Vail Daily column: Stress management is key to improved health
Editor’s note: This is the first in a five-part series from the Vail Vitality Center at Vail Mountain Lodge. Look for columns on Tuesdays in the health section of the Vail Daily and learn how to manage stress using a variety of modalities. Part 1 of this series addresses diagnosis.
I work with athletes on a daily basis who sacrifice, change behavior and challenge themselves with new paradigms involving health and performance. Among this esteemed group, the most frequently asked question is, “What is the most overlooked aspect of improving health and vitality?” My continual and emphatic answer is, “stress management.”
Stress, as defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a physical or emotional force that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety.” While stress can be diverse in its origination, it always — regardless of its nature — results in a cascade of events, both physiological and medical. These events have consequences for the body, which remain long after the original stress occurrence has passed.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
Prolonged stress is all too common. Anytime we encounter stress, our bodies are completely unaware of its nature. In effect, our bodies literally start preparing us for the worst possible scenario(s); whether it’s escape from a deadly situation or fear of public speaking, the biochemical events are all the same to our bodies.
The body’s master “fight or flight” stress hormone, cortisol, is then released in abundance to increase energy, increase blood pressure and decrease sensitivity to pain. This response to stress is always the same. While these functions may seem particularly advantageous, they should be somewhat limited — to, say, running away from man-eating lions, assisting in the capture of a thief, performing CPR on a heart attack victim, or perhaps even working out strenuously. This is not a state you want to experience on a continual basis. Of course, this is the hallmark of a stressful lifestyle.
Prolonged cortisol secretion as a result of heightened levels of stress can actually impair cognitive function, completely suppress thyroid function, increase your likelihood for issues involving glucose regulation and decrease both bone density and muscle tissue.
While the cumulative effects are indeed destructive to overall health, I would like to focus your attention on glucose regulation and thyroid function. These two bodily functions are probably the most closely associated with unexpected or uncontrolled weight gain. When cortisol is released on a regular basis for extended periods of time, it has a similar effect on fat storage and long-term carbohydrate dependency as eating a diet high in sugars. This situation sets the stage for constant swings in energy, mood and, of course, changes in body composition. While men and women are subject to these same factors, according to recent studies women are three times more likely to develop Hashimoto’s Disease, commonly associated with advanced levels of emotional stress.
Whether we as individuals are first impacted by changes in body morphology, or daily energy status, identifying sources of stress and then managing them should be our first causative strategy — before pharmaceutical intervention. While our understanding of the holistic effect of chronic stress on the body is still being discovered and understood, we are certain that systems governing very sensitive balances within the body are significantly impacted.
Simple coping strategies, such as list making, physical exercise and, in some cases, psychological counseling, have been shown to have positive effects on daily revolving stress levels. Combining these cathartic stress-reduction techniques can be the major difference between falling victim to the effects of long-term stress and preserving and enhancing wellness and vitality. For information or an appointment, contact Stone through the Vail Vitality Center at 970-476-7960.
Sigma Human Performance founder Benjamin Stone specializes in training through modes of endurance exercise that focus specifically on individual energy systems, isometric resistance training, carbohydrate oxidation and metabolic laboratory analysis.