Everyone’s life involves stress.
Expressed as an equation, my stress related to the business and nonprofit that I run might look something like this:
(A + B + C)2 = Stress
When you also consider my personal life, it’s more like this:
(A + B + C)4 = Stress
And, of course, my spouse also runs a business, so together, we make this:
(A + B + C)16 = Stress
You make your own stress equation in some ways. Other parts of your equation can’t be altered no matter what you do. Unfortunately, due to the ever-changing nature of the equation, it can never really be solved. But that doesn’t mean that stress is something we can ignore. Unchecked stress leads to big problems.
It’s all in your head. And your gut.
Stress is bad for your gut. Your gut can cause stress. It’s a complex and interconnected relationship. Just like all aspects of your life are inseparable, so are the gut and the brain. The gut, often called “the second brain,” has its own neural network—the enteric nervous system (ENS). Very much involved through the nerve network, secretion of hormones, and neurotransmitters, the two brains “talk” to each other. If you’re not healthy in one place, you’re not healthy in the other.
Too much stress affects our health and ability to do our best at work, in our relationships, and so on. Thankfully, there are effective ways to deal with stress when it arises, and we can protect ourselves with healthy habits.
Know Your Triggers
In addition to years of gut-microbe research and thousands of samples tested, my personal experience with IBS has taught me a few things about stress and health. For example, I have had to learn to recognize my triggers.
Identify which types of problems cause you the most stress. Some issues nag at us more than others. For example, I tend to want to resolve problems instantly with action, but I know that’s not the right approach for every situation. I have to remind myself that, in many cases, I must step back and take time to understand all the pieces of the puzzle, even though I am tired and just want to be done.
When confronted with one of your triggers, be mindful of your reaction. Remember what has worked or not worked in the past, and most importantly, remind yourself that you will get through it. It’s just a bump in the road.
Choose Your Troubles
We get to choose what stresses us out. It may not seem to be the case when stress comes at us from all directions and all at once, but it is true. You can let it wear you down or you can deal with the issues one at a time. You also have to accept that you cannot solve every problem.
To successfully tame feelings of stress, you have to argue with your thoughts. For example, when your thoughts tell you that you should keep rehashing the thing that’s bugging you to anyone who will listen and inside your head, eventually you have to tell yourself, “It’s over.” There’s a point where you have to stop thinking about it, stop trying to fix it, and move on. Don’t let stress consume you. Disrupting the urge to let yourself keep feeling upset can be quite effective if you practice.
Develop Healthy Habits to Minimize Stress
Every day is different. There could be a day when there’s a lot going on, but the stress slides right off. Other days, even the little things seem to gnaw at us. You can build up a healthy, nonstick coating by taking care of yourself—inside and out—every day.
Never underestimate the role food plays in your well-being. A healthy gut microbiome, nourished with a proper diet, will help you stay healthy in the long term. Due to the gut-brain connection, a healthy diet is absolutely critical for managing stress. Stress may tell you to dive head-first into a bag of chips or a box of ice cream bars, but processed, sugary, nutrient-scarce snacks will feed the stress.
When you eat unhealthy foods, you are training your microbiome to do the wrong thing and skewing the variety of bacteria. When we look at metabolites with the Ixcela test, a person who is not managing their stress may show specific markers that are too high or too low. You can also experience certain metabolite imbalances as anxiety.
I recently traveled to Fargo, North Dakota, to share a TEDx talk about the gut microbiome and how certain metabolites affect our overall health. To learn more about why eating well is so important, (watch/listen) to my presentation below.
“You’ll find the time,” is a lie. Time isn’t hidden in a pocket of the purse you carried last week. I find that I’m most stressed when I promise more than I can possibly do in one week on Earth. We all carve out time for important things, but we can’t create time or discover any extra. We just have to make choices about what to deal with and what to let go.
Rest and Exercise
First, get enough sleep. Go to bed at a time that allows you to fall asleep and wake feeling refreshed. Recognize when you need extra rest as well. Sometimes, a simple nap can do wonders for your health. Another part of resting is doing the things you enjoy. I love to play the piano, but I also find that video games can be a good stress reliever. Whether you prefer Zelda or something completely different, indulge yourself. Don’t forget the role exercise plays in your overall health. I love to scuba dive, do some gentle yoga, and go for walks. Find the combination of exercise and enjoyment that best fits your lifestyle.
Ixcela test results often come with a recommendation to meditate, and for good reason. A 2018 Harvard study shows that meditating for fifteen minutes each day changes your genes. Participants who meditated consistently for an eight-week period experienced “a striking change in the expression of 172 genes that regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms and glucose metabolism. And that, in turn, was linked to a meaningful decrease in their blood pressure.” To make things as simple as possible, I suggest meditating with an app. I use a meditation app for fifteen minutes a few times a week. If you can find the time, daily meditation would be even better.
Managing your stress doesn’t mean that it goes away; it just means that you’re better able to do all the things you need to do and keep yourself as healthy as possible despite life’s inevitable stresses. Remember, we all choose our reactions, choose how we think about things, and choose lifestyles that allow us to manage our own equations. When we practice taking care of ourselves, we’re able to meet all of life’s challenges with more energy and clarity.
Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2012 from Boston University School of Medicine. She holds a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Erika is the Executive Director and Founder of Science from Scientists, an award-winning, National non-profit which sends real, charismatic scientists into classrooms to improve the attitudes and aptitudes of 3rd-8th-grade students in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). She is also the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a biotechnology company aimed at developing tests and interventions to improve gut microbiome efficacy and health.
Star Trek photo credit: Enterprise-D_crew_quarters.jpg: Derek Springer from Los Angeles, CA, USAPatrickStewart2004-08-03.jpg: Cdt. Patrick Caugheyderivative work: Loupeznik [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ]