STRESS. How not to let it kill us!
Stress… They say it will eventually kill us all. And they might be right.
But the problem with stress is that it seems intangible. Like some imaginary thing we all know exists, we experience it, but we can’t see it or measure it per se. There really isn’t a “test” that you can take that says: Yup, you’re stressed!
And so unfortunately, we ignore it. We just keep on living our most stressful lives yet and wonder why we’re not well, why our health is declining, or why we can’t get better.
Today I want to go in depth on stress; what is it, how is it affecting us, and what can you realistically do to help reduce it.
What is Stress?
When you hear the word “stress” do you think it’s dangerous or unhealthy?
In actual fact, stress itself is a totally normal response to a sense of danger. It can be your friend or foe.
You usually can’t fully control it. It’s your body’s way of protecting you with the “fight or flight” reaction. It can help you survive.
Stress can help you to become more focused and have energy when facing an immediate threat. This infrequent short-term stress can help you to run to your kid when (s)he is hurt, or avoid a collision. It can even help you to meet deadlines or get to appointments on time when running late. It’s also what makes some people enjoy roller coasters or dangerous activities (skydiving anyone?). Have you heard the term “adrenaline junkie?”
These are examples of infrequent short-lived stress called “acute” stress, or even “good” stress. And when the situation is over, the stress fades and your body goes back to normal. Ideally, this is how stress should be, infrequent and short-lived. The problem is that in today’s society, many people feel stress often, and for a long time. It’s neither infrequent, nor short-lived. It’s more “constant” or “chronic.”
This is different.
This can be from having or caring for someone with a major illness, or long-term relationship problems. Maybe you have a crummy and long commute to a not-so-awesome job every single day.
And that chronic stress (“bad” stress) can affect you in so many ways. It can affect your digestion, moods, sleep, and even your ability to lose weight.
Symptoms of Stress
When your body senses danger (real or imagined), it immediately reacts with the “fight or flight” reaction to help you...well, “fight” or “flee”. [Like when you’re running from a lion!] 😉
Things essential for survival are prioritized. Things like perception, decision making, and energy for your muscles. The other “rest and digest” functions are put on the backburner until the stress levels start fading.
You probably know how stress affects you personally. Maybe you’re the type to get cravings or indigestion. Maybe you get more aches and pains, or even get sick. Or maybe you have trouble sleeping when you’re stressed.
Let’s touch on the physical effects of stress.
Stress Response – Nerves and Hormones
Stress-related symptoms are from the physiological effects of stress. Basically, how it affects our nervous system and hormones.
Both of these have profound effects on the body because they’re trying to help you save your (or someone else’s) life.
First up, the nervous system. The “fight or flight” part of your nervous system that is activated by stress is called the “sympathetic” nervous system. This part of your nervous system is usually (ideally) nice and quiet. It’s on “standby” until needed.
On the other hand, there is the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system called the “parasympathetic” nervous system.
So, as you can imagine, when you have chronic stress your body isn’t doing much resting or digesting. And both of these are important for optimal health.
Secondly, let’s talk stress hormones. Have you heard of “cortisol” and “adrenaline?” These hormones are released by your adrenal glands. Adrenal glands look like little walnuts on top of each kidney, and they release a number of hormones, including these 2 stress hormones.
When you perceive danger (real or imagined), this starts a hormone cascade that moves from your brain to your adrenal glands. It’s basically like when a bunch of people are in a circle and they’re passing the ball to the person beside them. But with stress hormones.
First, a part in the brain called the “hypothalamus” gets your nervous system ready. It also releases a hormone to trigger the next hormone in the cascade. (Here’s the first pass of the ball.)
Second, when the pituitary gland (also in the brain) gets that hormone, it releases a different hormone to trigger the next hormones in the cascade. (Here’s the second pass of the ball.)
Third, when your adrenal glands (on your kidneys) get that signal, they release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Here’s where things get interesting.
The fancy name for this connection between the brain’s hormones and adrenal hormones is called the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis”, or the HPA Axis.
There is more and more research that shows a link between a dysregulation (improperly functioning) of the HPA Axis, and its association with insulin resistance and abdominal obesity. And of course, ideally, you want to minimize insulin resistance and abdominal obesity.
The stress hormone cortisol affects many things in our bodies. Things like digestion and gut health, inflammation, hunger hormones, insulin release and sensitivity, mood, and sleep.
Stress Hormones and the Effects on Health
We now see that there are many, many effects that stress hormones, mainly cortisol, have on your body.
Let’s dive into each one and see how stress hormones keep you from reaching your optimal health.
1 - Poor Digestion and Gut Health
As mentioned already, being in a state of stress puts digestion on the back burner. This is because your body is ready to “fight or flee,” rather than “rest and digest.”
One of the most obvious impacts stress has on digestion is “transit time” (how quickly food moves through you). You may notice that stress can either quickly speed up how fast your food moves through you (diarrhea). Or, it may slow it down quite a bit (constipation). Neither one of these is ideal.
So, even if you’re eating a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods, you may become nutrient deficient! And proper nutrition is needed at the best of times, let alone when you’re stressed!
New research is also showing the impact that stress has on our friendly gut microbes. We’re just beginning to understand the influence that our gut microbes have on all aspects of health. It may be surprising to know that there seems to be a link between stress and our gut microbes. Seriously! To read more on the importance of our gut health, check out my article here.
Stress is also linked with leaky gut (the tiny holes or “leaks” in your digestive tract). This means that incompletely digested food particles can get into your body through these leaks. Did you know that things like allergies, autoimmunity, and mental health have been linked with gut imbalances? To read more about the effects of our digestive system has on disease and the link with leaky gut, check out my article all about leaky gut here.
2 - Inflammation and Immune System Dysregulation
Guess where 80% of your immune system is located?
Right around your digestive tract!
So, you can imagine if chronic stress is messing with your digestion, it’s going to also mess with your immune system.
More and more research is suggesting that inflammation is part of many chronic diseases. When you’re chronically stressed, this affects your immune system which is supposed to control inflammation. It can make your immune system either hypervigilant, or less-responsive. And both of these can keep you from reaching your health goals.
If your immune system is hypervigilant, you can develop high inflammatory levels.
If your immune system is less-responsive, it can allow your body to get sick more often, and stay sick longer.
For optimal health, you want your immune system to work properly (not too high, nor too low).
3 - Cravings, Increased Appetite, and “Stress Eating”
When you’re stressed do you reach for celery? Or do you prefer fatty or sugary snacks?
Many people tend to eat more food, particularly comfort food. Things that tend to be fatty and sugary. And there is science to back this up.
Scientists are now looking at interactions between stress hormones and the effects on our “hunger” and “fullness” hormones (Ghrelin + Leptin).
4 - Insulin Sensitivity
Stress also increases your blood sugar, to make sure that your muscles have the fuel (sugar) they need to “fight” or “flee.” And if your muscles are not working and using up that excess blood sugar (i.e. you’re not running for your life), your body secretes insulin to re-absorb that sugar into your cells.
This increase in both cortisol and insulin promote both insulin resistance and fat storage. Especially around the middle.
5 - Negatively Affects Sleep
Cortisol is part of your natural sleep-wake cycle. Under normal (non-stressed) conditions, cortisol levels would increase before waking, and slowly drop during the day.
And this makes sense, because we know that it helps increase mental clarity as well as blood sugar to fuel your muscles. And we need mental clarity and to move our muscles, especially when we are awake.
But we also need this effect to “wear off” by the end of the day so we can start getting tired and relaxed enough to get a good night’s sleep. In other words, in the evenings, we want to start more resting and digesting.
Now that we’ve gone through 5 major reasons how stress hormones keep you from your health goals, let’s talk about what the heck you can do about it.
Managing your stress better is ultimately a life long goal and something you need to focus on almost daily. Once you get into a good routine and are comfortable with the level of stress you experience and how to manage it, you’ll hopefully have to think about these tips less! (ie. Self care is key! You can’t pour from an empty cup!!)
There are really two main strategies to go about reducing your stress.
First off, you can reduce the amount of stress put on you by re-balancing some demands. Try:
• Saying “no”;
• Getting more support;
• Delegating to someone else;
• Re-negotiating deadlines that seem unreasonable;
• When working, focus on just one thing at a time (don’t multi-task).
Secondly, since you can’t (and maybe don’t want to) completely remove stress from your life, you want to learn to deal with it better. You can improve your personal stress tolerance by trying to:
• Have some fun and laugh;
• Make time for people (and pets) you love;
• Get more, better-quality sleep;
• Be mindful and live more “in the moment”;
• Have one or two cups of green tea (which has been shown to lower stress levels);
• Do light exercise most days per week (e.g. yoga, swimming, or tai chi);
• Go for a walk outside;
• Spend more time in nature;
• Eat a nutrient-rich diet;
• Meditate or deep breathing;
• Relax every evening (e.g. have a bath or read a book);
• Listen to soothing music;
• Do a “brain dump” every night before bed where you just make notes of things you’re keeping track of in your head so you can relax more;
• Treat yourself to a massage, nice meal, or pedicure.
It’s often said that stress will eventually kill us all. Realizing how stress affects us on every level of our being, it’s not hard to believe that statement.
Learning to manage your stress is not a quick or easy task. But it should also not be ignored or pushed aside. Go through the 2 lists above and write out on a few sticky notes things that you’re going to try to start doing. Whether it’s daily, weekly, or even monthly, putting the intention of change is the first step!
One of my favorite tools when it comes to managing stress and my moods are my essential oils. If I need a boost, they’re there. If I need to calm down, they’re also there!
I put together a little handout for you which includes the top oils for calming and balancing effect as well as the top oils for mood boosting! You can download it below.
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