Since stress plays such a huge role in our lives affecting all of us at some point, let’s address a few key health hacks that will help reduce the stress response, regulate your physiology and keep you centered, calm and grounded.
If we increase oxygen levels in the body, we also increase our vitality and energy reserves. So what are some of the ways we can do this? Firstly, by breathing correctly. The breath is oftentimes completely overlooked as a powerful source of cell oxygenation, because we breathe automatically and it requires no thought or effort to do so. Plus, we wouldn’t survive longer than 2-3 minutes without it, so oxygen is our number one nutrient and important for developing strong, healthy lungs.
Most of us are only using a small portion of our lung capacity when we breathe and leaving the rest of this unused muscle to atrophy. The goal is to have the capacity to ingest as much oxygen as possible by filling the lower lobes of the lungs first, which in turn activates the parasympathetic (relaxation) tone in the body.
If you breathe in short shallow breaths, you’re more likely to activate the sympathetic (fight or flight) response which is where the receptors for our stress response reside, in the higher lobes of the lung ready to activate adrenaline and pump blood to the extremities to prepare you to run from a threat. As well as creating a quickness of breath due to the shallow surface of the lungs here, tension and tightness can also appear in the chest, shoulders and neck.
So instead of the body occasionally being activated by stress (as it is designed to do), it’s always on and ready to run from a potential threat. Your brain doesn’t understand the difference between a danger like running from a saber tooth tiger and a stressful situation at work, so it prepares your body to “run” by accelerating your heart beat and breath and coursing adrenaline and cortisol through your blood. The body can’t maintain high levels of stress for long periods of time, so we must learn how to modulate the breath if we want to avoid burn out.
If you slow down your breath and direct the air into the lower lobes of the lungs by relaxing and inflating the belly, you activate your relaxation response or your parasympathetic tone which is responsible for calmness and relaxation. Drawing in air this way takes longer because it has to travel deeper into the lungs. The slow, steady rhythm associated with parasympathetic tone is the most ideal form of breathing.
Ancient yogis observed in nature that animals who had long, slow heart beats like elephants and tortoises lived longer than animals with short, quick heart beats like butterflies and rabbits who have significantly shorter lifespans. So by breathing slower, we can literally lengthen our life span!
Practical Tip To Put Into Practice
Practice breathing in and out of the nose while lying down to optimally relax. Breathe in for a count of 4, breathe out for 8; the longer exhalation allows the body to fully relax preparing you for a deeper sleep. Allow your hands to rest on your belly, so you can direct the air there and inflate the abdomen like a balloon. It’s not necessary to activate the abdominal muscles, the expansion of the lung happens naturally and organically without any interference from surrounding musculature.
Another way to obtain oxygen is through the ingestion of water. This is our second most important nutrient after breathing to access oxygen.
We are chronically dehydrated due to many factors, one of which is the constant level of toxins our bodies are exposed to. If you reach a certain level of dehydration, your blood can thicken and give rise to numerous health issues. Once you develop thick blood, it becomes more challenging for your heart to draw up fresh, clean blood from the liver, and the heart may have greater difficulty providing the brain and other organs with adequate blood and oxygen. Over time this creates exertion for the heart and can wear it out.
Hydration is critical for electrolytes, for thinning out blood and it can also keep anxiety, depression and panic at bay. We remember to shower and bathe our external bodies daily, but we don’t think as much about hydrating our internal bodies. One way to hydrate more is by drinking 1-2 litres of filtered water with freshly squeezed lemon after waking up and before breakfast. Lemon is also an antioxidant, detoxifying and hydrating.
Drink the water continuously so you create an internal pressure which in turn will help flush out your system, cleansing and releasing toxins and leaving you with more energy both physically and mentally. Wait 30-minutes or so before eating to allow the water to absorb and release from your body.
Cucumber and coconut water are also extremely hydrating for the body, so these are great to swap out for dehydrating beverages like coffee, teas and sugary canned drinks. Remember when you’re properly hydrated your body is able to rid the liver, kidneys and other parts of the body of unwanted toxins and poisons.
A note on caffeine
Many people are taught that caffeinated products such as matcha tea, coffee, or chocolate are healthy, anti-aging and can even help you live longer, but caffeinated products accelerate ageing due to the long term affects of chronic dehydration.
Coffee, caffeinated teas and chocolate are diuretics that force critically needed hydration out of the living cells in your body, essentially starving the cells of what they need. Caffeine is a toxin that prompts your body to want to get rid of it, so as your body is trying to dispel this toxin, it also pushes out other important nutrients, trace minerals, phytochemical compounds, critically needed enzymes and antioxidants too.
Food as Medicine
Food is our third way of ingesting oxygen. We all know what we should be eating, but are we really achieving the level of optimal health through our diet that we could be?
The more water in the foods we eat, the more oxygen we ingest. Make sure you eat as many alkaline rich foods as possible, like fresh fruits and vegetables and less acidic foods like processed foods, meat, coffee, sodas and condiments.
Cells stay healthy and vital and have the ability to self repair in an alkaline environment (high pH), whereas with the exception of the stomach cells, they begin to breakdown or malfunction in a more acidic environment. According to Dr. Sue Morter, 95% of all diseases occur when the body is in an acidic state. Unfortunately most people’s bodies are too acidic for cellular healing to occur and the result is today’s chronic epidemic of illness and disease.
So here are a few quick tips to keep in mind with food:
1. Your body recognises low blood sugar as a stress response, so eat protein and carbohydrates together which helps soothe and support your adrenal glands, turns the dial down on cortisol production and break the stress cycle.
2. When you’re unsure how to create flavour, keep it super simple by adding spices, Himalayan sea salt, raw olive oil and fresh herbs. Stay away from store bought condiments which are loaded with preservatives, flavouring, colouring and sugar.
3. Eating a diet that is exclusively cooked can be one of the reasons you’re dehydrated, as cooked foods force the body to pull liquid from different organs and cells to help break them down. This doesn’t mean cooked food is bad, but be mindful to balance your intake of cooked food with raw fruit and veggies which can greatly aid your levels of hydration.
4. What we ingest profoundly affects our mind. Your diet isn’t only about what you eat. It’s what you watch on TV, what you listen to, what you read and the people you choose to be around. Be mindful of the things you put into your body not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
When in doubt, sleep more not less! This sounds so simple, but sleep is often overlooked as a contributing factor to stress.
So much of our healing, assimilation and integration of life happens when we’re asleep, so do your best to get 8 hours a night.
Start sleeping on the left side of your body which doesn’t put pressure on any organs. If you sleep on the right side, you’ll compress the gallbladder, liver and the spleen creating congestion. On the left side, you’ll open the right nostril which encourages solar energy flow or “Ha” energy to circulate through the body creating warmth and relaxation. The left side also helps digestive flow and the facilitation of efficient lymphatic drainage.
Because the stomach is on the left side of the body, sleeping in the wrong position can bring stomach acid up the esophagus and cause heart burn. Food can also move more easily from the small intestine to the large intestine, so the colon can excrete properly and easily. It also relieves gas and bloating because lying on the left side allows the stomach and pancreas enough space for optimal digestion.
Finally, be careful of blue light which the body recognises as stressful. Remove devices from your bedroom and limit screen time for at least a few hours before bed.
Move your body! It’s been said so many times, but there is a beautiful truth in this. It doesn’t have to be an intense workout, it may just mean you walk more, take the stairs instead of the lift or go to a gentle yoga class. Be kind to your body, but keep it moving (especially as you get older), because you don’t want your muscles to atrophy through lack of movement.
Adapt, adjust and accommodate movement to your age, injuries, moods and illnesses. You can still move, but choose gentle forms of movement that don’t place too much force or impact on the body. Yoga is great for bone density as you get older, suppleness of joints and muscles and also has the mental component to help with focus, concentration and stress.
Swami Vishnudevananda said:
“The fundamental difference between Yogic exercise and ordinary physical exercises is that physical culture emphasises violent movements of the muscles, whereas Yogic exercises oppose violent muscle movements as they produce large quantities of lactic acid in the muscle fibres, thus causing fatigue.”
More tips for reducing stress:
. Take regular social media breaks
. Begin your day with a 5-minute meditation
. Get outside and be in nature as much as you can
. Call a friend, connect and let them support and help you
. Know that thriving doesn’t always mean being productive. Let yourself rest and “be”
. Remain mindfully present to all that is unfolding. Allow yourself to “feel” the full spectrum of your emotions
. Close your eyes and place your hands on the belly or heart. Breathe deeply and acknowledge the solid, stable earth beneath you.
Recommended viewing: The Connection. A documentary by Australian journalist Shannon Harvey showing just how significantly stress can impact our lives
Recommended: Click here to download a PDF with gentle poses for you to practice in the comfort of your own home.