The importance of the digestive tract, also called the gastrointestinal tract (GIT), is often underestimated. Its purpose may seem to only digest food, absorb nutrients and then excrete waste; however, the world inside the GIT is actually an entire ecosystem, and one that constantly influences our health. The bacterial colonies within this system uses the food we send down, producing nutrients and neurotransmitters, sending signals, influencing inflammation and the immune system, and interacting with the nervous system. There are literally trillions of living microorganisms inside the gut and throughout the digestive system with the power of suggestion over our mood.
Stress is unavoidable. Every year, sometimes every day there seems to be new things to be stressed about. Finances, health, loved ones, job security, politics, the future… the list goes on and on. Life has a way of throwing one curveball after another and it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
This can be particularly difficult for men as there is more societal pressure for them to seem like they “have it all under control”. Gender stereotypes depict men as always being strong, not showing emotion and not talking about their feelings. Asking for help is sometimes seen as a weakness, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Understanding stressors and finding strategies for managing them are indicators of a healthy, well-adjusted man.
Stress is the body’s response to a real or perceived threat. It triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which helps to regulate the inflammatory response, immune system and metabolism. An influx of cortisol can be helpful in the short term, driving the impulse to take action, like looking for a job after job loss. The problem comes when the stressor doesn’t go away and cortisol levels do not revert to normal. Prolonged elevated stress levels can have a profound effect on the immune system and can lead to insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, chronic pain and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, infertility and prostate cancer.
So, if stress is unavoidable and its effects are detrimental to our health, what can we do about it? These are a few simple actions that you can take to relieve stress and lower cortisol levels.
- Nutrition matters – eating a diet rich in vitamins, minerals and healthy fats can lower stress. Vitamins B and D can have a profound effect on mood. Magnesium and zinc can help balance hormone levels and omega 3 fatty acids support adrenal function. If your diet doesn’t contain optimal levels of these nutrients, consider making some changes and including quality supplements.
- Get active – moderate physical activity boosts the production of endorphins, the brain’s feel good neurotransmitters. Most men should get at least 30 minutes of physical exercise five days a week. This can have a significant effect on stress and overall outlook.
- Talk about it – simply sharing what’s going on in your life with a friend, family member, colleague or mental health professional can lighten the load. Men tend to shoulder emotional burden alone and stress can be isolating. Sometimes just saying the words out loud can help gain perspective on our problems.
- Play with your pet – a visit to the dog park or a cuddle with your cat is beneficial for both of you. Time with your furry friend can provide social connection and boost self-esteem. It also improves serotonin levels and reduces cortisol levels.
- Sleep – getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night is an integral part of reducing stress. Our hormone balance resets while we sleep. The part of the brain associated with deep sleep also slows the production of stress hormones.
- Help others – whether it’s helping a friend move or volunteering at a charity of your choice, helping others gets our minds off our troubles, boosts serotonin levels and provides an overall sense of well-being.
- Practice yoga – not only will it increase strength and flexibility, but yoga can also reduce cortisol levels and improve sleep quality.
- Have a good cry – crying releases chemicals that help to reduce stress and improve mood. Tears also remove toxins and lower manganese levels. Elevated manganese levels can be associated with anxiety, irritability and aggression.
- Sing it out – Whether you sing in the shower, in the car on your way to work or, for the particularly brave, at karaoke night, singing releases oxytocin and reduces anxiety.
- Chew gum – chewing gum has been shown to release stress and improve performance. It may also lower salivary cortisol levels.
Stress can have a huge impact on men’s lives and the added pressure to make it seem like everything is fine only makes it worse. Bottom line – it’s okay not to be okay. Asking for help and acknowledging triggers for stressors are a good starting point for leading a more balanced life. There are practical steps you can take to reduce and relieve stress and you can start implementing them today.
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