Adrenaline Junkie

punch1Although we repeatedly hear about the negative health effects of stress, today we’re here to tell you that stress isn’t necessarily all bad. Like food, sex, and shoes, it’s quality, not quantity, that determines whether stress helps or hurts!

Beneficial stress comes in the form of an acute, stimulating surge, like when your raft starts to overturn in some seriously churning rapids. The resulting single adrenaline (epinephrine) burst that comes and goes very quickly is a good thing because it gives you energy and gets you ready to mobilize for immediate action.

Physiologically, the adrenaline created by an abrupt blast of stress sends a flood of oxygen-rich red blood cells through your body, boosts your immune system, and signals your brain to start releasing painkilling endorphins.

stressed-womanBad stress, on the other hand, is intense and drags on and on. This constant grind causes your adrenal glands to leak a slow, steady stream of another stress hormone: cortisol. And unlike adrenaline, which tends to hit your system in a flash and then dissipate, cortisol often wears out its welcome by hanging around in your bloodstream, driving up blood pressure, suppressing your immune system, and making you more susceptible to a slew of stress-related ailments, including colds, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and even heart disease and stroke.

So how do good stressors battle the bad ones? It all comes back to the positive power of adrenaline. In addition to all of its performance-enhancing effects, it triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins, two neurotransmitters that make you feel good – really, really good.

It also makes me feel good – really, really good, given the activities I have planned this weekend. But more of that later…

skydivingFor now, let’s return to our favorite stress hormone – epinephrine. If you’ve ever tried skydiving, bungee jumping or heli-skiing, you’ll probably remember literally flipping out during your first attempt. But once you landed safely you probably experienced a euphoric, fist-pumping high thanks to dopamine flooding your brain’s pleasure center, giving you. During the next jump, you may still have felt all the same physiological stress responses such as a pounding heart and sweaty palms but instead of being terrifying, it’s exhilarating, because your mind’s already anticipating the thrill of that dopamine reward.

And the more times you do it, the less anxiety you’re likely to feel and the more fun you’ll have. That’s because your brain’s tagging the experience as a positive one.

And the benefits persist.  Before long, your body can start to develop an almost Pavlovian response to stressful situations. If your nerves are tingling, your stomach is clenching, and you can barely breathe, then it’s tricked into thinking something really awesome is about to happen!

white-water-canoeing-18990699That’s what researchers at Texas A&M University found when they put a small sample of men and women through a series of purposely stressful outdoor adventure tasks. Some subjects – the fittest ones who were already comfortable with physical challenges fared better than others. The researchers discovered that those participants had a reduced stress response (including lower blood levels of cortisol) when facing demanding activities like whitewater canoeing or rock climbing. Essentially, they were more confident and less stressed out, even though the tasks were potentially hazardous. This may be because their past experience blazing through strenuous situations made them less likely to perceive new challenges as stressful or difficult. And according to the researchers, it’s possible to transfer that oh-so-cool-and-collected response to life’s other nerve-racking events.

Better still, you don’t have to scuba dive with great whites or BASE jump off the Empire State Building to reap the stress-busting perks of adrenaline. Whether you hit the bunny slope or the double-black-diamond mogul fields, as long as you’re taking a giant step outside your comfort zone, you’ll give your body that adrenaline kick and when you do it regularly and keep testing your edge, you’ll change your relationship with stress for the better.

So next time that little voice inside your head starts clamoring, no freaking way, just go for it and be prepared to reap the rewards.

dropcoaster

bull runWhich brings me back to my weekend. Keen to test the above theory for myself and readers of SRxA’s Word on Health, I will be spending tomorrow riding some of the longest, highest, fastest most insane rollercoasters in the country…and the following day I will be running with the bulls. If being pursued by twenty-four 1,000-pound bulls doesn’t set my adrenaline firing on all cylinders, then I guess nothing will.

I”ll let you know (hopefully) on Monday!

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Voting and Your Health

Tomorrow, as Americans cast their vote they hold not only the fate of Obama, Romney and the US in their hands, they are also influencing their own health. Research shows that stepping into that polling booth can have both subtle and profound effects on our health and behavior.

While campaigns can be physically taxing for the candidates, it turns out that your average voter can be stressed out by elections too. According to scientists from the University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University in Israel levels of the human stress hormone – cortisol, increases just before casting a vote. This unexpected physical and emotional reaction could even influence a voter’s last-minute decision.

But don’t let that keep you away from the polls. There are positives as well. Performing a civic duty such as voting promotes community involvement, which in turn has been shown to promote psychological and physical health.

Voting can also have positive and negative effects on sexual health.  Coming up short in a hard-fought election would be disappointing to any candidate. A study from Duke University and the University of Michigan, showed that it’s not only the candidate that suffers a defeat. Male supporters of the losing party may also experience a significant drop in testosterone levels immediately after the announcement of the vote outcome. Interestingly, female supporters did not experience a similar change in hormonal levels, nor did those who backed the victor.

However,in both the 2004 and 2008 elections, states that backed winning candidates showed an increase in the number of Google search requests for sexually explicit content.

And if casting your vote involves a car journey, be sure to wear your seat belt.  According to researchers from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Stanford University, fatal car crashes are 18% more likely on Election Day than any other.  The average presidential election leads to around 24 traffic deaths. Reasons for this trend, include emotions, driving unfamiliar routes, and the potential mobilization of unfit drivers.

And even if you make it safely to the polls and back your health troubles aren’t over.  A 2010, study published in the Social Science Quarterly examined suicide rates following state elections. Researchers found that when a majority of a state’s electorate picked a winner, the state’s suicide rate decreased. At the same time, when a majority picks a loser, the state’s suicide rate also decreases.

So, however you decide to vote tomorrow – take care!

Men’s Stress Levels Improve When Wives Work More

Warning this blog post may contain material offensive to feminists, metrosexuals, stay-at-home dads, busy working moms, and well, just about everyone!

It seems it’s not enough for couples to relax together at the end of the day for them to be happy and healthy.   According to a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, men find it easier to chill if their wives are still busy, while women prefer hands on help from their men!

Neither sex it seems is happy.  The results paint a pretty pessimistic picture of marriage, relationships and gender equality.  Researchers from the USC Psychology Department learned that the actions of one spouse can affect the stress levels of the partner.

By measuring cortisol levels as a marker of stress, they found that womens’ stress levels improve if their husbands chip in with the housework.  In contrast, husbands were less stressed when they had more leisure time … but only if their wives spent less time in leisure.

Observers monitored husbands and wives and recorded >5,000 unique entries about their activities. The descriptions were then classified under 13 different categories, which include housework, leisure, child care, personal time, paid work at home and communication.  The results confirmed that wives were generally doing twice as much housework as husbands and that husbands had more leisure time.

Lead author, Darby Saxbe noted, “Your biological adaptation to stress looks healthier when your partner has to suffer the consequences. The result shows that the way couples spend time at home – not just the way you spend time, but the way your partner spends time as well – has real implications for long-term health.”

Cortisol levels can affect sleep, weight gain, burnout and weakened immune resistance.

One of Saxbe’s earlier studies focused on marital relationships, stress and work. Her research found that more happily married women showed healthier cortisol patterns, while women who reported marital dissatisfaction had flatter cortisol profiles, which have been associated with chronic stress. Men’s marital satisfaction ratings, on the other hand, weren’t connected to their cortisol patterns.

The quality of relationships make a big difference in a person’s health,” Saxbe said. “Dividing up your housework fairly with your partner may be as important as eating your vegetables.”

SRxA’s Word on Health adds, “Amen to that!!!”