Health: Tips For De-stressing

It’s nearly winter break, and it seems that everyone is begging for a relaxing, work-free holiday season. Before we can actually enjoy a nice hiatus, though, finals threaten the necessity for unpleasant endeavors, such as downing bottomless cups of coffee or pulling all-nighters in Kirk lab (something a friend of mine dubbed “klabbing”). Holiday season itself can be stressful, too. Dealing with long days of travel and entertaining family and friends can take its toll on the body and mind. Do you know how to handle the heat (or lack thereof)? In this final edition of the fall semester of The Mac Weekly, I will share some tips about how to remain calm and collected during these busy times, so that you can maintain great health throughout finals and into holiday break.

Stress has direct physical effects on health. The release of cortisol–a main stress hormone–causes immune suppression, an increase in blood glucose, upsets digestion, hinders memory recall, and even interferes with the reproductive system besides other effects. Physiological consequences due to short-term stress usually aren’t problematic, but periods of chronic stress can and often do contribute to poor health. The very best way to avoid these issues is through stress prevention. Planning ahead for assignments and prioritizing work with “to do” lists are indispensable. Although most Macalester students probably already know these things, it’s still worthwhile to remind yourself of them every once in a while.

Sleep is important, too! As I wrote in last week’s column, at least seven hours of sleep each night will go a long way toward keeping one healthy and mentally sharp, which is critical if you want to ace exams and write eloquent papers. If you can’t get enough sleep, supplement with no longer than 20 to 30 minute naps, which will improve your focus and provide a welcome mental break. You can even practice relaxation in lieu of sleep. Simply clearing the mind and listening to calming music is a great way to ease tension and process information. As a fun fact, Marconi Union’s, “Weightless,” was named by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2011 for being the “most relaxing song ever written.”

Aside from sleeping and planning ahead, what you ingest can actually affect your stress levels as well. While coffee and energy drinks are tempting ways to sustain an all-nighter, caffeine can actually worsen stress. This is because it triggers the release of cortisol and adrenalinetwo hormones whose high levels are also caused by stress. So while you might temporarily benefit from a brief energy lift, your body will likely suffer. A better beverage choice would be a calming herbal tea, such as chamomile or peppermint, and some extra brain food to sustain you throughout the night. Avoid sugar, since it also decreases immunity and has the undesirable consequence of creating an inability to focus (i.e. a “sugar jolt and crash” as insulin is released to decrease high blood glucose levels that are caused by consumption of sugary food and drink). Foods that are high in protein and healthy fats and nutrients, such as raw nuts, organic milk or yogurt, and fruits and vegetables will sustain your energy levels far longer than these temporary fixes.

A number of natural supplements also help to relieve stress and anxiety. A favorite of mine is kava–an herb that is convenient for its calming effect without disrupting clarity of thought. Supplementing with or consuming foods that are high in magnesium can also help ease anxiety. This mineral is essential for good health but easily depleted by high stress levels. I prefer a supplement called Magnesium Calm, but you can also obtain this mineral through consumption of leafy greens (such as kale, collards, and spinach), and to a lesser extent in nuts and seeds and unprocessed grains (i.e. in oatmeal or brown rice rather than processed, bleached breads). B vitamins may also be useful for relieving stress and may even help alleviate depression in some cases (magnesium is useful in this regard, too).

By eating right, sleeping, and using common sense to manage your workload and the demands of family and friends, you can manage stress and create great health. Taking a healthy break once in a while to have fun is stress-busting, too! So take a deep breath, relax, ace your finals, and enjoy what’s left of 2011!

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