So I wanted to touch on something I mentioned in the previous article, which was the effect of long term activation of the fight or flight responses on our biological state – something we can all probably relate to at this time. It’s unfortunately just not as simple as, ‘something that gets turned on when you’re stressed and something you can turn off through specific mindfulness exercises’.
That statement is not wrong, I 100% agree that these techniques work. I meditate and use breathing techniques myself – it’s just one side of quite a complex internal process. This article is aiming to, using my area of expertise, add an extra layer to the overall conversation that we can be mindful of in the future.
So while it’s important to be mindful of what caused the stress in the first place, it’s also incredibly vital to be aware of the biological effects that stress will place on your body and how this could then impact your overall mental health – with stress often being a precursor to further issues such as depression.
I’m going to try to keep this as simple as possible.
Stress can be defined as:
A complex adaptive biochemical, physiological, psychological and gene expression change of the organism (stress response) triggered by a stimulus (stressor) that was intercepted by the brain as being dangerous.
Let’s break that down to a simple analogy:
Imagine each bout of stress is an army invading your town. Whether it was a long drawn out war or you managed to overcome the opposition relatively quickly (mindfulness exercises), there is a very high possibility that two things happened.
- There was likely collateral damage
- It required resources (guns, bullets, soldiers) to overcome the enemy
You’ve won, the invader is now gone and that’s fantastic, but your town now isn’t quite at 100% and it’ll take time to rebuild.
So if we take this back to stress, from a biological point of view;
This collateral damage is an increase in inflammation and oxidative stress.
The resources used are the micronutrients and the precursors needed for those biochemical changes mentioned in the definition of stress above.
We already know through Nutritional Psychiatry principles that inflammation, oxidative stress and the health of our monoamine neurotransmitters are key biological variables when it comes to maintaining positive mental health. These stressful situations are only tilting the scales further in the wrong direction and without proper attention, could become harmful.
I may sound like I’m constantly talking about these three factors, but the negative consequences of stress were a major consideration when originally create the recipe for Hospro – stress is a daily occurrence in our industry.
If we then add in an unbalanced diet, regular drinking and irregular sleep to long term activation of the fight or flight response – we’ve got a real problem.
What’s one way that stress affects inflammation?
Psychosocial stress is often accompanied by lower levels of anti-inflammatory compounds which act to decrease levels of pro-inflammatory and harmful cytokines. Without this modulatory effect, we’ll see increases in the production of these cytokines which are shown to have implications on disorders such as depression and PTSD. It is theorised that this is a reason for stress often preceding the onset of clinical depression.
How can it increase oxidative stress?
Having this system activated regularly can increase levels of reactive oxygen species due to the auto-oxidation of these fight or flight neurotransmitters – they don’t just magically disappear after being in use. These ROS are free radicals and increase our chances of reaching that point of oxidative stress – which we know is harmful to our mental health, just check out this page for a more detailed explanation.
How does it decrease micronutrients and precursors?
The very nature of activating these biochemical functions requires fuel. We mentioned the big role that magnesium plays in our previous article – but these neurotransmitters use up a range of different nutrients, including tyrosine and the B vitamins which could cause issues elsewhere if your nutrition is not on point.
How does stress impact our serotonin levels?
Immune activation against stress can often lead to the release of IDO (Indoleamine-pyrrole 2,3-dioxygenase) which limits our synthesis of tryptophan into serotonin. It does this by using the tryptophan to make kynurenine as a way to fight the inflammation making it unavailable to become serotonin. Put simply, stress means less tryptophan to create serotonin, stress means less serotonin to create feelings of happiness.
But long story short, by keeping combining a healthy diet and lifestyle with mindfulness techniques, you can dramatically reduce the chances that stress will have further negative impacts on your overall mental health.