In this episode of Lifestyle Matters.

This week Dr Ferghal and I discuss stress. Some regard it as the modern-day trash which needs to be regularly disposed of to prevent over piling.

13% of Australians above the age of 18 years old describe moderate to high stress levels and there is a lower socioeconomic predominance to this.

But first, what is stress? There are many ways to define it but put simply, it really comes about when the demands placed on a person is so overwhelming that she/he is thrown into a state of worry. The right amount of stress can sometimes lead a person to being more productive. However, when the factors that cause stress are ongoing, this leads to distress whereby one can experience feelings of headaches, nausea and insomnia etc.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law (the inverted U model of arousal) describes this quite well. This is a law that describes the relationship between stress and work performance as pictured below:

Stress at unhealthy levels can have a negative impact on our health such as:

• Mental health: Depression, Anxiety, Forgetfulness
• Cardiovascular: Cardiomyopathy, Hypertension, Tachycardia, low HDL (good cholesterol)
• Respiratory: Hyperventilation, exacerbating pre-existing lung conditions e.g. asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
• Gastrointestinal: Irritable Bowel Syndrome, stress ulcer
• Endocrine: Poor diabetes control, Metabolic syndrome
• Genitourinary: Low sperm count, reduced libido
• Immune function: Reduces immunity predisposing to infections
• Pain: Reduces pain threshold
• Musculoskeletal: Increases risk of injuries

When one undergoes stress, they can also develop some maladaptive patterns to cope. These include an erratic eating pattern. e.g over or undereating and substance abuse. 38% of people engage in emotional over- eating, while another 38% are 'starvers'. The remainder have unaffected eating pattern. Women tend to turn to food whilst men on the other hand use tobacco or alcohol to cope with stress. We know the effects of these substances on our health which have been discussed in the previous episodes.

A British study in 2007 demonstrated that people who responded to stress with a higher cortisol level tend to be emotional eaters. The food group of choice is usually a highly caloric food such as simple sugars or carbohydrates as they increase good feeling hormones (endorphins)

As outlined, stress has many effects on our health, and we ought to learn how to manage it better so that we can find a way to use it as a positive influence in our lives. We will discuss this further in the next episode.

Author: Dr Saveena Nithiananthan
Savena is a General Practitioner, Medical Educator and member of the International Board of Lifestyle Medicine