Stress is a natural part of being human and has helped ensure our survival as a species. Back when humans relied on instincts and bodily responses to stay out of harm's way, stress was very useful. Today, however, our bodies can't distinguish between real threats (being chased by a hungry saber-toothed tiger) and false alarms (feeling overwhelmed by a presentation at work). The high amount of non-threatening stress we face in modern times places many people under chronic stress which can lead to a number of physical and mental health problems including cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety.
Stress isn't only a feeling. Stress isn't just in your head. It's a built-in physiologic response to a threat. When you're stressed, your body responds. A high load of stress, tension and anxiety can wreak havoc on your body. Your blood vessels constrict; your blood pressure and pulse rise; your breathe faster. Your bloodstream is flooded with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. When you're chronically stressed, those physiologic changes, such as increased cortisol and adrenaline over time, can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress can be downright dangerous as medical experts have found many health problems related to stress. Stress seems to increase the risk for conditions like heart disease, obesity, Alzheimers, diabetes, depression and anxiety and accelerated aging.
We're breaking down what happens inside your body when you're experiencing chronic stress and anxiety so you can better manage it and prevent it. Here are seven reasons why women over 50 years of age in particular should prioritize reducing their stress load.
Stress promotes heart disease
We have all experienced it. Stress can cause our heart rate to increase and our blood pressure to soar. This physical response was the jump start our ancestors needed to flee or fight off danger. Unfortunately, if we are feeling stressed for long time periods the increases in cortisol and adrenaline that cause this response can lead to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases. The increased heart rate can also release cholesterol and triglycerides into the bloodstream, which can increase the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes. Why is this so important to women? Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.
Stress is linked to obesity
Stress causes our bodies to store fat in the belly region instead of on the hips and legs. Excess fat in the belly region seems to present a greater health risk than fat on the legs or hips. The higher levels of the hormone cortisol present in the body during a stress response signal to the body to increase the amount of fat that's deposited around the abdomen. Women over 50 who are abdominally obese are more likely to develop life-threatening and chronic diseases than women who are not obese.
Stress can increase the risk of diabetes
Stress can worsen and contribute to diabetes in many ways. First, it increases the likelihood of bad behaviors, such as unhealthy eating and excessive drinking. Second, stress seems to raise the blood glucose levels of people with type 2 diabetes. This is most likely due to the fact that your body thinks it is under threat and sends glucose to your muscles for energy to fend off the threat. Diabetes hits women hard, especially at midlife. In the United States, it’s the number six killer of women ages 45 to 54 and the number four killer of women ages 55 to 64. What’s more, diabetes increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and many other serious complications like blindness, kidney disease and nerve disease.
Stress causes headaches
When you body senses a threat and stress is created, your muscles immediately tense to prepare for flight or fight. These tense muscles often center around the shoulders and neck which can cause tension headaches and even migraines. Over the long term these headaches can wear down the body’s immune system. Lower immune systems for women over 50 increases their risk for flu, shingles and other auto-immune issues.
Stress is linked to depression and anxiety
When we feel stressed, the excess cortisol in our body prevents us from sleeping soundly and may even lead to insomnia. Without proper sleep our hormones are thrown out of balance and we can develop depression and anxiety. Studies show up to an 80% higher risk of developing depression and anxiety if chronic stress goes untreated. In women, the period of time leading up to menopause, also known as "perimenopause," can onset or worsen depression in women due to the changes in hormones.
Stress can worsen Alzheimer’s Disease
One animal study found that stress might worsen Alzheimer’s diseases by causing brain lesions to form more quickly. Stress even impairs cognitive function even before disease sets in. A 2010 review published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry found chronic stress negatively impacts spatial memory, which helps you locate objects, recall events and navigate a city. A woman's estimated lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer's at age 65 is 1 in 5. Alzheimers is as real a concern as breast cancer is to women's health, women in their 60s are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's during the rest of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer.
Stress accelerates aging
It may not come as a surprise that stress has been linked to premature aging. Think about it, if you’re stressed, not sleeping well, have an increased heart rate and a lower immune system, this creates a perfect storm for accelerated aging. A study that followed mothers caring for a chronically ill child showed the mothers’ chromosomes were affected to accelerate the aging process compared to a control group of mothers without chronically ill children. The stressed mothers seemed to add 9 to 17 extra years their physical age.
Stress Management Works
Stress can act as a wrecking ball on your body but stress management can be a powerful tool to help you preserve your wellness. There are many strategies to reduce and manage stress and one of them includes monitoring what you eat. Read on to learn how a stress management diet can help.
Foods help tame stress in several ways. Comfort foods like a bowl of warm oatmeal can boost levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical. Other foods can reduce levels of cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones that take a toll on the body over time. A healthy diet can help counter the impact of stress by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure.
Here are 6 foods to include in your stress reduction diet.
Despite containing caffeine, cacao is also excellent at helping banish stress, thanks to its high levels of the stress-reducing substances valeric acid and magnesium. Raw cacao also contains serotonin (which improves the mood and decreases stress), anandamide (a “bliss” chemical that produces a feeling of euphoria), and theobromine (a mild stimulant sometimes used to treat depression).
Green tea is a great source of vitamins and antioxidants, but it is a great stress solution because it is also rich in essential amino acids. Studies have found that the amino acid L-theanine and, to a lesser extent, arginine can help to diminish stress and anxiety. It appears that the main factor is L-theanine’s ability to reduce blood pressure and relax muscle tension. Green tea is one of the highest sources of L-theanine compared to any other food or beverage tested by science, so drink it daily for incredible anti-stress and anti-anxiety effects.
This up-and-coming herb is a very powerful option for those suffering from chronic stress and anxiety. Ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogenic herb and has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine as a tonic for longevity and immunity. Clinical studies of ashwagandha reveal it helps to regulate various systems in our bodies. If cortisol is too high, it acts to lower it; and if cortisol is too low, it acts to raise it. Ashwagandha is a great natural remedy for cortisol management. Look for flavored aswagandha blends that are as delicious as they are effective.
Nuts are great sources of healthy fats. Eating a handful of pistachios, walnuts, or almonds every day may help lower your cholesterol, ease inflammation in your heart's arteries, make diabetes less likely, and protect you against the effects of stress. Don't overdo it, though as nuts are high in calories.
Oranges as well as other citrus offer high amounts of vitamin C. Studies suggest this vitamin can curb levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system. In one study of people with high blood pressure, blood pressure and cortisol levels returned to normal more quickly when people took vitamin C before a stressful task.
Certain comfort foods, such as oatmeal, can reduce levels of stress hormones and also result in a boost in serotonin, which stimulates a feeling of calmness. Start your day off right with a warm relaxing bowl of oatmeal. Just be careful not to add too much sugar or you’ll undo many of the benefits.
Proper nutrition is not the only line of defense against chronic stress and anxiety. Be sure to include these 4 health-promoting habits. The next time you feel stressed, here are four stress relief tips you can try.
Just a few minutes of deep breathing can calm you and tame the physiologic stress response. If you are able, build in a time in your day to try this technique. However, if you can’t the great thing about about deep breathing is you can do it anywhere - think restroom, car or in your office. An advanced deep breathing exercise involves scanning your body from head to toe as you are breathing. Concentrate first on relaxing the area of the head. Relax your forehead, eyes and jaw. Then move down to your neck and shoulders. Continue to move down the body finishing with feet and toes. This body scan method helps to calm your entire body down and can be very effective.
Focus on the present
Many of us worry about the past or fret about the future. If you find you are living in the past or future, shift your focus on the “now.” If you play a musical instrument or a sport, aim to obtain the same level of concentration which places you in the exact moment to strike the piano key or execute your back hand. When you are in the moment, your mind is better focused and is more likely to provide a useful perspective.
Reframe the situation
Next time you become stressed think about the true reality of the situation. If you are late for an appointment does worrying about make it better? It is natural to become stressed in this situation but screaming about traffic isn’t going to change the situation. Better to accept what has happened and move on. Think proactively and see the stress and an opportunity to recognize ways you can prevent such situations in the future.
Keep your perspective
Unless you are in a life-threatening situation, ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? When dealing with a problem ask yourself “What happens if I don’t perform optimally in this situation?” Another relevant question may be “If this doesn’t happen, will it really matter a year from now?” Most of us don’t remember stress-causing events month to month. So if it doesn’t matter at a later date, don’t fret about it now.
While these tips on nutrition and relaxation techniques are important don’t forget to eat more green leafy vegetables, maintain consistent exercise — particularly cardio exercise. People who exercise and eat more vegetables have better moods, improved overall health and less stress and anxiety.