DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: Stress can raise the risk of catching a bug, even cancer – and here’s how I tackle it
Like most of us, I suspect, I’ve enjoyed the unexpectedly warm start to October — but I’m really not looking forward to the colder, darker months ahead, which are among the most miserable and stressful of the year.
I have a naturally gloomy outlook (more Eeyore than Tigger) and I am well aware of the impact that chronic stress has on my body.
And managing stress is important, particularly at this time of year, when we are prone to getting more infections, as a recent study published in the journal Nature confirmed.
The researchers, from the Salk Institute in California, showed that one way stress undermines our health is because the stress hormone noradrenaline, a key part of our ‘fight or flight’ response, binds to our killer T cells and exhausts them.
Killer T cells are part of our immune system and are critical for fighting viral infections and destroying cancers.
Killer T cells are part of our immune system and are critical for fighting viral infections and destroying cancers, writes MICHAEL MOSLEY
Drinking a cup of tea after a stressful event lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol, researchers at UCL found in a study several years ago
The good news is the researchers also found (in mice, at least) that they could prevent this with beta-blockers — drugs used in humans to treat high blood pressure but which also reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety, such as a racing heart.
So could adding beta-blockers to cancer-fighting regimens make them more effective? We’re not at this stage quite yet, as more research is needed — but in the meantime here are a few of the things I do to reduce my stress levels and give my killer T cells a helping hand.
Putting the kettle on is one of our favourite ways to destress, according to a survey the Mail reported this week.
And when it comes to what to drink to reduce stress, tea certainly seems to have the edge.
In a study published some years ago in the journal Psychopharmacology, researchers at University College London showed that drinking tea after a stressful event lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
On top of that, tea contains a compound called L-theanine, which has been shown to boost levels of a stress-reducing brain chemical called GABA. You can also try mindful tea drinking: the idea here is that instead of picking up your phone and scrolling through the news or social media, you have a real break from it all.
Put the phone away, pick up your mug and really focus on what you’re doing. Notice the feeling of warmth in your hand, sniff the brew, then drink it slowly, paying attention to the tastes and aroma. I find that doing this for a few minutes is a great way to get my mind away from the concerns of the day.
Most of us enjoy a good hug with friends or loved ones, and there is plenty of research to show that hugging is a great way to reduce stress, not only because there’s comfort in touching, but also because hugging is a way we signal our support for others.
In one rather strange experiment, published in the journal Psychological Science in 2006, 16 married women were asked to go into a brain scanner and receive unpleasant electric shocks. Understandably, this made them stressed.
But when they held hands with their husbands, who were outside the scanner, their stress levels dropped — and there were big changes in areas of the brain involved in regulating emotions. Oddly, the scientists didn’t look to see what would happen if the roles were reversed.
So how long and how often should you hug? In research published in 2003, where people were asked to give a public speech, a 20-second hug just before was enough to significantly reduce their stress levels.
When I am out and about and feeling stressed, I often get cravings for a bar of chocolate or biscuits. But instead I try either to ride out the urge, or buy some sugar-free gum. Chewing on this seems to reduce the stress and relieve my cravings, and there’s some science behind this.
In a study published in the journal Appetite in 2012, researchers at Cardiff University asked students to fill in questionnaires to assess their levels of stress and anxiety — over the following two weeks, one group chewed gum while the other refrained. It turned out the more the students chewed, the bigger the fall in stress. Animal studies suggest chewing stimulates brain cells involved in emotional regulation.
It will come as no surprise to hear that exercise is a great way to reduce stress — but going for a walk in green spaces seems to be especially beneficial, research shows.
Research in 2003 found that a 20-second hug was enough to significantly reduce stress levels
And if you can, ensure that at least part of your walk goes through a wood. That’s because when you’re surrounded by trees, you will be inhaling phytoncides — essential oils they give off that have been shown to enhance mood and bolster our immune system.
In a recent study by Hanseo University in Korea, 55 patients who’d been treated for cervical or breast cancer were randomly allocated to lie down either in a room which was scented with tree oils, or in a room without the scent, for an hour a day, five days a week for two months.
At the end of the study those in the scented room experienced a much greater reduction in their levels of cortisol, and a boost in cancer-fighting immune cells.
Sniffing lavender oil might help, too. A small study by Fooyin University in Taiwan showed stress levels halved in nurses who had little bottles containing 3 per cent lavender oil pinned to their clothes (while nurses with little bottles filled with just water were as stressed as before).
And then there’s my daily cold shower I’ve written about a few times before: it’s not just good for immunity, studies have shown that repeatedly undergoing the mild stressor of immersion in cold water will help you cope with other stressors in your life.
I do it for about 40 seconds, singing loudly which helps further reduce pain and stress (singing boosts the release of endocannabinoids, a feel-good chemical in our bodies).
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