Feeling stressed is generally a bad sign and can harm your health, whether you’re dealing with taxing work woes or fixating on a frustrating situation you simply can’t change. Surprisingly, though, the right kind of stress can actually benefit you. Naomi Whittel, author of New York Times bestselling book Glow15: A Science-Based Plan to Lose Weight, Revitalize Your Skin, and Invigorate Your Life ($26), recently explained this phenomenon and also gave us some tips to help you pinpoint the type of stress you may be able to beneficially use in your own wellness routine.
According to Whittel, knowing the difference between different types of stress is the key. “There are two common types of stress: acute and chronic,” she explains. “Acute stress involves physical and emotional events, like feeling scared when you’re put on the spot at work or how you feel after running several sets of sprints. This is a good stress.” Chronic stress, on the other hand, persists over a longer period of time and can be harmful to your health. “Chronic stress might be long-term anxiety about your job, worries about money, frequent long-distance running, or exercising too much over a long period of time,” she notes. “While acute stress can provide many health benefits, chronic stress is the ugly stepchild; its proven harmful effects include causing depression, heart disease, obesity, and more.”
It might sound counterintuitive to learn how to use stress to stay healthy, but Whittel promises it can be done. She uses the “fight or flight response” to explain how the adrenaline that comes from acute stress can boost autophagy, a mechanism that helps your cells with a natural cleanup process. “This process (by which cells remove and recycle junk and repair damage) is for optimal function,” Whittel says. “Autophagy can decline as we age, but cellular stress can activate it, and that’s very good. It can keep you looking and feeling healthy.”
“By using good cellular stress to naturally boost autophagy, you can help your cells function better. In turn, you function better,” Whittel shares. “Here’s how it works: Autophagy is initiated when your cells lack nutrients, are deprived of energy, or are damaged in some way to activate a ‘stress response’ mechanism. When this happens, your cell action actually improves under the stress; and when your cellular processes are optimal, you look and feel better.” Whittel says benefits might include a productivity boost, more sound sleep, and an easier time maintaining or losing weight.
5 WAYS TO INCORPORATE GOOD STRESS INTO YOUR LIFE
1. Try intermittent fasting. “Not eating, or restricting caloric intake for a short period of time stresses your cells out, and this is a good thing,” Whittel says. “Short-term fasting (12-16 hours) has been shown to help you burn fat, boost brain power, and provide energy.” Want to give this one a go? Remember to always consult with your doctor before you alter your eating patterns or try any type of fasting.
2. Limit your protein intake. “Your body doesn’t make its own protein, so limiting your protein intake is a huge cellular stress,” Whittel says. “Again, this works because it forces your cells to find every possible way to recycle the existing protein you’ve already provided it, thereby activating autophagy.” Protein cycling, as Whittel explains it, has been shown to help reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. “To limit your protein consumption, aim to eat less than 25 grams on the same three days you fast,” she suggests. “For example, on three non-consecutive LOW days (e.g., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), fast for 16 hours (that includes sleeping hours!) and eat low protein (under 25 grams) for the remaining eight hours of the day. The other four days of the week are your nonrestricted HIGH days (so go ahead, indulge!).”
3. Exercise, but not too much. Overdoing it on exercise is never a good idea, but smartly scheduled, solid workouts can work wonders. “Autophagy rates increase when cells are under physiological stress, like when your heart is beating and your muscles are straining. This stress is positive as it has been shown to boost autophagy in your brain and muscle tissues,” she says. According to Whittel, all it takes is a minimal amount of exercise to give you maximum benefits. “Just 30 minutes of exercise has been shown to have profound autophagic effects,” she explains. “There are two great types of workouts to boost autophagy: HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) and RET (Resistance Exercise Training); you only need to exercise four days a week for no more than 30 minutes at a time.”
4. Indulge in the right treatments. As if we needed another excuse for a spa day! Whittel tells us that therapeutic mechanical stress — which causes minor trauma to cells in the skin and muscles — is another example of healthy stress that can elevate repair. “One of the most promising facial treatments for autophagy activation and youthful-looking skin is micro-needling,” she notes. Other treatments, such as a Thai massage, are good options too.
5. Turn up the heat. “Heat stress, which is achieved by exercising in temperatures above 86 degrees Fahrenheit to raise your core body temperature, boosts autophagy by activating genes that optimize heat shock proteins inside your cells,” Whittel says. “Adding heat to a workout is my go-to good stress.” Want to initiate heat shock while you work out? Try a hot yoga class, head outdoors for a short exercise session on a hot day, or raise your core temperature after exercise with a hot bath, trip to the sauna, or steam room visit. As always, make sure you’re properly hydrated and have consulted with a doctor when making any sort of change to your wellness routine.