In this article we’ll discuss how to better manage stress through fitness, diet and sleep. We’ll concentrate on why stress is bad for health if left unmanaged, how diet and exercise reduce stress, and how sleep helps reduce stress.

Stress is bad for health if it is not managed

Stress often makes us feel anxious, nervous, irritable, impatient with others, and overwhelmed. While a certain amount of stress likely fuels us – pushing us forward with our work and activities, encouraging us to do our best – however, at some point stress becomes high enough that it is detrimental to our daily lives. This is because the brain perceives the stress and sends out stress signals to the rest of the body, for the body to respond to that stress. The greater the stress, the more the mind becomes occupied with trying to deal with the stress; if the stress is not dealt with, and just remains inside of us, it festers, which disturbs the mind, and ultimately wreaks havoc on our bodies. Once the mind becomes aware of something stressful it sends out stress signals to the rest of the body, through hormone messengers. Until the stress is resolved, the body remains on high “stress alert”. In other words, this long-term (chronic stress) takes a toll on our bodies1, by affecting hormone levels (adrenal gland function – adrenal insufficiency), heart-rate and blood pressure (cardiovascular function/disease), as well as increased blood sugar levels, slowed metabolism and weight gain (all potential for the development of diabetes). Thus, it is very important to manage stress so that it does not negatively affect your mind and body today or over the long-term future.

How does exercise reduce stress?

Exercise is not only important for us to maintain healthy body weight or lose excess weight, and to have good flexibility and range of motion in order to keep us limber and mobile, it is also important for our minds by reducing stress, releasing endorphins to pep up our mood, and to help possibly ward off dementia as we age2. Exercise also helps increase circulating oxygen levels, helping us to feel better. With all of these amazing positive benefits of exercise, you would think it would be typical for the human brain and body to want to exercise, yet it is somehow human nature to have the need to convince ourselves to exercise. The common sedentary lifestyle of the 21st century likely stems in part from the technological advances of the 20th century – where everything is at our fingertips (electronic devices); however, this is an entire topic in and of itself.

When we feel stressed, our body’s “stress response” is known as “fight or flight”. Thus, when your brain detects stress, and your stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) begin to circulate throughout your body, these hormones slow down your metabolism and increase your “fight or flight” response – increasing heart-rate, blood pressure, and respiration – all things that are increased during exercise. The stress therefore puts you on high alert, so that you are wide awake and can react to the stress. All of these prepare your body to either fight through/against the stress (whatever it may be – an oral presentation, an animal attack, loss of a loved one, etc.) or instead run (escape).

When we feel stressed, our body's “stress response” is known as “fight or flight”.

When we exercise, endorphins are released, which bind to opiate receptors in the brain, giving us a positive “high” feeling (known as the “runner’s high”). This elevated mood typically lasts for several hours; however, the health benefits of exercise last much longer. For instance, we look and feel better when we are able to maintain a healthy body weight, and know that we are keeping healthy habits through exercising. We are also able to reduce stress during exercise, by focusing on other things: such as the music playlist we are listening to while working out; the scenery around us distracts us from our stress, which makes outdoor exercise particularly useful in this area; we often are counting the number of repetitions or checking on calories burned and duration of the activity, all of which detract from our stress.

So, unless you are constantly ruminating over and focusing on your stress while exercising, the positive circulating endorphins resulting from exercise and the act of exercise itself take our minds off of our stress. The endorphins then make our stress seem more manageable, because we are in an uplifted “high” mood, with a more positive outlook.

Sleep helps reduce stress and exercise improves overall sleep quality.

Reducing stress and anxiety through exercise (specifically through endorphins) helps us to fall asleep quicker and sleep better. Exercise actually results in longer periods of the deepest phases of sleep. Without good quality sleep, we feel drained, irritable, and unable to focus during the day time. Thus, with good quality sleep, we tend to be in a more positive mood the following day. Feeling awake, alert, and refreshed from a good night’s sleep allows us to manage stress better. If we are feeling suboptimal from not enough sleep or sleep that was not good quality, then it is harder to deal with stress during the day.

Without good quality sleep, we feel drained, irritable, and unable to focus during the day time. Thus, with good quality sleep, we tend to be in a more positive mood the following day.

When we are exhausted we often create stress for ourselves that would not even be there if we were well-rested. For example, we tend to worry about things, a lot of things, like how we have spoken to others during the day, just because we are overly tired, when in fact we have actually been polite to everyone we have spoken to that day. Thus, sleep is an important factor in managing stress. Being well-rested helps us to approach our day with a focused and clear mind, and allows us to deal with stress in a reasonable manner, instead of worrying about just about everything, which we tend to do when we are sleep-deprived.

Our diet can help us manage stress.

If you think of your body like a car, consider the fact that you would not be willing to put gasoline in your car that was not good for it – gas that was comprised of half water and half regular gasoline. You would also not put soda or junk food in your gas tank and expect your car to run optimally. So, consider why you are willing to think that your body can function well on non-nutritional foods and drinks. The best method is to take everything in moderation. Thus, allow yourself to indulge occasionally in sweet treats, but make sure that they are not comprising the majority of your diet.

Nutritional foods and drinks fuel our bodies and all cells of our bodies to keep them performing optimally. Our bodies are comprised of proteins, fats, minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, etc.) and are composed of ~60% water (bones ~31%, skin ~64%, kidneys and muscles ~79%, heart and brain ~73%, and lungs ~83%)3. This demonstrates the importance of each of these in our daily diets. When we eat a healthy diet, we feel our best, and this helps us to manage stress better than when we are not feeling at our best. Some foods are actually known as “stress-fighting”, due to their ability to reduce adrenaline and cortisol or increase serotonin levels: almonds, carbohydrates, various teas, dark chocolate, dairy (yogurt and milk), oranges, pistachios, salmon and tuna (fatty fish), oatmeal, spinach, walnuts, and soybeans cause the brain to release serotonin (a brain hormone that results in a relaxed and positive mood). While all carbs result in a serotonin release by the brain, complex carbohydrates stabilize blood sugar levels, which also helps with mood. Sharp swings in blood sugar levels can cause us to not feel very well.

Managing stress helps us to feel better which can, in turn, encourage us to exercise, have better quality sleep, eat healthy, and be able to manage future stress.
Take Home Points
  • Managing stress helps us to feel better which can, in turn, encourage us to exercise, have better quality sleep, eat healthy, and be able to manage future stress.
  • Exercise and good quality sleep help to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Having a healthy diet, and eating “stress-busting” foods in particular, helps us to feel at our best. When we feel well-rested and have optimal performance from a healthy diet, we can deal with stress. Remember that a certain amount of stress fuels us forward, resulting in productivity in our daily lives and activities.

However, managing stress is important because stress oftentimes is higher than the small amount of productive stress. As you go throughout your day, keep in mind all of the things you can do to reduce/manage your stress. Remind yourself of the various “stress-fighting” foods. Think of all of the health benefits of exercise, and convince yourself to exercise at least 3-4 days a week – your current self will thank you for the endorphins and reduced stress, while your future (older) self will thank you for the maintained mobility/flexibility, weight maintenance, as well as the reduced potential of dementia. Keep in mind the importance of getting enough sleep (memory consolidation, maintaining body weight, muscle/tissue repair, clear mindset) and good quality sleep. You can harness stress-reducing power from your daily diet, your sleep, and exercise.

Articles References

Yaribeygi H. et al. The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review. Excli Journal. 2017; 16: 1057-1072. doi: 10.17179/excli2017-480.
Gottlieb S. Mental activity may help prevent dementia. BMJ. 2003; 326(7404):1418. PMCID: PMC1151037.
Mitchell H.H. et. al. The Chemical Composition of the Adult Human Body and its bearing on the Biochemistry of Growth. JBC. 1945; 158.

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