Stress. Everyone gets it, nobody wants it, and few of us know what to do about it. We often think of stress as a mental or emotional struggle, but stress can have a significant impact on nearly all body systems. Aside from the typical headaches, muscle tension and body aches, stress can cause issues with your digestive system and may contribute to cancer growth.
The human gut houses the enteric nervous system which contains more than 100 million nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract. This “second brain,” as it is often called, is the reason we experience knots or butterflies in our stomach when we feel stressed, nervous or frightened. These anxious feelings can also trigger digestive issues like constipation and diarrhea.
There is little evidence that stress can actually cause cancer, but we do know that stress can cause some forms of cancer to grow and spread. Chronic stress weakens the immune system, leaving your body ill-equipped to fight off disease. Un-managed stress also increases the production of certain growth factors that can accelerate tumor development (Source: MD Anderson Cancer Center).
The digestive symptoms associated with stress are some of the same symptoms linked to colon cancer, which can make it difficult to understand whether your digestive issues are sign of something more serious. If you develop ongoing digestive problems, it’s wise to schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss whether you need a colonoscopy. However, you may also benefit from evaluating stressors in your life and finding ways to control them.
April is Stress Awareness Month, an annual campaign dedicated to raising awareness about the causes and cures for stress. While we may not be able to eliminate stress from our lives entirely, we can all benefit from finding ways to manage our stress levels. If stress has been getting the best of you lately, try some of these strategies to help you relax and unwind:
It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Progressive relaxation is a stress-management technique in which you tense up and release each muscle group in your body, starting with your toes and working your way up to your head. This technique helps to relieve muscle tension brought on by stress and can help to calm your mind from racing thoughts.
Deep breathing increases oxygen levels in the brain and activates a natural relaxation response in the body. This stress management technique may sound simple, but it has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate and lower levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. The best part is that you can practice deep breathing anywhere – in the office, at home, or even in your car!
The foods we eat affect more than just the number on the scale. Diet and stress are closely related, and unfortunately, we tend to gravitate towards the wrong kinds of foods when our stress levels reach an all-time high. Instead of giving in to your cravings for sugary or fatty foods, focus on eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. These foods will fuel your body, stabilize your blood sugar and fight fatigue.
In a day and age where we’re always locked in to some sort of device, sometimes it’s important to step back and recharge your own batteries. A 2012 study found that smartphone devices can actually elevate stress levels, with increased usage linked to higher levels of stress. If you need help cutting back on your smartphone usage, try downloading an app to track your activity and set time limits (Source: Everyday Health).
Lavender, chamomile, jasmine, and bergamot are just a few scents believed to relieve stress and induce relaxation. Try adding a few drops of these essential oils to a diffuser or simply inhaling their scent from a safe distance to enjoy their relaxing benefits.
Stress management is just one step you can take to improve your health and digestion, but it’s a significant one. Make a commitment during Stress Awareness Month to try new techniques that will release tension and keep your stress levels under control. It’s a decision that will leave you feeling relaxed, pampered and ready to take on the world.