The Recession – Is It Bad For Your Health?

Mar 18, 2009 | By: Christie Wilcox

Featured, Food

Clearly the economic downturn is having an impact on our wallets. We’re not spending as much on fun or frivolity. But is it possible that the poor monetary market is impacting our health? Studies say yes, it is. But just because the economy has got us down doesn’t mean we have to give in – for every ill effect of the recession there are easy, everyday ways to fight back.

Recession Woe #1: Stress

Hard economic times are tough for just about everyone. The nation’s unemployment rate is now at 8.1 percent, the highest in almost two decades. The Federal Reserve expects the jobless rate to rise to close to 9 percent by the end of 2009, and probably remain above 5 percent well into 2011. People are cutting back expenses and companies are feeling the losses. The holiday season at the of 2008 was the worst in over a quarter century. People are losing jobs. Companies are going bankrupt. Congress is playing trauma medic – and all of it is unbearably stressful.

You can learn more about our current situation in Charlie Rose’s interview with some major economic players last evening:

Let’s be honest – no one really feels 100% safe and secure in times like these. Sure, we’re not nearly in the hot water they faced in the 1930s, but we’re not exactly living easy, either. We’re all a little worried that we might lose our jobs, or that our fuel costs will rise out of control, or something, somehow, is going to go wrong. All that stress takes its toll on our bodies.

The human stress response is designed to be temporary, to give us an extra boost of energy, strength and speed when in immediate danger. When human beings are stressed, we release a barrage of hormones that tinker with our bodies’ nervous systems. But when the ‘situation’ doesn’t resolve soon enough, these compounds and their effects can be devastating. Under stress, humans release adrenalin and cortisol, which speed up our heart rates, slow digestion, alter blood flow, and generally manipulate our autonomic nervous system (the one which controls our unconscious bodily actions like digestion).

Stressors are numerous - from Smart Publications

Stressors are numerous - from Smart Publications

In times of chronic stress, the constant high levels of these hormones wreaks havoc on our bodies. These hormones deplete our essential vitamins, affect our sleep patterns, immune function, cognitive function and just about everything else in our bodies. Stress can lead to increased susceptibility to or occurrence of infections, muscle pains, low fertility, weight gain, acne, asthma, and even sexual dysfunction. And what begins as headaches and weakened immune systems can lead to a whole host of disorders from depression to diabetes, obesity, and even cancer. It’s been estimated that over 90% of doctor’s visits are actually for stress-related symptoms.

Being unemployed only makes things worse. Research has shown that unemployment alone is enough to cause significant effects on illness recovery rates and even mortality. People who worked consistently overcame illnesses more readily than those who didn’t, and those that were unemployed had double the death rates, according to one study from the United Kingdom.1 It’s likely these effects are due to the stress created by an unstable or non-existent work situation.

The effects might be particularly bad for men, as extended stress can lead to lower testosterone levels. A lack of testosterone decreases sexual function, circulation, muscle mass, mood, memory and concentration – all of which lead to more stress and even lower levels. As testosterone plummets, men have a harder time staying fit and feeling healthy, making them even more depressed.

So what can you do to fight back?

For one, do your best to reduce the stress in your life. While when it comes to unemployment or job troubles this might be a little tough, do your best to keep a positive attitude. Get outdoors, play, laugh, and have a good time whenever you can. After all, enjoying yourself doesn’t have to cost money – take a walk in the park or play a pick-up game of football with your friends. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress, and it naturally releases chemicals in your brain which lift your spirits. If you’re more of a loner, you can try meditation or yoga. Deep breathing and taking time out of your day for peaceful focus can do wonders to lower your stress levels.

Go outside!

Go outside!

And, just to make the boys happy, I’ll mention one other great way to reduce stress: get laid. Stress can lower your libido, which is unfortunate, since sex is such a great stress reliever. Research has shown that sex improves your mood, lowers your blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, and even has a cyclic effect of enhancing your sex drive, leading to, of course, more “stress relief”. Not to mention, when done well, it can be a wonderful source of exercise.

If you simply can’t seem to get yourself out from under the recession stress, you might consider talking to a professional. Conversing with your doctor or a psychologist can give you an outlet for your problems. If things are bad enough, medications and herbal treatments might just be of help. There is help available, and you can be feeling better and more in control of your life before you know it.

Recession Woe #2: Fitness

As the economy collapses, the dollar just isn’t worth what it used to be, and everyone is essentially making less money, even if you haven’t lost your job. It has been shown time and time again that weight is related to income level. Recent studies have found that for every 10% increase in poverty there will be a 6% increase in obesity.2 For one reason or another, the less money you have, the higher the probability that you’re overweight or obese. While some of the reasons for weight gain with income loss are nutrition related, some is due to lower levels of exercise and activity.

When money’s tight, gym memberships and exercise machines seem like wastes of hard-earned cash, leading to cuts in daily exercise. After all, you can’t afford that extra kick boxing class or StairMaster when funds are tight. Because of the financial worries, people take on extra jobs, and simply don’t have the time or energy to work out. For that matter, all that stress makes you less inclined to even try – and all of these little cuts adds up. The phenomena is known as “recession pounds,” and is a big concern in the healthcare industry.

So how can you keep fit in a flabby economy?

A Gym - find your way there!

A Gym - find your way there!

For starters, go out of your way to beat your excuses. Too little free time? Get up a little earlier. Getting the blood pumping in the AM will wake you up and make you feel more alive and ready for your day. Too tired? That’s because you’re not exercising! Researchers from California State University, Long Beach, found that just 10 minutes of brisk walking can give you up to two hours of increased energy. Get friends and family involved – make excuses to play sports together or go for walks in your neighborhood.

Instead of spending the weekend watching movies, find loval nature parks and go for hikes. In the frozen North it can seem harder to keep moving in the winter, but don’t let snow be an excuse. Snowshoeing and cross country skiing are great forms of exercise, and they’re fun. Besides, exercising will help reduce your stress and improve your mood, which will help dull the impact of the worsening economy.

Recession Woe #3: Diet

When Which?, a non-profit consumer watchdog, asked UK residents about their dietary habits, almost 1/4 of them said that the economic crisis had made healthy eating a lower priority.3 Over half said they would eat healthier if they could afford it. So our monetary woes have translated to poor food choices which in turn is having a negative impact on our health. Other studies have shown that lower income level is related to poor nutrition, presumably because the sugary, unhealthy foods are appetizing and cheaper than their healthy alternatives.

Saving Benjamins

Saving Benjamins

A UK cabinet office report estimated the monetary effect of illnesses caused by poor food choices was at least £6 billion every year, which more than twice the amount attributed automobile accidents and three times the amount attributed to smoking, and may be as high as £18 billion.4 So we lose money, which makes us eat poorly, and thus we cost ourselves more money in doctor and hospital bills: its a self-fulfilling cycle. To drive the point home, the report says that simply consuming five portions of fruit and vegetables per day could prevent 42,000 premature deaths a year (reducing salt intake could save another 20,200 lives, and cutting saturated fat, other 3,500). Skimping on nutrition isn’t a great way to cut spending – it’s a great way to cost yourself much more, in quality of life and in healthcare costs.

So how do you eat well without stretching your wallet?

For one, eat at home. Studies have found people eat healthier and save money when they cook for themselves. And I don’t mean Lean Cuisine or other frozen dinners – I mean honest, home-cooked meals. If you don’t have a lot of time, make a lot of food at once and freeze your leftovers, that way you have the convenience of a frozen dinner with the price and health benefits of your own cooking. And if you can make it all when the main ingredients are on sale you’ll save even more. And, if you can, bring your lunch to work instead of buying one there. That way you can watch what you eat and what you spend.

Home - a new place to eat!

Home - a new place to eat!

Finding a local farmer’s market can save you a lot on the price of fresh produce, and the quality tends to be better than your local supermarket. If you really can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables, grab the canned ones – they still will give you your five servings a day. But maybe you should replace your snack and dessert foods like chips or cookies with healthier alternatives like bananas and apples. A fresh fruit salad is a delicious dessert or snack any time of the day – you’ll be doing your body a favor and saving money at the same time. While you’re at it, nix the sugary drinks like soda and Starbucks and replace them with water – you’ll save yourself the liquid calories and cut your spending.

If you’re looking for healthy foods that don’t break the bank, think about beans and eggs. They’re both dirt cheap, and you can do a lot with them. The beans might take more prep than your usual routine, but for the savings and nutrition they’re worth it. Oatmeal is also pretty cheap and has been shown to lower cholesterol, so you can swap that for your expensive breakfast cereal. And, of course, if you have land you can always grow your own fruits and vegetables – cheap and healthy.

Bananas, another cheap option

Bananas, another cheap option

Key to Keeping Healthy Without Breaking the Bank – Make Good Choices

Overall, the key to staying healthy in a poor economy is to make good choices. After all, you know already you shouldn’t skimp on nutrition and exercise – our kids learn that in grade school. But maybe you’ve let the economic crisis get to you. Or maybe you just needed some ideas of how to beat the blues. Either way, take some time to evaluate your life and see if the economy is affecting your health. Your health doesn’t have to fall just because the stock prices do. Remember, just keep yourself active, eat right, and find ways to have fun. The best thing you can do for yourself in these times is treat your mind and body right.

1. Unemployment and Health. Dorling, D. BMJ 338, b829, 2009.

2. Household instability, area poverty and obesity in urban mothers and their children.  Chambers EC, Duarte CS, Yang FM. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 20(1), 2009.

3. Which? Heathy Eating For All Campaign.

4. Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century. A Strategy Unit Report, United Kingdom Cabinet Office, 2008.

  • Chris

    I like the recession article! However, I need a source on this claim: “It’s been estimated that over 90% of doctor’s visits are actually for stress-related symptoms.”

  • Chris

    I like the recession article! However, I need a source on this claim: “It’s been estimated that over 90% of doctor’s visits are actually for stress-related symptoms.”

  • Christie

    Hm… I had read that in another article about stress but it didn’t cite its source directly, either. So now, fact-checking backward, I think I found the source they (slightly incorrectly) were referencing: It’s an estimate provided by the American Institute of Stress which says that 75%-90% of visits are stress related (link to their site)… of course, they don’t tell us how they got that number, either (and I can’t find the scientific study detailing those numbers).

    I believe the presumption is that the analysis was done 20 or so years ago, and stress levels have risen since then, thus the percentage of doctor visits should have risen also, hence over 90%.

    Hope that helps!

  • Christie

    Hm… I had read that in another article about stress but it didn’t cite its source directly, either. So now, fact-checking backward, I think I found the source they (slightly incorrectly) were referencing: It’s an estimate provided by the American Institute of Stress which says that 75%-90% of visits are stress related (link to their site)… of course, they don’t tell us how they got that number, either (and I can’t find the scientific study detailing those numbers).

    I believe the presumption is that the analysis was done 20 or so years ago, and stress levels have risen since then, thus the percentage of doctor visits should have risen also, hence over 90%.

    Hope that helps!

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