The next time you’re feeling stressed, arm yourself with these 3 pieces of advice from nutritionist, Andrew Raines.
It took every shred of self-control I possess to fight the urge to submit a blank page containing just 3 simple words of advice: “SUCK IT UP.” Fortunately, I am surrounded by people much smarter than me and quick enough to remind me that not all are fortunate enough to appreciate my often misunderstood sense of humor. But, to be fair, this is how we men are taught to deal with stress since we were overly-emotional, self-centered little boys. Real men don’t cry. Real men don’t show weakness. Real men bottle up our emotions and feelings and tuck them away in some small space of our uncomplicated male brains to be forgotten and never dealt with. Of course, every once in a while this part of our brain grows so full that we are no longer able to lock away these feelings, resulting in an eruption of profanity-laced anger and emotion. Dare I suggest this strategy is flawed?
But first, what IS stress?
If men are to embrace a new policy of stress management, we must first gain an understanding of what stress is, the many forms it takes, and, most importantly, how it affects us. Stress is our response to a stressor such as an environmental condition or a stimulus. This can be real or perceived and what is stressful to one individual might not be stressful to another. It is the perception of stress that what will often trigger how our body will respond to the stressor. The stress response is generally a reaction by the body’s sympathetic nervous system, resulting in the fight-or-flight-response. Historically, our stressors have been primarily physical, such as running from predator to survive. Our body will automatically make the most use of the limited energy it has by neglecting digestion in order to effectively prime the body to fight or flight by sending blood to the muscles. This is why I am a huge proponent of engaging in mindful eating as often as possible; if we attempt to eat while we are stressed, we will not adequately digest our meals. Of course this is easier said than done in our fast-paced environment, as many of my lecture attendees are quick to point out after watching me eat.
Stresses of the modern man
While our ancestral sources of stress have generally involved immediate dangers and threats to our survival, thankfully this is no longer the case for the majority of the human race. Gone are the days of living in daily fear of the dreaded saber-toothed tiger or vicious woolly mammoth. Far more common are stressors like being scorned by our spouse or boss, not meeting a deadline at work, or far too common, drinking far too much coffee. While we may be able to differentiate between the threats of being trampled by a herd of angry elephants or being yelled at by an upset spouse (sometimes more frightening), our bodies simply cannot. Located on the top of our kidneys are adrenal glands, extremely important to our body’s response to stress. When we perceive that we are in a stressful situation our adrenal glands kick into action and secretes cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone.” This gives us an immediate source of energy, allowing us to become more alert, have quicker reactions, and utilize our muscles more efficiently. This was a great evolutionary benefit when we were actually running from danger or fighting for survival, but can be quite problematic if we are chronically stressed from modern day stressors that do not require this flight-or-fight response. To make matters worse, that morning cup of coffee can elicit a similar response.1
Stress is not one-size-fits-all. The role of complementary stress:
As we are unable to stay in a flight-or-flight response for long periods of time, stress is typically viewed as a negative condition. But, small amounts of stress from time to time can have a positive impact on our health and well-being. Complementary stress, such as exercise, and production stress – created when you are striving to achieve a goal – are positive forms or stress that can lead to a performance enhancing state. This positive stress should be embraced and harnessed to achieve one’s goals. For instance, the butterflies you often feel before a big show can be used as an aid to achieve high levels of performance, but if not used correctly, they can inhibit your performance. This is why your perception of stress is of the utmost importance.
Stress management for real men
While we are able to deal with the occasional stressful situation and even utilize complementary stress as a performance enhancer, chronic stress can be very problematic for our long term health. As stereotypes are changing and men can engage in a good public cry now and then while still retaining their masculinity (I’ve even heard of some women that claim to find this attractive), there are more effective strategies for dealing with negative stress:
1. Deep breathing exercises:
Breathing is something you may argue that you have figured out and I’ll concede that you wouldn’t be reading this article if you hadn’t. That being said, if you find that while you are breathing you often inhale with your chest and breathe with your mouth, a few simple changes can do wonders for reducing stress with proper breathing. When you feel overwhelmed with a stressful situation, seek out a quiet place where you will not be disturbed or distracted and take deep purposeful belly breaths with your eyes closed. Keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose (nasal breathing) while focusing on both inhaling and exhaling for 4-5 seconds each. You can experiment with different breathing rhythms and add a 4-5 second count between your inhales and exhales. To ensure you are breathing into your belly and not with your chest, it can be helpful to do this while lying down, ensuring your belly rises with every inhale, and drops with every exhale. Focusing on your breathing while ignoring distracting thoughts and your surroundings is the beginning steps of mindfulness meditation, another effective way to reduce stress.
Sleep is likely something that you have a great deal of experience with, but once again, you wouldn’t be reading this article if you were a perfect sleeper. While sleep is important for many reasons, not prioritizing sleep can slowly destroy your nervous system leading to a far more stressed body. Always aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night and don’t be afraid to schedule naps if you are falling short on a regular basis. Engage in good sleep hygiene and remember the bedroom is for sleeping and fun only!
3. Nourish your adrenals:
As you now know, stress can wreak havoc on your poor adrenal glands. If you experience a lot of mental or physical stress, exercise to extremes, or consume a lot of stimulants such as numerous cups of coffee or too many energy drinks, it’s time to show your adrenals some love.
- Start by ensuring you are eating enough nutrient dense foods, focusing on dark leafy greens and vegetables, sea vegetables, fruits, turmeric, and fermented foods such as kombucha and sauerkraut.
- While adding nutrient dense foods can help, it is important to identify the foods you may be consuming that aggravate your adrenals and worsen fatigue. Common offenders include: high sugar and processed foods, refined flour products such as while pasta and white breads, refined vegetable oils, and stimulants such as coffee, black tea, colas, and energy drinks.
- The addition of adrenal supporting supplements can be beneficial if you have put your body through regular stress. Herbal supplements such as, rhodiola, ginseng and maca show potential as adaptogens2,3 to nourish the adrenal glands (Vega One has 1000mg of maca per serving) or while electrolytes and trace minerals can help restore minerals that your body might have lost while under stress.
Remember there is no perfect way to deal with stress. Gone are the days of feeling like less of a man because we feel stressed out or emotional. Real men experience many different emotions, some healthy, and others less so. Real men feel stress and have feelings, and yes, sometimes that means you may see a real man cry. Do not think less of him, he is a real man, and he is dealing with his stress like a real man.
1. Lovallo WH. (2005). Caffeine Stimulation of Cortisol Secretion Across the Waking Hours in Relation to Caffeine Intake Levels. Psychosomatic Medicine. 67(5): 734–739.Accessed on 10/23/14 from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2257922/pdf/nihms40260.pdf
2. Panossian A, Wikman G. (2009). Evidence-Based Efficacy of Adaptogens in Fatigue, and Molecular Mechanisms Related to their Stress-Protective Activity. Current Clinical Pharmacology, 4, 198-219.
3. Gonzales G. (2012). Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology ofLepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Accessed 10/23/14 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3184420/
This article originally appeared at MyVega.com
Photo Credit: Flickr/ChiLLeica
About Andrew Raines:
A former competitive kickboxer and soccer player, Andrew thrives on—and is an advocate for—plant-powered sport nutrition. A coach, trainer, and Education Manager for Vega, Andrew is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and has a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from eCornell and the T. Colin Campbell Foundation. Find him at CoachRaines.com.