Summertime is often associated with fun and relaxation, but stress is an ever-present force this time of the year that sneaks up on us derails all the joys of the season (and our personal well-being). From the foods we eat, to the amount of sleep we get, to disrupters such as travel and overstimulation, stress can wreck havoc on our routine and our health.
The Top 10 Stress Triggers
Here is how I recommend dealing with the top ten summer stress triggers.
1. Sugar and excess carbohydrates, including bread, pasta, cookies and candy.
Summer parties and activities are filled with tempting delights that can add to our stress. Just think about summer cocktails (often made with sugar), and all the BBQs and picnics that feature potato chips, hot dog and hamburger buns, cookies, and more. These spike your blood sugar levels, challenge your insulin function, and ultimately lead to weight gain and inflammation. Each time you ingest sugar or excess carbohydrates, you are adding stress to your metabolism.
Think twice about ordering that sweet summer cocktail and be mindful of your intake of excess carbohydrates. By reducing these daily temptations you will lower inflammation, avoid stress on your body, and tackle unwanted weight gain. Instead you could choose iced green tea with mint or lemon, and a burger (beef, turkey, or salmon) without the bun and with arugula and sautéed onions.
Summer eating also features many items made with gluten—from sandwiches to pasta dishes, and more. Gluten is not easily digested by humans and is known to cause leaky gut and inflammation in at least one out of four people. Even if you are not one of those people, gluten is still likely to stress your whole system as it is a known irritant to the nervous system, skin, thyroid, joints, and more.
Think twice about eating gluten, or at least try to reduce your intake. Consider having a salad with veggies and free-range chicken/turkey or wild caught tuna/salmon instead of a sandwich. Swap regular pasta for gluten-free versions made from rice or lentils.
We all love shopping at farm stands and picking out fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the summer months. But it’s essential to be mindful of pesticides and the stress they can impose on your body. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as pesticides and industrial byproducts are known to cause oxidative stress (damage to your cells and accelerated aging), as well as hormone dysregulation. What this means is that your hormones (thyroid, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and others) are thrown off track—potentially resulting in fatigue, mood changes, hair loss, weight gain, and decreased fertility.
Look for organic farms to visit instead, where you’ll know that everything you choose is toxin-free. And review this list of the produce most contaminated by pesticides.
4. Genetically modified (GMO) foods.
Another important consideration when shopping for summer fruits and vegetables is whether the item you have selected is genetically modified. GMOs trigger damage to the digestive tract, immune system, and DNA, creating stress on the human body. The most common genetically modified foods are corn, soy, alfalfa, squash (zucchini and yellow), canola, beets, and papaya.
When purchasing these foods (or foods with these as ingredients), look for packaging that says “non-GMO.”
5. Airplane travel.
Travel is a wonderful luxury of summer that allows us to escape to far off places or embark on a family vacation to see loved ones. For those of us who love to explore and take summer trips, consider the stress responses that travel can trigger.
Fear of flying is stressful, but it is minor compared to all of the other stresses that air travel puts on the body. Exposure to radiation (although considered minute), cramped spaces, potential infections (from other passengers on the plane), and the stress of changing time zones (forcing your circadian hormone levels to adjust) can all add up to quite a stress, especially for frequent fliers.
When traveling by airplane, be sure to bring healthy snacks and stock up on water before boarding. I also suggest packing items to keep you comfortable (such as noise-cancelling headsets (and/or ear plugs, an eye mask, and neck pillow), and support your immune system during the flight by avoiding sugar and alcohol, which both lower immune function and leave you susceptible. I also recommend also taking vitamin C (500-1000 mg), zinc (15-30 mg), and echinacea to boost immune function.
6. Skipping meals.
Busy schedules that lead us to rush from one task to the next (or to perform multiple tasks at once) make it exceedingly difficult for us to feed ourselves on any sort of regular schedule which is what our bodies need. Comments on my Facebook page expressed that “work” was one of the main reasons for skipping meals. And yet each time a meal is skipped, your stress goes up, leading to increasing insulin levels, cortisol levels, and potentially weight gain and insomnia.
Don’t let summer fun or busy work schedules get in the way of eating regularly. Keep snacks handy and carve out time for wholesome meals to keep your stress levels low. Also, be sure to drink enough water. Dehydration is also a stress on the body. It causes cortisol levels to rise, which then sends a stress signal throughout your body, affecting your digestion, immune function, hormones and nervous system.
7. Disrupted sleep.
Whether you are waking due to a baby, a puppy, a work project, or peri-menopausal sweats, disrupted sleep decreases your body’s ability to rest and restore. Even one night of missed sleep starts a vicious cycle of unwellness that makes infections, irritability, fatigue, and pain more likely. In fact, it is known that disrupted sleep increases rates of cancer and heart disease.
Don’t let the lure of late summer nights stand in the way of a good night’s sleep. A full cycle of rest (7.5 to 9 hours each night) is essential to keeping the onset of certain diseases at bay and feeling healthy day to day. Get in bed at a time that ensures adequate hours of sleep, and identify ways to avoid being woken.
8. Overuse of antibiotics, antacids, and anti-inflammatories.
It is all too common—and research journals consistently report—that overuse of antibiotics leads to more trouble than they are worth. Antibiotics destroy healthy bacteria, which we now know to be essential for good health. They also lead to leaky gut, as do antacids and anti-inflammatory drugs. Use them only when they are necessary, but when you can fight an infection and resolve reflux and pain by getting to the root of the issue, you’ll be stopping an extremely vicious cycle of stress.
If you catch a summer cold or other infection, be sure to refer to my Natural Cold Survival Guide to walk you through the steps to help your body recovery fast and hopefully without antibiotics. Take a probiotic* daily to keep your healthy bacteria working for you to prevent infections, reduce inflammation, and prevent the need for medications. Additionally, by following the recommendations above – to minimize sugar and gluten while optimizing sleep – you are already decreasing the need for antibiotics, antacids, and anti-inflammatories.
9. Too much to do, too little time.
Any of you feel that way much of the time? The to-do list seems to grow longer, not shorter, as the expectations to work, care for family, be involved in your community, plus care for yourself, can easily overwhelm both men and women (and children too). Even managing the to-do list can be too much!
In the summer months there is often a plethora of things to do—from fun in the sun to balancing work and family. Choose wisely and don’t over commit. Your health depends on it.
10. Overstimulation from communication.
New modes of communication—email, texts, phones, videos, and photos—while beneficial, also result in us seeing more information in a week then our grandparents did in a lifetime. Processing all of the information we see and hear is inherently stressful.
Take a “no screens” day once a week to have a break from emails, computers, television, and all of the modern means of overstimulation. Take this day to enjoy the friends and family around you, or use the day for quiet time to read or just relax in nature.
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.
This article first appeared on MindBodyGreen.