Stress, Mood and a Healthy Lifestyle
Yesterday, we touched on how our mood is determined by looking at what complicated mechanisms make us feel happy or sad. So far, we have covered the biological factors that determine mood, today, we will look at environmental factors that can determine mood.
A very brief recap of yesterday’s article...
If you missed yesterday’s article it can be found on our website or via our Facebook or Instagram page. Yesterday, we covered the hormones/neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, endorphin and heritable genes that determine mood. We discovered that these hormones act as signals to the body that we are happy. The lower they are the more likely the person is to experience chronically low mood. These hormones, alongside our stress hormones, can be manipulated by triggers in our environment such as good/bad news, stress, exercise, natural light, relaxation etc, this is what today’s article will discuss.
Stress in more detail
Physiological stress is characterised by an increase in our fight or flight hormones cortisol and adrenaline. High levels of cortisol production from the adrenal cortex can generate symptoms we recognise as stress. These symptoms include:
- Loss of Appetite
- Muscle tension
- Increased heart rate
- Brain fog and difficulty concentrating.
- Feeling overwhelmed.
- Changes in sleep patterns
Stress is an evolutionary response that has been maintained throughout human development. Our stress response begins in the brain where environmental information is translated to a stressor. This stressor signal is then sent to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then communicates the ‘fight or flight’ message via the autonomic nervous system. This is divided into the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the ‘rest and digest’ or ‘fight or flight’ responses respectively.
Then, the hypothalamus fires up the sympathetic nervous system which sends a signal to the adrenal glands to make the hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline is responsible for many of the initial symptoms of stress such as increased heart and breathing rates as well as a loss of appetite. Following this is a secondary response, this only occurs if the stressor is prolonged. The secondary response involves the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary axis), this stimulates the adrenal cortex to release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone and it’s responsible for that recognisable ‘on edge’ feeling. When the stressor is removed then the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system dampens the stress threat and cortisol decreases.
Stressors can be either acute or chronic. Acute stressors are momentary examples of stress, for example, missing your train or forgetting your keys. Whereas chronic stressors can affect your biological stress response for long periods of time, covering weeks or months. For example, a divorce, bereavement or job loss.
Aside from the noticeable symptoms mentioned above, chronically high cortisol has been associated with a decrease in immune system function, management of blood glucose, weight management and cardiovascular health. Whereas it has been associated with an increase in inflammation, visceral fat, insulin resistance and risk of type 2 diabetes. This evidence clearly shows how mental health is not a separate entity to physical wellbeing. For years stress has protected us from danger and is a normal part of being human. Nowadays, we have a greater understanding of how to manage everyday stress to improve both our mental and physical wellbeing.
Lifestyle tips to improve your mood
This may become even more significant during these ‘out-of-sorts' times we are living in. Here are some simple lifestyle tips in order to best manage stress and improve your mood:
- Include natural light in your day
- Minimise stress through meditation and deep breathing
- Boost endorphins through exercise
- Work on your sleep hygiene
Humans are governed by their circadian rhythms. These are natural rhythms that determine our sleep-wake and eat cycles. Our sleep–awake cycle is modulated by the hormones adenosine and melatonin. Before the times of artificial lighting, humans established their day around natural light. This means throughout evolution we have adapted to sleep when it’s dark and wake when it’s light. When light begins to dim our body produces more adenosine and melatonin, our sleepy hormones. When we fall asleep these begin to decrease beginning the awake phase of the cycle.
Humans are now well-adapted to artificial sources of light such as light bulbs, computer screens, phone screens and TVs. This can minimise our body’s natural ability to govern its circadian rhythm. Evidence has shown that natural light has a great impact on our mood and sleep for multiple reasons. including:
- Being a great source of Vitamin D for the human body. Vitamin D has been shown to improve mood, especially in cases of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
- Helps to reset our natural circadian rhythm.
- Reduces blue light exposure.
One study looked at the mental wellbeing of office workers when allowed to enjoy natural light at work. They found that elements of direct natural light improved employee mood and job attitudes. Direct sunlight had no effect on depressed mood but was positively associated with anxiety whereas the inverse was found for indirect sunlight. As a result, we recommend embracing at least 15 minutes in natural sunlight each day, this may mean enjoying your breakfast in the garden or taking a walk in your lunch break.Meditation and Deep Breathing
Meditation is an exercise whereby the person engages in reflection or contemplation. One study took 30 medical students and asked them to take part in mindfulness meditation whilst measuring their circulatory cortisol before and after. They found a 19.8% decrease in cortisol following mindfulness practice; therefore, you can conclude that it helps to minimise stress via the reduction of stress hormones.
Another activity to try is deep breathing, recommended by the NHS. This has been shown to reset your breathing rate which can help to naturally support the body to feel calmer. Here is a link to the NHS Deep Breathing Exercise - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/ways-relieve-stress/Gentle Exercise
One of the most common ways to improve mood is through exercise. Yesterday we reviewed the mood-boosting hormone called ‘endorphin’. These are responsible for what most people refer to as the post-exercise ‘buzz’. Endorphins are the body’s natural form of pain relief. They are released during exercise to reduce the perception of effort. However, it has a secondary benefit of lifting mood as well. One 2019 study found that increasing exercise can help to reduce depression. In particular, it found that scores of depressive symptoms were decreased in all forms of exercise including household chores. Moreover, numerous studies have found lower activation of the sympathetic nervous system and HPA axis in people who exercise regularly. Be mindful that extremely intense exercise has been shown to increase cortisol which can, in turn, increase feelings of anxiety/stress.
Some of you may be thinking ‘but I hate exercising so how will it improve my mood’, good question! Exercise isn't just about lifting the heaviest weights or running a marathon, it simply means moving your body. Why not try some free workouts online or via apps, or even just dance to your favourite songs?
Sleep quality plays a big part in our mood. Chronic lack of sleep has been shown to increase cortisol levels the following evening. One study found that periods of sleep deprivation can delay HPA axis recovery resulting in higher levels of cortisol the following day. This could result in higher levels of stress/anxiety. Also, studies showed that shift workers with disturbed sleep also demonstrate higher levels of cortisol when compared with daytime workers.
Therefore, we recommend improving your sleep hygiene by making a consistent sleep-awake routine, reduce blue light exposure before bed and incorporate relaxation techniques before lights out.Recommendation for Self-Care and Mood Support:
- Meditation apps like, Headspace, Calm, Breethe.
- Exercise Apps like, Gymondo or 7 minute workouts.
- Sleep apps like, Calm or Sleep Sounds.
- Purchase a Lumie Body Clock
Consider it a recommendation from us at Vytaliving, take a walk, listen to a podcast, read a book, meditate, and make time for YOU!