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Stress Now Proven to Cause Weight Gain in Women: Five Key Stress-Reduction Tips

Stress is as much a part of American culture as a cheeseburger and fries ... and it can be just as risky to your health. Even if you aren't facing any major troubles, just going about your daily routine -- getting the kids ready for school, driving to the office, trying to hook up phone service, etc. - can expose you to loads of it.

Stressed Out Woman

Stress is more than just a nuisance -- it can lead to physical health symptoms including suppressing the immune system and increasing your risk of heart disease.

At the least, stress is a nuisance and just plain doesn't feel good. It can manifest in a number of different ways. You may:

  • Feel distracted or anxious
  • Worry excessively
  • Feel nervous
  • Be tired or irritable
  • Gain weight

That's right -- just being stressed out can cause you to gain weight, according to the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation. "Under stress, people conserve more fat, and we think that may be what's going on here," says psychologist and study co-author Tené Lewis of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The study involved more than 2,000 women from their 40s through menopause, and the researchers asked them about unhappy events in their life over the past year. The results? Even after taking into account other factors that could affect weight gain (exercise habits, diet, smoking, etc.) it was found that the more bad things the women reported, the more weight they gained.

In other words, the greater the stress, the greater the women's weight. As if that weren't enough to contend with, stress -- especially the chronic kind that lasts for weeks or months at a time - is a leading contributor to disease, presenting more serious symptoms like:

  • Depression
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Change in appetite
  • Digestive problems
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Heart racing
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Dizziness
  • Hyperventilation

Chronic Stress Wears Down the Immune System

If stress reaches beyond a manageable point, and you begin to feel that it's unending, out of your control or causing a change in your very identity, you are likely suffering from chronic stress. According to a study published in the July 2004 issue of the American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin, chronic stress is likely the worst kind of stress.

In the study, researchers confirmed that stress does in fact affect the immune system. Further, while short-term stress, like the kind that occurs when you're stuck in traffic, "revs up" the immune system to prepare your body for injury or a fight, chronic stress, like that from ongoing relationship problems, puts too much pressure on the immune system and causes it to break down. People who are already sick, and the elderly, are more vulnerable to stress-related changes in the immune system.

So, if your stress in ongoing, your immune system will not function at its optimal level, leaving you vulnerable to a host of diseases.

Five Keys to Manage Stress in Your Life

It's impossible to eliminate all stress from your life, but what you can do is learn how to manage the stress that is there in a more effective manner. Here are five tips to do just that.

1. Exercise: "Exercise ... is a great stress reliever," Lewis says. Aside from strengthening your heart and lungs, two organs that can become physically affected from too much stress, it's great for your mental health too. Exercising increases the levels of endorphins in your body, which stimulate your immune system, reduce stress and put you in a better mood.

2. Take Time to Relax: This may sound easy, but how many of you reading this actually schedule time into your day to relax and enjoy life? It's imperative to do so, because without adequate down time, it will be near impossible to soothe your stress woes away. Relaxing can take on many forms, like:

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  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Prayer
  • Gardening
  • Reading
  • Journaling
  • Soaking in a bath
  • Hiking, biking or swimming

The body and mind know how to relax -- we just need to give them "permission" to do so. This is easier said than done, of course, so for those of you who need a little help, we highly recommend the Pure Relaxation: Guided Meditations for Body, Mind & Spirit CD by respected meditation expert -- and new columnist -- Mary Maddux .

The guided meditations and music on this CD calm your mind, soothe your emotions and create a state of deep relaxation in your body. Using these guided meditations regularly will help you to live in a more relaxed way and you'll notice that when you begin to feel stressed, you'll be able to relax more easily than before.

3. Proper Sleep: Another essential tool for stress reduction is getting enough sleep. When we sleep, the stress hormone, cortisol, is lowered, but when we are sleep deprived, cortisol levels rise. Further, your energy levels will go down and you'll be less able to cope with any setbacks during your day. If you have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep (insomnia can certainly be a cause for stress in itself!), also check out Mary Maddux's celebrated Sleep Easy: Guided Meditation for Deep Sleep CD. It's especially designed to help you unwind from the stresses of living, and helps to calm the overly busy mind, soothe the emotions and relax the body.

4. Proper Nutrition: Fortifying your body with the nutrients it needs is key to reducing stress (and staying healthy while you're feeling it), as stress can actually rob your body of nutrients. This means eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods while avoiding junk foods.

Although sugar and fats actually work to lower levels of stress hormones circulating in the body, according to a study in the Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is why we likely crave these foods when we're feeling stressed, in the long-term sugar and junk food will only further suppress the immune system and increase your chances of developing disease.

If you're under chronic stress and want to protect your immune system, you may want to consider adding Garden of Life's RM-10: Immune System Food to your diet. RM-10 caplets are a combination of tonic mushrooms, herbs and aloe vera shown to support immune function. It provides nutrients specifically chosen to feed and nourish the immune system, which is essential for those under high levels of stress.

5. Build Strong Friendships: Because stress can lead to feelings of depression and even isolation, keeping a network of social ties can help to reduce those negative feelings and boost your mood. Says Psychologist Elissa Epel of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, "Building strong friendships and developing new goals and priorities often can help curb stress."

Chronic stress suppresses the immune system, but Garden of Life's RM-10: Immune System Food gives you the nutrients your body needs to support strong immune function.

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Though relieving stress is important, try not to stress about it. As Hans Selye, the man who first developed the theory on the influences of stress, said, "Without stress, there would be no life."

Recommended Reading

The Emotionally Hazardous Work Environment: Is it Worth the Price You Pay

The Real Friend Test: How to Understand Who Your Real Friends Are

The Nine Grossest Things Other People Do That Can Make You Sick

The Detroit News March 4, 2005

American Psychological Association

eMedicine Health

The American Institute of Stress

Times Online

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