Are you feeling stressed? Join the club. There’s the cost-of-living crisis, the threat of rising fuel bills and the constant pressures of just keeping our heads above water.
Even before Covid came along, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 75 per cent of Britons reported that they were so stressed over the previous year that they felt they couldn’t cope.
Yet alongside ‘bad’ stress there is also ‘good’ stress, which makes you rise to a challenge and triumph against the odds (I’m thinking of you, Lionesses).
Sometimes a bit of extra stress is just what the doctor ordered. That was the conclusion of a recent study by the University of Georgia in the U.S., which found that being exposed to moderate levels of stress not only makes people more resilient, but also reduces the risk that they’ll develop mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
Even before Covid came along, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 75 per cent of Britons reported that they were so stressed over the previous year that they felt they couldn’t cope
The study, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, involved tests on more than 1,200 young adults who were asked to fill in questionnaires that assessed their stress levels, answering questions such as ‘how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things you had to do?’
They also underwent cognitive tests that measured their memory, ability to switch between tasks and processing speed (how quickly their brains work).
R esearchers concluded, after crunching the numbers, that being exposed to moderate levels of stress enhances people’s cognitive abilities and protects against the risks of developing mental health problems.
It may be that when we’re stressed we learn coping mechanisms that help us overcome future challenges.
There is, of course, a fine line and the researchers point out that while some stress can be good for your brain, continued high stress can be incredibly damaging.
These findings support something I’ve believed for a long time: that when we are exposed to stress, whether it is physical or mental, it can make us stronger.
There is even a name for this: hormesis. This is not just a variant of ‘join the army and it will make a man of you’; hormesis is a way of explaining the health benefits of being continuously challenged.
Are you feeling stressed? Join the club. There’s the cost-of-living crisis, the threat of rising fuel bills and the constant pressures of just keeping our heads above water
Take something as simple as exercise. When you run or pump iron, what you are actually doing is damaging your muscles, causing small tears. Your body responds by doing repairs, and that is what makes your muscles stronger.
Eating bitter vegetables is another example. Plants produce compounds called phytochemicals, some of which act as natural pesticides to keep mammals like us from eating them.
They taste bitter because they contain chemicals that are potentially poisonous.Yet many vegetables that are particularly good for us, such as cabbage and broccoli, are so bitter that even adults struggle to love them.
It seems that the toxic phytochemicals are present in such low doses they won’t harm us, but they are strong enough to activate a stress response in our cells, which then switches on genes that make our cells stronger and healthier.
Once you start looking at the world in this way, you realise that many activities we initially find stressful, such as eating bitter vegetables, going for a run and lifting weights, or even practising intermittent fasting — something I am famous for — are hugely beneficial in the long term.
The challenge seems to be part of the benefit. The fact that prolonged starvation is very bad for you does not mean that short periods of intermittent fasting must be a little bit bad for you. Indeed, lots of research shows there are multiple benefits to be had from cutting your calories for short periods of time, as long as you eat healthily the rest of the time.
Hormesis might also explain the benefits of cold showers, or cold-water swimming, something I have been doing for a while. Initially, dousing yourself in cold water is a shock to the system — I still gasp.
But if you go on doing this you will not only find you can cope with the stress caused by cold-water immersion, but you should find it also helps you cope with other stressors in your life, such as pressure at work or poor sleep.
President Kennedy famously said, in a speech which launched the race to put a man on the moon: ‘We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’
Something to bear in mind next time you are hesitating about going for a run, a swim, or simply taking up a new challenge.
If you have a smart watch then you know it monitors everything from your heart rate to the number of calories you burn. But it can’t see how your heart changes shape as you exercise, or how your stomach expands, then shrinks, as you knock back a drink. For that you need the new ultrasound patch, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — a stamp-sized device that sticks to skin and provides continuous ultrasound imaging of your organs. If you’ve ever had an ultrasound, you’ll know they are bulky machines. Yet this new device is no bigger than a sticking plaster and needs no expertise to use. It is still in the development stage, but future uses could include keeping an eye on a dodgy heart or the development of a foetus in the womb. It could be truly revolutionary.
Planting a tree could protect your brain
If you live by a busy road or do a lot of cycling (which I do) you should be alarmed by a new report from the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants which, having reviewed almost 70 studies, concluded that air pollution not only increases the risk of heart disease and cancer, but also dementia.
Cars, buses and lorries produce PM2.5 — tiny particles that go deep into your lungs and which are then carried via your blood to your brain.
This report follows another study, published in July in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, which found that children whose mothers were exposed to higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (another common air pollutant) when they were pregnant, were more likely to have behavioural problems and lower IQs.
So what can you do? First, you could try to avoid getting stuck in traffic, because even if you close the windows, you will still be exposed to pollutants spewed out by other cars. A few years ago I took part in a study where I wore a pollution monitor while walking, cycling or travelling in a car through Central London. The worst results, by far, were when I was in the car. You might also want to plant some trees in your garden.
In 2019, Lancaster University tested the ability of nine tree species to reduce air pollution and found silver birch, yew and elder were able to use the hairs on their leaves to trap the tiny polluting particles, reducing levels in the surrounding air by more than 70 per cent.
And please don’t buy wood-burning stoves — they contribute more to particle air pollution than all road traffic combined.
New PM must prioritise war on obesity
Now that Boris Johnson is stepping down, I fear that will mean the end of our war on obesity.
Boris had personal reasons for wanting to tackle this problem — he said he ended up in intensive care with Covid due to being ‘way overweight’. But will his successor be as keen?
Liz Truss has said that people ‘don’t want the Government telling them what to eat’ and that she will scrap Boris’s proposed ban on ‘buy one, get one free’ deals on products such as chocolate, crisps or cakes.
Although she, and Rishi Sunak, say they are committed to easing the NHS crisis, how they propose tackling our ever-rising rates of obesity (which is one of the biggest drivers of that crisis) remains to be seen.
The only bit of good news is that one important part of Boris’s anti-obesity strategy is still in place (though probably hanging by a thread). This is a proposal to curb junk food adverts aimed at children.
We know curbs work: a study by Sheffield University suggests restrictions on junk food ads on the Transport for London network in 2019 led to 95,000 fewer cases of obesity, prevented or delayed 2,857 cases of diabetes, and is expected to save the NHS £218 million.
Let’s hope our next PM will be brave enough to take on the junk food giants.