I’m pretty sure by now that most people understand that stress is a total health zapper. Even though this may be ‘understood’, often people don’t realize just how much stress they are under until it’s too late, and that stress has gone and totally sabotaged their health. Do you have a hard time accepting the relationship between the stressful life you lead and the health issues you face? It will be easier to heal and recover when you have a better picture of what is really going on in your body during a stressful situation or ongoing stress.
Is Stress Sabotaging Your Health?
When a person is under a lot of stress the normal functions of the organs in the body are compromised. With the adrenal glands especially vulnerable as they are responsible for producing the hormones that provide the stress response. Over a long time if stress continues the adrenals will weaken in their ability to ‘keep up’, and then you may find yourself with adrenal fatigue. Our bodies respond to stress by entering ‘fight or flight’, a sympathetic system response. What happens is that the blood supply to the skeletal and heart muscles, brain, skin and lungs increases, during this response the blood supply to the kidneys, liver, stomach and intestines diminishes. As a result, digestion, detoxification and elimination are all put on the back burner and now become problematic.
In this fast paced modern society that we now live the majority, if not all, of us are finding ourselves in ‘fight or flight mode’ on a regular or daily basis. We are in a hurry daily, we rush out the door, to then drive in rush hour or traffic, we skip meals, slug down coffee to keep us going, stay up too late, have too much going on to manage in a given day, and the list could go on. Working too many hours, changing jobs, going through divorce or relational discord, having ill children or parents, too little exercise, too much exercise, no time for true relaxation, poor sleep all contribute to significant stress on the body.
Here’s the chain of effects of stress; We perceive a stressor, whatever it may be, and our hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone. This hormone then travels to the pituitary where it activates adrenocorticotropic hormone (or ACTH). ACTH actually stimulates your adrenal glands to fire. This pathway, hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenals is known as the HPA axis. When this HPA axis is repeatedly disrupted there are other hormones that are thrown out of balance. Our thyroid can be affected, growth hormone, sex hormones and aldosterone. This can have profound consequences on overall health.
Our two key stress hormones are adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and noradrenaline (or norepinephrine). They each have a complex role to play in every stress response, adrenaline however is more known for what we call the ‘adrenaline rush’, and exhilerating ‘high’ in the face of intense situations. Cortisol is another key stress hormone we all need to become familiar with. Cortisol’s key job is to sustain our blood sugar levels when we have to enter ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is so that our muscles, brain, heart and lungs get quick energy in the face of an ’emergency’.
Short term stress followed by rest is not the problem, it’s the long term stress that wreaks havoc because cortisol ends up keeping our blood sugar levels permanently high. This messes with our metabolism, making it very hard to lose weight (ever notice all the spare tires people are carrying around these days -it’s also a sign of insulin resistance). Cortisol also governs hunger cravings, digestion (as I mentioned), blood pressure, sleep/wake patterns, physical activity, and our capacity to deal with stress. Cortisol keeps us alive by raising our blood sugar, increasing our blood pressure when needed and modulating inflammation.
Cortisol also works together with aldosterone to help our kidneys reabsorb sodium. What this does is help to conserve electrolytes and water in our bloodstream. This helps in ‘fight-or-flight’ to make sure extra blood can easily get pumped into our critical organs and tissues. If high levels of cortisol remain circulating in our system for 24 hours or more, the cells that produce aldosterone lose their sensitivity to ACTH. So then this leads to under production of aldosterone and cause low blood pressure, bloating, water retention, electrolyte imbalance, increased thirst, salt cravings, muscle weakness and that lethargy that comes with adrenal fatigue.
Of course stress also rapidly depletes many nutrients in the body, such as; b vitamins, zinc and vitamin C. It will be critical to replace these nutrients if you live a stressful life. A real food, nutrient dense diet is a must and additional supplements may also be warranted. Overeating and under-eating are both common during times of stress, or an overall stressful lifestyle. A typical scenario would be that people crave excess sugars/carbs as a means to get some sort of ‘quick fuel or energy’. The problem with this is that is becomes a vicious cycle and only leads to further depletion and decline. Under-eating may occur since stress can cause an imbalance in the hormone cascade which can actually work to dull your appetite. Even if you don’t feel hungry, especially in the morning, it is critical to make yourself eat consistent meals. This will help your blood sugar to regulate and even out your cortisol levels and help your adrenals to heal more quickly.
Ways to Manage the Effects of Stress
A properly prepared nutrient dense diet is a MUST. I personally like a Paleo/GAPS template -this includes the most nutrient dense foods, easily assimilable foods and avoids sugars, grains and excess carbs. Regular meal times and snacks are important. Remember diet is not just what you eat, but how often you eat to help keep your blood sugar stable. Eat about every 3 hours to keep your blood sugar stable and make sure your first meal is within an hour of getting up.
Make breakfast your biggest meal, include protein (no oatmeal doesn’t count as a good breakfast, sorry), and avoid eating before bed, optimally no food within 3 hours of bedtime (7-7:30 pm). A gluten free diet would be ideal, since gluten has a host of issues not to mention the inflammatory stress it puts on the body. Avoid processed foods, bad fats, caffeine, sugars, alcohol.
This could be a complicated matter trying to talk about supplements, so I’ll be very brief. At the bare minimum it’s a good idea to get a good multi-vitamin and multi-mineral supplement, as well as omega 3 fatty acids from fish, salmon or krill oil, and vitamin C (I like Biotics Mixed Ascorbates or Liposomal C). There are many herbs that can be of benefit, but it’s helpful to find the right herbs for you. I like adaptogenic herbs and recommend picking up a copy of ‘Adaptogens:Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief‘.
A minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night will be critical. Getting to bed and asleep by 10:30 is key as the adrenal glands restore between the hours of 11pm – 1 am. Get to bed BEFORE 10:30 so that you are on your way to sleep by 10:30. Ideally, you should fall asleep within minutes of laying your head on the pillow. You want to train your body to get to sleep before 11 pm when you get your second wind. Your body produces melatonin out of serotonin and reaches it’s peak point at 10 pm – going to bed by 10 pm may not seem realistic to you, but it will set you up for better energy throughout the day. So your first goal is to train yourself to go to bed on time, based on your bodies natural circadian rhythm.
Too much or too little exercise can sabotage your health as well. Vigorous, excessive exercise can throw your whole body out of balance. It can create a stress response and that causes our bodies to go into ‘fight-or-flight’ making your body store fat in case of ‘famine’ or ’emergency’. Appropriate exercise is going to be different for everyone depending on how fatigued they are -once you’ve healed you can consider more vigorous workouts such as ‘bursting’. In the meantime, walking, stretching, yoga, swimming are all great, just don’t let your heartrate go above 90 beats per minute.
One of the first principles in healing is to remove the cause and the aggravating factors of the illness. For example, a wound must be cleaned and disinfected before applying the dressing otherwise the remaining debris and germs will aggravate it and prevent complete healing. The same is true in healing from adrenal fatigue. In most instances, there are lifestyle components that either caused or contributed to the adrenal fatigue and that often continue as aggravating factors. Therefore, it is essential to remove the health limiting factors if the adrenals are to recover and heal properly. ~ James L. Wilson, from his book; ‘Adrenal Fatigue. The 21st Century Stress Syndrome.’
Lastly, I think it may be a good idea for just about anyone these days to get a base line for what their cortisol is doing. I recommend getting an Adrenal Stress Index test or Salivary Cortisol Test -this test evaluates levels of cortisol and DHEA and can be a helpful place to start in figuring out further supplement support therapy to improve one’s health.
This is just an overall basic review along with ideas for support that anyone can implement to combat the effects of stress so it does not completely sabotage your health!