Can stress be good for you? Can it even help you lose weight? From the importance of brown fat (who knew?) to stress-busting foods, here are our highlights from the BBC’s thought-provoking show
Stressed? You’re not alone. Called 'the health epidemic of the 21st century' by the World Health Organisation, experts believe it can contribute to life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, dementia and types of cancer, costing the economy billions of pounds. Why as a nation are we more stressed than ever and are there ways to tackle it? These were the questions posed by host Fiona Phillips in BBC One’s The Truth About Stress. From the latest scientific research to how it affects body and mind, how to use stress as a weapon to changing the way we perceive it, the show provided a valuable insight into its many manifestations, its origins and various treatments. Revealing that millions of us feel close to breaking point, it couldn’t have aired soon enough. Here are the key truths uncovered by the series’ latest instalment.
1. Acute stress can protect us
Known as our bodies’ fight or flight response, acute (i.e. short-term) stress is our primal emergency reaction. In fact, it was relied upon by cavemen back in the day as their vital survival mechanism for avoiding being eaten by predators. Short, sharp and intense, symptoms include a higher heart rate, rising body temperature and increased breathing rate - all demonstrated when three volunteers in the show were exposed to animal stressors (namely tarantulas and snakes - BLEURGH).
How does it work? When we sense danger, our brain’s fear centre (known as the amygdala) sends a distress message to its control centre (the hypothalamus), which alerts the adrenal glands to release stress hormones into the bloodstream. The heart beats faster to send more blood to our muscles and our breathing increases for the benefit of our brain to sharpen our senses. Sounds like a lot of stages, but it’s actually incredibly quick, so quick in fact that before the brain even sees the threat, the body is primed and ready to either fight or run away. While we no longer have to contend with crossing paths with the occasional wild animal in the modern world, there are a host of new triggers we now have to deal with which, although aren’t life-threatening, can incite the same stress response.
2. Too much stress causes us to lose control
Ever suffered from a brain freeze in a high stress moment? It could be because of a battle of the voluntary and involuntary. When asked some quick-fire mental arithmetic questions, Fiona Phillips experienced this first-hand, finding herself unable to answer questions she normally would have been able to in a less pressured situation. Too much stress can cause the rational part of our brain to get hijacked by the primal part and our ability to think clearly becomes clouded by our emotional response. As a result, we lose control and therefore feel unable to complete tasks that in other situations, we’d be more than able to do with ease.
3. You can train your brain to see stress differently
This was a particularly interesting point as it addressed the very thing that many people find causes stress in the first place - a lack of control. According to Professor Ian Robertson, Neuroscientist and author of The Stress Test, we can change our perception of a threat from a negative to a positive. He pointed out that the bodily symptoms associated with fear, anger and anxiety (a dry mouth, beating heart, twisting stomach and sweaty palms) are also the same for excitement. By adopting a head up, confident posture and saying to yourself “I feel excited,” it is possible to train your brain to create another emotion. The difference is all in the mind.
The thinking centres around the hormone noradrenaline, released by the brain when we feel anxious or excited. It’s sensitive to the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood and so it can be regulated by taking a few small breaths. By almost tricking your brain into thinking it’s excited instead of nervous while also adopting a physical stance that allows for deeper breaths, you’re able to encourage optimal production of the hormone, tap into the energy of a stressful situation and take back control.
Image: BBC / Blink Films
4. You can use stress to increase physical performance
Following a lengthy lay-off due to injury, middle-distance athlete Ellie Stephens found stress hindered her performance to a distressing degree upon her return. However, it improved dramatically after a couple of months after working with Sports Psychologist Tom Bates to see stress in a more positive light. “We can’t exceed our own self-image and the way we see ourselves becomes our reality,” commented Tom, meaning that if we expect to be stressed by work or by daily triggers, then we’re certain to live out our expectations. According to Tom, top athletes don’t perform as well in the absence of stress and have learned ways to see it as a sign that their bodies are getting ready to perform at their best when they need them to the most. As he put it, “Mindset defines performance,” and those skills can be used to gold-medal winning effect.
5. Acute stress can help you lose weight
The theory centres around the concept of brown fat according to Professor Michael Simons from the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine. “What’s brown fat?” we hear you ask? Good question. Brown fat stores are switched on when we’re first born and they have a unique capacity to produce large amounts of heat (with 1g producing 300 times more than 1g of muscle of 1g of white fat). When we’re physically stressed, it becomes activated and burns calories. On the show, this was demonstrated by volunteers who were asked to jump into a lake of cold water and then swim for 10 minutes. Professor Simons is currently researching ways to switch on brown fat in less extreme ways (thankfully), the results of which could be particularly useful in helping those with diabetes and obesity manage their weight.
6. Chronic stress is the real danger
While acute stress can have its benefits, a state of permanent stress can give rise to chronic stress and here is where the real danger lies. An overproduction of cortisol affects blood sugar levels as the body seeks to create more energy. Long-term, this can have serious effects on our health, causing a weakening of the immune system, a greater vulnerability to disease and a rise in blood pressure (which can lead to heart disease). From a mental health perspective, it can also lead to an increased risk of developing anxiety and depression.
The consequences also extend to our DNA, or more specifically, our telomeres - the parts of our chromosomes that protect their ends and prevent ‘drippage’ of the important information contained within them. According to Professor Thomas von Zglinicki, Professor of Cellular Gerontology, chronic stress can damage them and reduce their length. However, through eating well, exercising and making suitable lifestyle changes, you can reduce the risk of this happening.
7. Stress can affect your sense of taste
Stress, comfort eating and cravings unfortunately come as a package deal. The reason? Our emotions actually affect our sense of taste. According to studies by Professor Robin Dando of Cornell University, we find foods taste less sweet when we’re stressed. In fact, they can taste sour - a finding reflected by an experiment involving the losing and winning sides of a football match and an order of lemon curd donuts. Coinciding with large scale studies he’s also done in the US, the thinking is that because moderately sweet foods no longer taste the same, we are more likely to go for something more intensely sweet (and unhealthier) as a result to get our fix.
8. Certain foods can reduce your stress response
Thankfully though, there are foods that can help both satisfy our comfort food cravings and reduce our stress response. The key is keeping our energy and blood sugar levels stable, because if they dip or rise, we can feel more anxious as a result. Nutritionist Christine Bailey’s top picks? Fruit-wise, blueberries due to the fact that they’re high in vitamin C and antioxidants while also being not being so sweet as to upset our blood sugar levels. She also highlighted pumpkin seeds, almonds and walnuts as good sources of protein, important for stabilising blood sugar levels. Walnuts also have the additional benefit of being rich in omega 3 good fats (good for lifting mood if you’re feeling anxious) and are great sources of magnesium, effective in creating feelings of calm.
Other stress-reducers include oranges and berries due to their vitamin C content and their positive effect on the immune system, as well as plenty of water due to the fact that dehydration puts the body under more stress and triggers the production of cortisol.
Things to avoid? Mainly coffee, which can cause you to feel more stressed and lead to sleeplessness and an elevated heart rate. Instead, Christine recommends swapping your morning latte for a cup of green tea. High in L-theanine, an amino acid, research shows that it helps improve concentration and focus and instils a feeling of calm. Other no-nos? Skipping breakfast, as studies show that if you do, cortisol levels will rise and as a result, cause your blood sugar levels to increase too.
9. Exercise makes a huge difference
Exercise was highlighted as a key way to lower stress levels. However, it needn’t cost you a gym membership each month. Testers were found to experience noticeable health benefits by simply incorporating activities such as walking more briskly, steps, stretches and laps in the park and skipping rope for five minutes a day, all of which release feel-good hormones and endorphins to counteract negative feelings and anxiety.
10. Mindfulness works
Although skeptical at first, host Fiona Phillips was soon won over by its effects following a visit to King’s College London and speaking to specialist, Dr Elena Antonova. With its roots in meditation, it focuses on anchoring your attention on the present moment on purpose and without judgment. So effective are its results and scientific credentials, it’s even being rolled out in schools to help children better deal with exam stress. With rates of depression and anxiety in teens having increased by 70% in 25 years, it looks like a welcomed addition to the school day, with over 500 teachers being trained in mindfulness techniques.
According to Dr Antonova, mindfulness particularly helps when our mind wanders (research shows we spend 60% of that time worrying). To see the effect it has on the brain, Dr Antonova showed Fiona Phillips two brain scans of a mindfulness practitioner. In the first, the volunteer had been asked to let his mind wander and then react to what he was experiencing. In the second, he was asked to switch to mindfulness. There was a clear difference between the two scans, namely a greater level of activity in the frontal lobe of the brain in the first scan. The reason for this being the constant agitation he was putting his mind under. Mindfulness effectively silences this 'running commentary' and provides for greater clarity and openness. Fiona was convinced that it was a skill definitely worth investing the time to become better at and considering the evidence, so were we.