Healthy Living Magazine


In her four-part series on the keys to overall wellness, Shawn Nisbet has already covered exercise and nutrition. In this issue, she turns her attention to stress and how to handle it.

At times, stress can be beneficial. But unmanaged stress is toxic. What we think and feel, and for what length of time, has an enormous effect on our overall health, wellness, and even our weight.
Yet many of us carry stress as a badge of honour. We may say we want inner peace, but when life becomes too calm we may seek our next hit of cortisol and epinephrine. For some, feeling stressed is synonymous with feeling important, valuable and useful, even though we know stress can be negative to our health.

Know the Symptoms

Early symptoms of stress may be cognitive, emotional, physical or behavioural, and all too often, may be ignored. These include: fatigue; poor judgment; negative outlook; excessive worrying, moodiness, irritability and agitation; inability to relax; feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression; memory loss and inability to concentrate; cold hands or feet; dizziness; lower back pain; poor quality sleep; asthma; allergies or sensitivities; sweet and/or salty cravings; hormonal imbalances; irritability; headaches; gastrointestinal problems, from diarrhea and constipation to IBS; skin problems, from acne to eczema; and arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

Know the Potential Effects

Chronic stress can cause imbalances of the stress hormone cortisol. This can lead to: blood sugar problems such as hypoglycemia; weight gain or loss; compromised immune function; infertility; chronic fatigue; bone loss; high triglyceride levels; heart disease; higher blood pressure; and higher cholesterol.

Recent studies also associate breast cancer, memory loss and sleep deprivation with increased cortisol levels brought on by unmanaged stress.

Whether you are stressed because of constant demands at work or at home, or because you are really in danger, your body responds the same way.

The Damage Unmanaged Stress Can Do

  • Stress can slow wound healing and increase your susceptibility to infections. Stress is the ultimate immune-modulator and can reactivate latent infections such as cold sores.
  • Stress can change our gene expression. The chemicals your body produces when you are under stress can change everything from how your body stores fat, and how much, to how fast you age.
  • Chronic stress damages your body’s energy powerhouses (your mitochondria). Every cell in your body is fueled by your mitochondria and this can affect every part of your life. The good news is that this damage is reversible over time, as you begin to manage your stress.
  • Stress can increase pain such as backache and headache. Excessive cortisol makes the brain more sensitive to pain: this can excite the brain’s nerves and cause headaches.
  • Cortisol can negatively affect sleep. At night, cortisol levels should decrease and tryptophan increase, allowing your body to relax, sleep and recharge. High cortisol levels throughout the day will give you a second wind around bedtime, causing you to stay up late, have a restless night’s sleep and leave you feeling tired in the morning.
  • Stress reduces your ability to metabolize and detoxify. Studies show that when stressed your body is unable to break down fat or detoxify toxins – from food additives to prescription drugs. Stress can also increase your toxin burden by boosting your desire for high fat, high sugar foods.
  • Stress can have a negative effect on your cardiovascular system as your heart rate and blood pressure increase to allow you to fight or flight. This stress can increase the thickness of the arterial walls, leading to high blood pressure and heart disease.
  • Stress has a negative effect on your sex hormones. Stress increases your sex hormone binding globulin which can negatively affect the amount of testosterone and estrogen available to your cells.
  • Stress can weaken your bones and muscles. Studies associate higher stress levels with lower bone mineral density.
  • Stress has a negative effect on your gut health. Your gastrointestinal system is sensitive to stress hormones such as cortisol. When stressed, you may experience nausea, heartburn, abdominal cramps, diarrhea or constipation. Ninety-five percent of your happy hormone – serotonin – is in your gut. When you are nervous or sad, you may feel it in your tummy. Constipation can cause the recirculation of toxins throughout the body and increase the overgrowth of bad bacteria. Stress can also loosen the barriers between cells that line the intestines, causing something called leaky gut syndrome which can then lead to inflammation, food sensitivities and autoimmune diseases.
  • Stress increases cortisol; cortisol increases insulin production; and insulin is your fat storage hormone. Chronic stress causes your body to produce too much sugar which your body then turns into fat which is stored around your abdominal area, often referred to as ‘the cortisol roll’. When cortisol raises your blood sugar, your body will produce insulin to help lower your blood sugar levels back to normal. High levels of stress cause high levels of sugar which can lead to drops in your blood sugar level. When your blood sugar drops, your body tells your brain to increase your blood sugar right away, and this makes you crave unhealthy foods such as sugar, candy, pop and desserts.

Top Tips to Decrease or Manage Stress

  • Avoid foods and beverages that unnecessarily stress the adrenals: alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, fried foods, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and fast foods.
  • Choose healthy foods that nourish your adrenals, nervous system and overall body: green leafy vegetables; plant foods such as garlic, onions, mushrooms, olives and fruit; deep water ocean fish such as salmon (wild-caught Alaskan), sardines and anchovies; foods high in tryptophan, including turkey, pumpkin seeds, nuts and organic eggs; and fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles, kimchi and miso tempeh.
  • Regular physical activity: Any aerobic activity (walking, jogging, swimming, biking) decreases stress. Just 20 to 30 minutes of activity most days of the week can help lower your overall cortisol levels. While fear can increase cortisol, regular physical activity can boost self-confidence, resilience and fortitude – and decrease cortisol.
  • Social connections: Two studies published in the journal, Science, show social aggression and isolation lead to increased levels of cortisol. Close-knit human bonds – whether family, friendship or romantic partner – are vital for physical and mental health at any age. Human connectivity and physical touch relax the parasympathetic nervous system, while nurturing relationships increase oxytocin and reduce cortisol.
  • Music: Listening to music you love and which fits your mood can lower cortisol levels. And if that music also makes you want to move, it’s a great way to increase the day’s activity.
  • Laughter: Having fun and laughing reduces cortisol levels. Dr. William Fry, an American psychiatrist who has been studying the benefits of laughter for the past 30 years, has found links between laughter and lowered levels of stress hormones. Laugh and joke as much as possible in your daily life and you’ll lower your cortisol levels.
  • Mindfulness: Some call it meditation; others call it ‘quiet moments’. Taking time for yourself will reduce anxiety and lower cortisol levels. Feeling stressed? Take a few deep breaths. This will trigger your nervous system to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and decrease cortisol. Learning more about meditation may be a step towards controlling your stress levels and gaining control over your overall health.

Shawn M. Nisbet, Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Yoga Teacher, Certified Fitness Consultant & Master Nordic Pole Walking Instructor 416.804.0938;;

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