If you're like me, just the word "STRESS" brings on the urgent need to take a slow, deep breath in. Few are foreign to the concept of stress and its impact on our health, but how many of us actually know what the stress response really is... or why we even have one? Furthermore, it may surprise you that we have more control over our state of "stress" than originally thought. Let's see if we can change our perception of the dreaded topic, and learn some great, actionable ways to manage it.
Let's talk about "stress"
Stress, by definition, is felt as strain or pressure, and perceived as something threatening. Depending on where you are in your life, the thought of good grades, finances, children, promotions, deadlines, health, etc may bring on that feeling. Now think of vacation, relaxation, your happy place, a good night's sleep, seeing your child smile, etc... Believe it or not, your body is releasing some of the same hormones in both of these situations. The important thing to recognize from this is our perception of what our "stressors" are, and how we're responding to them.
So what is STRESS?
The stress response stems from an adaptive strategy our body developed for temporary periods of danger to ensure our survival. Simply put...
see Sabertooth Tiger -> recognize danger -> activate stress response -> run away quickly (or fight if you're nuts)
Basically, what's happening is our sensory organs (ears and eyes) recognize the threat, which sends a signal to our brain (the hypothalamus, specifically), which interprets the response and decides what to do about it. In situations of danger, as seen above, a cascade of hormones is released, with the intention to activate our adrenals. The adrenals pump out the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol, all with the intention to prepare our body to run faster or fight harder for our survival.
We'll call this situation "acute stress".
So why am I boring you with this... The important thing to recognize is this response is designed to prepare us physically for situations of life or death - situations that occur far less often these days (I haven't seen a Sabertooth tiger lately, anyways)
However, the stress response is still active, but for different reasons.
Today we experience a much different kind of stress - more like the one I mentioned initially (work, school, home, etc). Instead of this stress being "acute" or temporary, it tends to be of lower intensity and of longer duration.
Nowadays, you can't simply run from the problem, if you get what I'm saying. We'll call this "chronic stress".
So what does this mean for our health?
An acute stress response is great - it's what our bodies use to perform at our best in sports or endurance activities, it focuses our mind for big presentations, and it allows us to hammer the gas pedal quickly when the other car comes out of nowhere. But chronic stress is a problem. Much like the engine in a car, our adrenal glands have a threshold of performance. And if you keep pressing down that gas pedal, you're eventually going to run out of gas. The same happens with your adrenals. Chronic stress leads to a constant output of these hormones, which in turn uses up a lot of the body's vitamins, minerals, and cofactors to make them until we eventually run dry. Furthermore, constant exposure to these hormones can have some negative effects long-term. Believe it or not, stress is linked to 99% of all chronic conditions. The most common effects of prolonged stress include:
High blood pressure & blood sugar
Frequent colds and flus, allergies
Inability to lose weight or weight gain,
Hormonal imbalances & infertility,
Anxiety & depression,
Premature Aging/ Accelerated Aging
How do I know if I'm stressed?
Besides listening to the clinical presentation of stress (see below), there is a way to actually determine what is happening with your adrenal glands. It's called 4-point cortisol testing - basically, 4 salivary measurements throughout the day quantifying the level of cortisol you're releasing. When plotted onto a graph and compared to normal cortisol levels, we get a qualitative measure of adrenal function.
Generally speaking, there are 3 stages the adrenal glands undergo when dealing with chronic stress.
The Alarm phase: This is when you're starting to press down on that gas pedal and speeding more than you should - your demands for cortisol are high and your adrenals are responding. This state is reversible.
The Resistant phase: You're speeding constantly and the engine is reeving - your adrenals are overworking and cortisol is chronically elevated all day. Your adrenals are no longer adapting.
The Exhaustion phase: You've run out of gas, the engine has crashed. Your adrenals are no longer mounting a physiological response to the brain's demands. You're "burnt out".
Symptomatically, you might be experiencing:
Alarm and Resistance Stage:
Feeling "tired but wired"
High blood pressure
Fatigue -> feeling “burnt out"
Waking unrested, "could sleep forever"
Infections & allergies
Exhaustion after exercise
Low sex drive
Blood pressure drops
SO, What can I do about Stress?
1. Measure your cortisol via 4 saliva samples.
Getting an objective measure of how your adrenals are performing throughout the day takes the guesswork out of diagnosing your phase of dysfunction and allows for the most management of your state of stress.
Moderate-intensity exercise improves your mood (by releasing feel-good hormones), helps the body manage blood sugar levels, and actually has shown to be a form of meditation if movements are repetitive (jogging, biking, swimming, etc). But be careful, too much exercise can worsen the demand on your adrenals - so listen to your body. If you feel burnt out after exercise, you're working too hard.
3. Sleep hygiene
Your adrenals ideally need 8 hours of restful sleep to "recharge". Cortisol naturally drops at sundown, when your melatonin (sleep hormone) takes over the circadian rhythm, so its important to wind down when it gets dark outside. 1 hour before bed, dim the lights, turn off the screens, and clear the mind. Light actually stimulates cortisol release, and screens of electronics like laptops, televisions, iPads, etc actually have been shown to disrupt sleep patterns. Even a stressful crime novel can boost your cortisol. The bed is for sleep and intercity period. Practicing good sleep hygiene can improve sleep quality by up to 40%!
4. Nutrients & Herbs
We also need to think about adrenal hormone production and what nutrients are involved, specifically vitamin C, CoQ10, B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, and selenium. They are all important cofactors in helping the adrenal glands function and get depleted quickly when they are working in overdrive. Typically in later stages of adrenal dysfunction, these nutrients will need to be supplemented at higher doses than what's accessible from food.
Adaptogenic herbs are also great ways to support the adrenals. Some herbs like rhodiola and magnolia help bring down cortisol levels, while others like panax ginseng, eleutherococcus and ashwaganda help improve the body's energy levels and resistance to stress.
Nutrients and herbs must be used correctly, as some should only be used in certain phases of adrenal dysfunction. It can be risky to self-prescribe, so talk to your Naturopath about which supplements are best for you. There are some great formulas out there compounding these ingredients together in one capsule.
What you eat has a profound effect on your stress levels. More specifically - sugars and caffeine. Sugar causes our blood sugar levels to spike, which induces an insulin spike, which loads our cells with glucose and causes us to release cortisol to return those blood sugar levels back to normal. Moral of the story - avoid insulin spikes. Replace white bread and pasta with complex carbs like carrots, potatoes, beans, and grains like quinoa or brown rice. Skip on dessert.
Usually, those who are stressed feel burnt out and require coffee to get them through the day. Caffeine causes cortisol spiking, which has a negative impact if your cortisol is already too high. Replace the coffee with something like green tea, which contains theanine that helps the brain respond to stress naturally.
People shy away from the concept, but it's remarkable what meditation can do for our stress response, especially mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques - mindful meditation + body scans + yoga postures.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School confirmed that meditation actually induces what we call a RELAXATION RESPONSE, which counter-effects the fight-or-flight response. Studies confirmed that moving into a meditative state changed oxygen consumption, decreased blood pressure, and even decreased levels of stress hormones.
Grounding. Studies show that making direct contact (without the non-conductive soles of our shoes) with the earth's magnetic pull can actually regulate cortisol levels, and other hormones such as melatonin, estrogen, and serotonin. During the summer months, walk outside barefoot in the grass for ~5 mins/day. If you can't get outside and want to benefit right away, you can buy grounding mats to place under your bed at night or desk during the day that have been shown to have the exact same effect. How cool is that?
My favourite acupressure point for relaxation is called LI 4 - it's located between your thumb and index finger, in the meaty tissue of your palm. When you press down on it, you should feel an uncomfortable achy sensation. It's great for acute feelings of stress, headaches, or any tension felt in the head or neck area. Hold it for 1 minute, on both sides. This point is not to be used during pregnancy.
8. Perception Probably my favourite approach to managing stress is in our perception of what stress means. If you haven't seen this TedTalk ... go watch it. Now. Dr. MacGonigal points out shocking statistics on stress levels and life expectancy. People who experience large amounts of stress had a 43% increased risk of death, but… this was only true for those people who BELIEVED stress was harmful to their health. Those who did not believe stress was bad actually had no increase in the risk of death. Furthermore ... and this is my favourite part... rethinking our stress response as HELPFUL actually changes the body's response to mimic the same response shown in moments of joy and courage. Today's stress isn't changing us down and trying to eat us for dinner (although some are probably thinking "have you met my boss?"). Today's stress is what we perceive to be true and fear of what that might mean. Change fear of the future into the presence of the moment. Thank the body for preparing you. Practice mindfulness.