases and cause faster aging. 

    One of the the biggest stress trigger can be the food we eat. The stress response in our body created by "foreign" molecules in food is called xenohormesis[6]. The concept of xenohormesis describes the effect of these foreign molecules on our biology. They produce a stress response triggering the whole cascade of stress-related cellular signals that makes us sick. Dr. Rawlings has listed the following substances that most commonly cause a defensive reaction [9]:
    • Wheat and gluten products
    • Milk and dairy products
    • Chocolate
    • Sugar
      • One remarkable study in the American Jounal of Clinician Nutrition found that stress genes, inflammation genes, and insulin resistance genes were all turned on in people who ate more refined (not total) carbohydrates.
    • Alcohol
    • Tea and coffee
      • Caffeine raises stress-hormone levels
    • Smoking
    • Grass pollens
    • Fumes
    In addition, stressors also include:
    • Taking everything personally, any negative thought or perception, or rigid beliefs or attitudes can trigger the stress response
    • Anything that creates nutritional imbalances, inflammation, digestive imbalances, any toxin, or anything that messes up your energy production, will all cause an activation of the stress response
    • Overwork and schedule disruption
    • Sleep disruption
    • Inactivity
    • Extreme exercise
    • Low-carb, high-fat diet
      • Carbohydrates are crucial in the synthesis of serotonin, a natural mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, so diets low in carbohydrates may predispose you to anxiety and depression, which in turn raise cortisol levels. However, you should consume complex carbohydrates which release sugar to the blood more slowly.
    • Low-carb, high-protein diet
      • A diet high in protein and low in complex carbohydrates has been associated with high cortisol levels along with depression.
    • High ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s (see Omega-3 Fatty Acid)
    • Overeating
    • See Holmes and Rahe stress scale for a list of 43 stressful life events that can contribute to illness
    • See CareerCast for a list of most stressful jobs

    Defusing Stress

    Now we are motivated. But, how are we going to manage our stress? The following list of recommendations is your answers:
    • Exercise regularly[14]
    • Get adequate sleep[13]
    • Get adequate nutrition
    • Maintain positive attitudes
      • Focus on solutions, not problems
      • Redirect negative thoughts
      • If you can't change it, don't worry about it
    • Do the relaxation response once or twice daily
      • Don't do it within 2 hours of eating, as digestion seems to interfere with the effectiveness of the response.
      • Breathe deeply
      • Listen to music
      • Practice meditation, Tai-chi, or Yoga to control the breathing rate, blood pressure or posture
    • Move to mellow your mind
      • Surround yourself with upbeat, positive people
      • Laugh more
      • Reduce anger
        • A Hawaiian elder expressed it beautifully:
          • "You have to forgive three times.
            • You must forgive yourself, for you will never be perfect.
            • You have to forgive your enemies, for the fire or your anger will only consume you and your family.
            • You have to forgive your friends, for because they are friends they are close enough to you to hurt you by accident.
        • Count to 10 before answering or responding when you feel angry.
      • Give and receive affection
        • The Bible reminds us that it's more blessed to give than to receive.
        • By giving, we don't necessarily mean money but kind deeds that help the lives of others. While they feel the generosity, science indicates that the giver receives the biggest dividend.
        • Researches at the University of Michigan found that giving actually promotes longevity. Receiving, by contrast, had no such effect.
        • 95 % of the volunteer group said that helping others on a regular, personal basis gave them a physical sensation or warmth, increased energy, and euphoria - the so-called helper's high.
    • Grow plants to improve air quality[17]
    • Keep pets
      • Recent research has proven that children raised with pets are less likely to become asthmatic, more likely to be kind to other children, and more likely to have healthy self-esteem once they reach their teens.
      • Researchers are also finding that having pets positively influences children's physical and emotional development and even their scholastic achievement.
      • Another most celebrated "pet studies" conducted by Erika Friedmann found an unmistakable association between pet ownership and extended survival in patients hospitalized with coronary heart disease.
    • Get support
      • Talk with friends about your concerns and stresses, and ask for their support
      • Spirituality and religious practice: the power of prayer
    • Take magnesium: the anti-stress mineral
    • Try holy basil, a herb that may help counteract the effects of stress[12]
    • Don't use smoking, drinking, overeating, drugs, or caffeine to cope with stress. They make things worse.
    • Learn to say no. Don't promise too much. Give yourself enough time to get things done.
    • Leave room for retreat. Create your backup plan.
    • Be money smart to avoid financial stress
    Too much relaxation and you will end up in a blissful puddle[15]. Too much stress and you will be an inflamed, aging, demented, and depressed wreck. Paradoxically it's good that cells be periodically subjected to mild stress because it improves their ability to cope with severe stress. The key is the balance—i.e., to maintain a stable stress level.


    1. Brown, D. P. 2007. The energy body and its functions. Immunosurveillance, longevity, and regeneration. Ann NY Acad Sci. Epub 2007 September 28.
    2. "The UltraMind Solution" by Mark Hyman, M.D.
    3. Sloan, R. P., et al. 2007. RR interval variability is inversely related to inflammatory markers: The CARDIA study. Mol Med 13 (3-4):178-84.
    4. Pavlov, V.A., and K.J. Tracey. 2005. The cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. Brain Behav Immun 19 (6):493-99.
    5. Theise, N.D., and R. Harris. 2006. Postmodern biology:(adult) (stem) cells are plastic, stochastic, complex, and uncertain. Handb Exp Pharmacol (174):389-408.
    6. Yun, A. I., and J. D. Doux. 2007. Unhappy meal: How our need to detect stress may have shaped our preferences for taste. Med Hypotheses 69 (4):746-51.
    7. Understanding Stress Retrieved on 2010-01-19
    8. The effect of Transcendental Meditation on Chronic Stress
    9. "Food that Helps Win the Battle Against Fibromyalgia" by Deirdre Rawlings, N.D., Ph.D.
    10. "Life Over Cancer" by Keith I. Block, M.D.
    11. "Prime-Time Health" by William Sears, M.D. with Martha Sears, RN
    12. Holy Basil to Combat Stress by Andrew Weil, M.D.
    13. "The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan" by Michael Breus, PhD.
    14. Exercise and Its Benefits
    15. When Stress Is Good for You
    16. Yang-Style Tai Chi Chuan 24 Forms (Travel to Health)
    17. Air Quality: House Plants that Can Improve Indoor Air (Travel to Health)
    18. Travel for a Purpose