'Sitting is the new smoking,' or — Tackling stress, a trucker's war

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Every day, we’re faced with choices about heath. Some issues are out of our control – the decision to sit for 8 hours or more a day, for instance, isn’t really a choice in trucking. And it's said that excessive sitting is the new smoking, as far as long-term impacts on one's health.

Other factors like diet and exercise are well within the realm of our control and take only forethought and planning to at least rein in the right direction. What many drivers do not stop and consider as they age, though, is the impact of hormones on how well the body functions. And, yes, this affects men and women alike. Oxytocin is one such hormone. Some docs call it the feel-good hormone, and there are things you can do on your own to boost its levels in the body. 

Doing so will pay dividends long-term for mental and physical health -- and safety in work, pleasure in life. 

Studies show considerable support for the notion that psychosocial influences (organizational cultures in workplaces, excessive workloads, strict deadlines, little to no control of the work or working methods) are all significant contributors to an extensive range of emotional, biological, and psychiatric issues. Not only can excessive stress lead down the road to depression and anxiety, it can manifest directly in in our physical bodies -- as I've written about before in the case of metabolic syndrome. But it can also lead to coronary heart disease and musculoskeletal disorders like basic joint and back pain.

When a driver perceives a lack of psychological support from their organization, they might withdraw into themselves, fail to show up for the work, experience physical and mental strain (fatigue, headaches, burnout, depression and anxiety) and generally exhibit patterns that are to the detriment of safety as well. Stress correlated with isolation cycles into the blame game, blaming ourselves for a lack of resilience, or strength, and blaming others for our emotional reactions.

[Related: What can we do about the physical and emotional violence of chronic stress made manifest?]

Positive social collaborations, on the other hand, show strong positive results for both physical and mental health. Oxytocin is important for positive behaviors, such as an exchange of trust or trustworthiness in social interactions more broadly. Oxytocin has the power to reduces stressors, serving as a governor in social attachment. Higher levels of oxytocin have been shown to increase social perception of emotions and influence trust, social risk-taking and empathy. As I noted before, some in psychology call oxytocin the feel-good hormone – it keeps us calm by lowering inflammation, and balancing out the chemical produced from stress, cortisol.

rest area with mountain viewTake a load off in a natural setting whenever the opportunity arises. "Get outside -- soaking up the sun, hanging out in nature … both correlate to higher levels of oxytocin." —Clifford PetersenThe synthetic introduction of oxytocin can be a risk if not properly monitored. But with effective nutritional influence or dietary supplements (hormone testing is advised), oxytocin can assist in emotional regulation, improving personal or professional relationships, and thereby cultivating social interactions, perceptions and empathy.

I believe diet is the principal key to good health, and most everything physical and psychological can be addressed with diet. Here are some things you can do to improve oxytocin levels naturally.

[Related: Steer out of the ruts with mindfulness practice]

  • Diet. Eat foods rich with tryptophan and healthy fats, high in antioxidants and B vitamins. These support brain chemistry and result in higher serotonin and oxytocin levels, while balancing blood sugar levels. Some examples: Dark chocolate (specifically raw cacao), avocados (superfood), wild salmon, tuna, spirulina, sweet potatoes, wild mushrooms, and yerba mate (an herbal tea); organic turkey or chicken and eggs; cheeses, yogurt, kefir (dependent upon dairy reactions); nuts or seeds (black sesame seeds, quinoa, cashews, walnuts, brazil nuts); and fruits like figs, berries (blue, black, strawberries), pomegranate, and bananas (fruits are high in sugar, moderation required).
  • Supplements. While I’m not big on supplements, there are some that encourage the release of oxytocin on a biochemical level, including vitamins D, C, and B; magnesium and a variety of others. Supplements are not the best option, and let me be clear that no amount of them can fix a bad diet. I’d consider them an option if you address the diet first. Always coordinate with a functional medicine doctor — excessive oxytocin can have negative side effects.
  • Exercise. Moving your body secretes endorphins, improving brain chemistry as well as relieving stress. Cardio is something easy for drivers to do and does not need to be excessive or extreme. Dancing, swimming, riding a bike, running, taking a walk – all qualify.
  • Get outside. Soaking up the sun, hanging out in nature … both correlate to higher levels of oxytocin. Simply sit and enjoy the outdoors while doing nothing. Reading a book sitting by the river, camping, gardening, taking your lunch break under a shade tree, building a bonfire with friends and family, sunbathing. Other things I have talked about in the past like meditation, yoga, personal reflection, practicing gratitude, deep breathing — all increase oxytocin levels and reduce stress.
  • Make personal connections. We are social creatures, and the isolation of the job can be stressful in and of itself. Hug somebody, laugh, spend time with friends, call loved ones, get or give a massage, compliment a stranger, adopt a pet, enjoy a romantic meal with your significant other. Give yourself away. We are wired to help others, and giving is a neuro pathway that creates joy and overall health improvement. So help a friend, volunteer, make a donation, offer advice, help a stranger. 
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