How To Look After Your Health When Stressed and Super Busy
Part One: RELAXATION & SLEEP
Stress is a subject close to my heart as both my careers are very involved. In particular, design careers can be demanding as we feel attached to our work as it is a reflection of our inner selves, a rare artistic talent. As designers we often work late at night, we even work for free at times and we go beyond our job briefs’ requirements in order to stand out, or feel satisfied that we have produced our best work. Being a Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer is demanding in a different way, physically. Although I was unhealthy when I was younger I changed when I moved to London aged 18 to study Fashion Design. Alongside my Fashion studies I experimented with healthy eating and learned everything I could about nutrition as I saw the clear link between being healthy and being more productive in my studies. In between pattern cutting and illustrating I was creating gluten free bread and cake recipes, batch cooking chickpea stews and trying to replace the sugar content in baking without compromising on the taste pleasure. This was in 2004 to 2010, long before the time of healthy baking blogs, and the recent surge in healthy eating cookbooks. At the time my flat mates and University friends all thought I was mad and health obsessed, however when I reunited with a few of them in 2016 they had now all converted to reducing sugar, gluten and processed foods in their diets.
I studied for my Fashion Design Technology Degree at the London College of Fashion, followed immediately by studying a Masters Degree in Print Design at The Royal College of Art. I have been extremely healthy both with my nutrition and exercise for many years now, my Personal Training clients often commented that I was always (outwardly) full of energy, happy and enthusiastic and yet during the last few years I was secretly experiencing many crippling, health problems. Last year I was finally diagnosed with and underactive thyroid due to chronic fatigue, which is due to extreme adrenal fatigue. Basically I was burnt out due to prolonged stress.
Stress is a natural part of the human experience, however pro-longed, or chronic stress can be detrimental to our health and quality of life long-term, even after the period of stress is over. Although I can’t take your stress away I can help you to maintain good quality of life by compiling and condensing all of the knowledge (from research and personal experience) we know on this subject in one place; a series of blogs. Science has now proven only 10% of our health outcomes are due to genetics. The remaining 90% is influenced by lifestyle and environment.
I have written a short series of blogs around what I feel are the main elements that are a sum of our overall health and wellbeing. If one of these is out of sync it can affect the other factors. With so many fad diets and exercise plans that contradict each other, deciding what’s best for our health (especially when we are busy with work) has become over-complicated, and my aim is to simplify this.
First things first, RELAX. Just take a step back from the situation and breath deeply into the belly, simply allow yourself more time to think and do things at a slower pace. When we are highly stressed we are more likely to make mistakes, as our brains are not able to function as quickly. Be mindful of your actions. Put 5-60 minutes aside each day for yourself. SLEEP is essential; it is one of the best ways to heal your body and mind, so that we can function at our best with a clear head. Sleep is a basic biological need that should be free for everyone and yet a 2016 study by Aviva revealed that 37% of British people don’t feel they get enough sleep - that’s more than in any other nation surveyed.
Second, FOOD and nutrition needs to become a priority.
Third is MIND, and looking after our mental wellbeing
Fourth connects both our mind and food by supporting GUT health. Our guts are considered our second brain
Five is essential MOVEMENT, in the form of leisure or exercise.
Six is SKIN health. Our skin is our biggest organ and as such has a large influence on our health and wellbeing.
Even when life seems to be getting on top of you, try and employ at least one tip from each section’s summary support table. Just start with one thing. Feel free to scroll to the end to see my go-to tables for dealing with work related stress. If it’s more manageable, begin by choosing one thing from each health aspect to focus on. Then come back to the start and read about each area of your health in more detail, simply proceed at a pace that’s right for you.
Consult with your doctor or health advisor before embarking on any new exercise, food and supplement regime.
Relaxation and Sleep
It may seem unusual given my profession as a Personal Trainer that I have started with relaxation instead of diet or exercise, but I feel relaxation is underrated. Busy people often say they don’t have time to relax, and I feel perhaps there is a sensation of guilt attached to this also. Relaxing helps us switch off our overactive stress response. Contrary to popular belief stress isn’t necessarily bad for us in short bursts. It can help us be more productive for example, as an onrush of stress primes our minds and bodies to tackle a sudden problem head on, and this can feel rather liberating. When we endure stress for long periods however, it becomes a problem.
What actually happens within the body when we are stressed? We have many hormones in the body; they are chemical messengers for when we feel hungry, satiated, angry and so on. We also have several stress hormones that are emitted from our adrenal glands, the principal stress hormone being Cortisol. Hormone levels tend to spike and fall at different times of the day, in natural cycles, and they also rise and fall in response to the things that are happening to us. Stress can greatly disrupt our natural balance or hormones and Cortisol levels surge when we are stressed. In ancient times our bodies were designed to cope with being attacked by a wild animal, which would be terrifying but short lived, with a temporary surge in Cortisol to help us react fast, either we would have escaped or been killed.
The graphs below show how our Cortisol should peak in the morning to wake us up refreshed and energised to face the day, and then gradually lowering over the day so that we are ready to sleep again come night time. You can see from the other two graphs how different a highly stressed person’s Cortisol levels can look. It is greatly believed that although we have evolved a long way from our cave-man ancestors, our body’s biomechanical set up for responding and dealing with stress hasn’t caught up with twenty-first century life, this is commonly known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
Our autonomic nervous system is a bodily network around which signals and instructions are transmitted and there are two parts to it, the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. Cortisol works by activating our sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system initiates a set of physiological changes, such as increases in heart rate, arterial blood pressure, and blood glucose to mobilize body systems in response to stress. The problem is highly stressed people are constantly in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode and experience their days with high Cortisol levels as if they are being attacked all day…by life!
High Cortisol levels cause all sorts of health issues such as poor digestion, exhausted immune systems, weight gain, and depression. It also has a draining effect on other hormones such as lowering men’s testosterone, and female’s Progesterone for example. In short your body can’t tell the difference between emotional stress, physical stress and nutritional stress. It can’t tell the difference between the stress of missing a work deadline or the stress you feel when someone is rude to you on social media. The longer we are stressed the longer it will take to unravel one’s health back to optimum. In some cases extreme adrenal fatigue that can take years to correct, so its best to take measures now, and relax.
Every day take at least 5 minutes to practice stillness, deep breathing and clearing your mind. Then schedule a further, non-compromising 15 minutes everyday to be selfish and enjoy some time for you. Even if you are so busy and your tasks seem so crucial, you will most likely go about them with a greater clarity of mind after taking a step back from the situation. Never feel guilty about relaxing, it’s absolutely vital for hormonal and nervous system harmony. This is something I have personally struggled with over the years as being brought up on a dairy farm where my parents work night and day, and have instilled on me to do the same. It has taken me some time to realise that I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for taking time to relax. One of my own Group-Exercise class participants recently said. ‘You have to look after yourself, because no one else will’ although I don’t completely agree it did make me think.
Richard Branson says you should find a place that makes you happy, and endeavour to spend more time there. Take a moment to reflect now; what would you like to do? Play a game of sports with a friend, do a facemask, read a paper / magazine, visit a local café, see an exhibition, watch a film, bake for a friend’s birthday, sit in a room with the lights low listening to music? It’s entirely up to you, just do it.
Try these relaxation positions any time of the day to help reset the adrenal responses from the developed ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction seen in adults, to the more open and surrendering ‘startle response’ seen in babies. During the startle response, babies’ four limbs open suddenly outwards in response to stress, but adult humans curl inwards during moments of fear for self-protection. These meditative positions (pictured) help to make you feel open and empowered. They also help to gently release the back and spine whilst resetting the head, neck and shoulders, which can become rigid in response to the over active nervous system.
The national sleep organisation recommends 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night but often we struggle to achieve this. Good quality sleep is absolutely vital for our bodies’ recovery and even more so when leading a stressful, busy life. Lack of sleep activates the brain’s worry centre, which in turn affects our ability to sleep. We then get stressed about getting enough sleep in a cruel, ironic cycle.
We need to slow our pulse, often under 60 beats per minute, to usher ourselves into unconsciousness. Soothe yourself with slow, deep breaths and soporific tunes, these are songs with a consistent rhythm of 50-60 beats per minute (BPM), as your heart rate will slow to match it. Some CDs list BPM on the reverse. If you are unsure there are Apps like beaTunes that will detect it for you. Choose tunes that are 5 minutes or longer without catchy refrains.
Try playing sounds of water, birds singing. These can be found on Spotify or as CDS to buy. The wordless 8-minute melody called ‘Weightless’ by the band Marconi Union fits the bill perfectly (99p ITunes), their album is also available to buy as a CD.
My friend Daniel Matthews is a beauty therapist whose salon Vanity Case in Crewe recently won ‘Spa Wars’ (screened on ITV B). He specialises in helping people relax with his signature Glycolic Peel facials, Reflexology and Reiki. He also has exquisite taste in relaxing music and recommends the composers Olafur Anarlds and Ludvico Eindi.
Trouble sleeping can quite often be related back to the digestive system working overtime before bed making it hard for you to completely wind down and settle. Eating your evening meal 2-3 hours before bed and then sipping on a herbal tea just before bed can settle your digestive system and calm the nervous system which prepares you for a more restful slumber.
Turmeric is a spice with many health benefits such as being an antiseptic. Turmeric contains curcumin, which aids in reducing inflammation and boosts your immune system; try the homemade turmeric tea recipe below. If you are adding the honey in the recipe, use it sparingly, as it is a form of sugar. More on sugar in the FOOD blog coming soon.
1 teaspoon of ground tumeric
1 teaspoon of raw honey
A pinch of black pepper
A pinch of sound cinnamon
1 cup (8oz / 250 ml) of unsweetened plant-based milk of choice (eg coconut, hemp, almond, rice)
Make turmeric paste by mixing the turmeric, honey, cinnamon and black pepper together with a tiny bit of hot water
Heat the milk in a saucepan or steam
Stir through the turmeric paste
Serve in a glass or mug and sprinkle with ground cinnamon
Relax your muscles with a soothing bath of Epsom salts and magnesium flakes prior to bed. The room temperature needs to be 15-19 degrees to trigger the body to go into slumber. If you often wake up during the night to flip a hot pillow over try swapping it for a Duck or Goose down pillow, unless you have an allergy. These pillows allow air to circulate and keep your head cooler; we release most of our body heat through our heads.
Make sure you have a high quality mattress, and that your curtains completely black out the bedroom. Research says we are programmed to sleep when the sunlight starts fading. Set the mood, dim the lights around the home 60 mins prior to bed to prep the body to sleep. You are likely aware of blue light emitted from electronic devices, a proven nemesis of a good nights sleep.
Start to switch off, or stay clear of all electronic devices (E-devices) 30 mins prior to bed and build this up to 60 mins. If it is absolutely paramount due to work commitments that you have to use an E-device then use glasses that block out blue light in the evening, by the likes of Felix Gray and Blueberry Glasses.
If racing thoughts are keeping you awake then keep a notepad and pen by your bed and write everything down so you are free to switch your mind off, no longer worrying you will forget these important to-do items.
Allergens could be causing allergic rhinitis, often identified by nasal or sinus congestion that interferes with the quality of your sleep. Common allergens are airborne particles such as dust mites, and seasonal pollen particles. Aside from seasonal hay fever there may be some sneakier allergens lurking inside your home. Once you identify the irritants that are triggering allergy-related sleep issues you can take steps to minimize them and bring back great sleep. Pet dander, which is flakes of dead skin, fur, saliva and urine particles, is a common indoor allergen.
It's best to keep pets out of the bedroom and vacuum (empty the vacuum regularly too) it's favourite sleeping spots, as well and regularly bathing and brushing them. Dust Mites are unfortunate but unavoidable guests in every person’s home. Scary fact, within 10 years, dead dust mites and their waste can account for half the weight of your mattress! They gravitate to wherever dust settles such as the corners of furniture. The best prevention is dust mite covers for your mattresses and pillows and wash your sheets in hot water as cold water will not kill dust mites. A few years ago (when I lived in my parent’s old farm house) my younger brother and myself had severe breathing problems at night and barely slept. He consequently set up shop in the living room much to my parent’s inconvenience. He insisted he could only sleep best on the sofa and had become to hate his bedroom, thus sparking an investigation from my self-taught, alternative health, expert mother. She insisted on tests at the doctor’s that found he was allergic to dust mites.
I discovered the cause of my nightly blocked sinuses when one day I opened a rarely used wardrobe cupboard door that was situated next to an external wall. It housed old clothes I didn’t need often, and they were covered in white mould spores! On closer inspection by shining a torch to the gap between the side of the wardrobe and the wall I found to my horror the whole section of wall, masked by the side of the wardrobe, was covered in mould! It turned out the pointing on the house needed re-doing (and has since been corrected) so all the rainwater was seeping between the bricks and unknown to us was causing damp. My brother’s bedroom was far worse; two whole walls had mould hidden under the lining paper, beneath the wallpaper. The whole room had to be stripped of lining paper, mould killer applied, and then the room was left empty for months to dry out, before being redecorated. He now resides in the spare room with an air purifier machine for his dust mite allergy; these machines start at £100 upwards.
Mould is a prevalent allergen, hiding out in damp areas like bathrooms, laundry rooms and basements. To prevent mould spores spreading, open windows in humid rooms to allow air to circulate, use extractor fans in bathrooms and clean bathrooms regularly. Older properties would benefit from a dehumidifier that can be rotated from room to room; both my parents and I do this in our respective homes. Once you have a large surface infested with mould like my brother’s bedroom, it has to be cleaned off, then the surface doused in mould killer. You may consider using a contractor.
Household fragrance is a common allergen, such as plug-in air fresheners. It’s estimated that they contain approximately 3000 chemicals, avoid these in the bedroom and reduce your reliance upon them around the home by considering more natural alternatives. Neom Organics are a 100% natural room scent brand, created by someone who used to be highly stressed in their job as a fashion magazine (Glamour Magazine) editor. So it seems fitting to give them a mention as she formed her brand on the basis on readdressing one’s wellbeing and de-stressing. Neom’s natural reed diffusers smell amazing but are pricey. Have a shop around for other, cheaper, natural alternatives also.
If you are short on time but would like to fit some rejuvenating exercise into your day then try this Yoga sequence anytime and anywhere. It enhances concentration, stability, and helps you to feel refreshed, it can be performed any time of the day and is gently strengthening for the core and leg muscles. Grounding can come from lying down or standing up; for those with deep trauma (prolonged stress) it’s most appropriate to start out standing for a strong sense of self, which is why I have chosen a Yoga flow exercise instead of a mat based Pilates exercises.
Begin in Warrior 2 position; it is a deep hip-opening pose that strengthens the muscles in the thighs and buttocks. It tones the abdomen, ankles, and arches of the feet. This pose also opens the chest and shoulders, improving breathing capacity and increasing circulation throughout the body.
Step feet wide with heels aligned, turn right foot out 90 degrees, and pivot the left foot slightly inwards at 45 degrees. Turn hips to the front and then correct the right knee by turning it slightly outwards to align over right ankle. Sink hips low to bring right thigh parallel to the floor, and body weight supported through both heels equally. Raise arms to shoulder height so that they are parallel with the floor. Open the chest and draw belly into the spine as you breath calmly. To reduce the exertion simply shorten the stance and adjust the front leg to a comfortable angle, with the hands on the hips. Continue the yoga flow by performing the positions as shown, at your own comfort.
If you have time I highly recommend regularly taking part in Yoga, Pilates and Body Balance Classes led by an experienced Instructor.
Start by incorporating three of the points from each of the summary tables below into your life daily, and build up from there at your own pace. I hope by the time you come to read next week's blog you are sleeping better.
Lucinda Abell is a Level 3 Personal Trainer, Group Exercise Instructor, UK Bikini Fitness Finalist and Sports Science Lecturer who is based in Cheshire.
Lucinda also works as a Freelance Designer and studied her Fashion Design Technology degree at the London College of Fashion, later going to specialise in Printed Textiles in her Masters degree at the Royal College of Art. You can discover more about Lucinda HERE