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The “Think Outside the Box!” health series is brought to you the first three Thursdays of every month--with a new theme each month. October’s Theme: Inflammation—at the Root of Disease. Get the most out of this educational series by interacting with the challenges and questions on Facebook and Twitter.

I think everyone is probably getting the drift by this third post in the inflammation series—inflammation is a major problem and a key contributor to our current health crisis. Remember in October’s first “Think Outside the Box” post I shared 7 ways to reduce inflammation.

Last week we discussed how and what foods turn on or turn off our body’s inflammatory switch—making food a powerful tool to decrease inflammation. Now let’s take a deeper look at how stress impacts inflammation.

High Stress Society

Stress may be one of the most important factors for controlling inflammation in our culture where we tend to put high demands on ourselves—and others. Many of us are perfectionists, work long hours, have never ending to-do lists, try to meet unreasonable deadlines, and do the work of others because we think we can do it better ourselves. And we do all this while juggling kids’ activities, being involved in our communities, and managing our homes.

Although we’ve grown accustomed to this fast-paced lifestyle, many of these activities actually induce a stress response in our bodies. When these stress-inducing behaviors become day-to-day activities we enter a state of  “chronic stress.” Many of us recognize and even accept continuous levels of stress as part of our lives, but we may not fully appreciate that chronic stress literally interferes with the body’s ability to regulate the inflammatory response—putting us at risk for countless health problems.

The Stress-Inflammation Connection

Stress is the body’s response to any real or imagined threat. It is a natural response and can be advantageous when it helps protect us from harm. It helps us survive threats—like run from a lion, right? Under normal evolutionary conditions, the physiological responses that stress brings on would cease once the dangerous threat is gone.

Unfortunately, the body undergoes the same physiological changes as it responds to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as work stress, family difficulties, to-do lists, deadlines, or health challenges. Over time, these stress responses become chronic. So when we feel continuously overwhelmed or overworked, our body is responding as if we never actually escape the “threat.” We never get a chance to regain our natural state of relaxation. Unfortunately, this overexposure to stress can disrupt almost all of our body’s processes and is a significant cause of chronic inflammation. Let me tell you how.

One of the main hormones excreted when we experience stress is called cortisol. Under the fight or flight response cortisol serves us by providing a quick burst of energy, lowering sensitivity to pain, impacting memory, and even suppressing inflammation. Under evolutionary survival conditions, this short-term response would almost always be followed by a period of no stress—you kill the lion and the danger disappears—during which your body would return to normal functioning. When we are faced with chronic stresses, however, we lack the normal relaxation periods that bring our body functions back to normal—which means cortisol release continues.  

Research is now showing that prolonged release of cortisol leads to glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR)—in essence, a cortisol resistance. This is similar to insulin resistance—the precursor to diabetes that is caused by excess sugar and high insulin demands. Cortisol resistance is caused by too much stress and high cortisol demands—resulting in decreased tissue sensitivity to cortisol.

In other words, when one is cortisol resistant, he is producing cortisol, but the glucocorticoid receptors are resistant to the effects of cortisol. You can think of cortisol knocking on a door, but nobody’s inside or whoever’s inside isn’t listening. Remember, one of cortisol’s functions is to turn off inflammation. So, when cortisol gets secreted but can’t activate the immune cell receptors, we get a runaway inflammatory response. In research, cortisol resistance has been found in spouses of brain cancer patients, in parents of children with cancer, and in people that are very lonely—populations known to be experiencing significant, prolonged stress.

As with insulin resistance, I want to avoid cortisol resistance like the plague. So, how can we best take care of our stress to support the body’s natural inflammatory response?

Soul-Centered Self-Care

One stress reduction strategy that I love is called soul-centered self-care. Bear with me if you, like me, usually tune out at “self-care” lectures. When I hear someone mention “self-care” I typically think, “yeah, yeah, yeah, you want me to journal, run, do yoga, and garden—got it (and probably not going to do it).” Self-care has always felt like a list of things I “should” be doing, despite not being remotely motivated to do those things.

In contrast to how I initially saw “self-care,” soul-centered self-care is a practice that is based on being guided by your unique desires and getting in tune with what activities help you feel more connected. It is not based on “shoulds” and “should nots.” It is heart-centered and not head-centered.

The core of this type of self-care is understanding who we are and what we desire—what makes us smile, breathe deeper, and relax. It is based entirely on becoming aware of what fills us and what drains us. When we know what fills us, caring for our self then becomes a life-filling joy, not an obligation or a task to be completed. You may find that when you focus on what fills you the activities that have been draining are naturally replaced or become less draining. 

The challenge with soul-centered self care is giving ourselves permission to meet our own needs and fulfill our own desires in the midst of a world with constant external demands, expectations, and pressures; where doing for yourself can be perceived as selfish and lazy.

My favorite soul-centered self-care practices at the moment are:

  • Taking a hot bath (I try to do this 3-5 times a week. I LOVE BATHS!)
  • Daily meditation guided by Headspace’s Andy Puddicomb. (Love this app!)
  • Massage once a month (I had to force this as a priority in my budget)
  • Sitting in the sun reading a book and drinking iced tea (my definition of heaven on earth)
  • Sitting back with hot tea and watching my kids play
  • Going to bed early (a new love!)

Other soul-centered self-care practices might be:

  • Make dinner prep a bit more exciting with a glass of wine and your favorite music.
  • Get up and run when the little one annoyingly wakes you too early.
  • Get your hands dirty in the garden or in a creative project.
  • Read a great book in bed or on a cozy couch.
  • Lie down in bed and look at the ceiling—this doesn’t have to be complicated.

Know who or what connects you—pets, nature, certain people, moving your body, being still—and PRIORITIZE it.  Put it in the calendar if it helps.

Look for ways to make life fun and enjoyable in all of your activities. Even the boring and annoying tasks can fulfill us if we think outside of the box and bring our unique creative selves forward. As you engage with what fills you, you will likely notice how your breathing changes and you can feel your body relax. Keep track of what it feels like when you are in a restored state versus a tense and stressed space.

For more information on chronic stress and stress reduction strategies message me for a free copy of Chapter 4 in my book, Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World.

Weekly challenge: Do a soul-centered self-care activity at least once a day this week and notice what happens? What do you feel?

Let’s chat on social: What is your favorite soul-centered self-care practice? Head to Facebook and let us know.