Christina Carreau, BA, ND
Stress is something that many of us experience on a regular basis and while our experiences of stress can be quite different (i.e. diarrhea versus constipation, headaches versus anxiety, feeling tired versus wired, etc), the underlying physiology is more or less the same for all of us. But not only is there variability in the way we experience stress; there is also a considerable amount of variability in the way we cope with and adapt to stressors in our environment. That is why stress makes some of us sick, while not others.
General Adaptation Syndrome and Adrenal Compensation
In order to understand how stress can make you sick, I would like to quickly outline something called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Dr. Hans Selye, a well renowned endocrinologist did extensive research on our physiological response to stress and the effects of that response, on adrenal gland function (the adrenal glands are responsible for secreting a number of hormones, one of which is cortisol – our stress hormone). He called his model of stress adaptation the General Adaptation Syndrome, which outlines how we adapt physiologically to stressors in order to restore homeostasis. This model outlines how stress-induced illness arises. According to Dr. Selye, there are three distinct stages of stress response.
1) The Alarm Phase (Acute Stress) – This phase occurs when a stress is first encountered, allowing us to instantly respond to the perceived stressor. Within seconds of a stressful event both our nervous system and our adrenal glands release adrenaline to combat the stress and to help us stay in control. This is calledfight or flight response. The muscles tense, the heart beats faster, the breath rate increases as does perspiration, the eyes dilate, the stomach may tighten, etc. Believe it or not, this is done by nature to protect you in case something bad happens. In this phase there is also an increase in the release of cortisol from our adrenal glands. Once this phase is over, our body goes through a 24-48 hour period of recovery and then we are back to normal. In summary, the stressor is perceived as an acute event and the body reacts in accordance to that immediate stressor and then returns to a healthy baseline where levels of norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol return to normal.
2) The Resistance Phase (Chronic Stress) – This phase occurs when the stressor (i.e. work, family life, money, etc.) is not perceived as short-term and therefore the body does not recover in the same way that it would if the stressor were acute. As a means of responding to chronic stress the body secretes further hormones to increase blood sugar levels to sustain energy. Stress hormones also raise blood pressure and the adrenals secrete additional cortisol in an attempt to adapt to the resistance reaction. If this phase continues for a prolonged period of time without periods of relaxation and rest to counterbalance the stress response, illness occurs. Sufferers become prone to fatigue, concentration lapses, lethargy, weight gain, suppressed immune and inflammatory responses, depression, anxiety, irritability, hormone imbalances, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, osteoporosis and other degenerative diseases. If these symptoms are ignored then we end up in the final stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome
3) Exhaustion Phase (Burnout) – In this phase, the body can no longer keep up with the physiological demands of stress. The adrenals are exhausted and deficient in cortisol as well as the other hormones involved with the stress response. In this phase people often experience extreme exhaustion, feelings of being overwhelmed and an inability to cope, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel, multiple chemical sensitivities, hypothyroid and anxiety disorders. The consequences of this phase can be quite serious.
That summarizes the three phases of adrenal involvement in our attempts to adapt to stress in our environment. I do think it is important to state that not all stress is bad. Stress is an inevitable part of life and there is such a thing as good stress. Some researchers have coined the term “eustress” or pleasant stress, to reflect the fact that such positive experiences as a job promotion, completing a degree or training program, marriage, travel, and many others are also stressful, but that the overall effect of these stressors is often positive rather than negative.
Coping With Stress
Needless to say, stress can have a serious impact on our health and well-being. We need to ensure that we are finding ways to turn stress ‘off’ on a daily basis. These are 5 natural ways to combat stress.
1) Breath: Diaphragmatic breathing for 15 minutes a day can significantly reduce stress levels and help bring you back to a place of inner calm.
2) Sleep: It is SO important to get 8 hours of sleep every night as this is the time that you body can repair and recover from the wear and tear of daily life. Lack of sleep is a significant stressor for the body and reduces our ability to cope with stress. Therefore try and get to bed earlier.
3) Limit intake of caffeine and refined sugar: These give us a false sense of energy and perpetuate stress further. If you are tired think about what your body needs. More protein? More sleep? More relaxation? Fatigue is not a result of a coffee or sugar deficiency and while these bandaids may provide immediate relief, over time they make the problem worse.
4) B-Vitamins: These play an important role in healthy adrenal function. Studies show that B-complex vitamins supply cells with energy and nutrients, promoting proper adrenal, immune and nervous system function, especially during periods of prolonged stress.
5) Adaptogenic Herbs: These are known to support the physiological response to stress and promote recovery from stress. A few commonly used adaptogens include Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, Licorice and Ginseng. Herbs can interact with some medications and are contraindicated with certain illnesses. Please consult with a your Naturopathic Doctor or Health Care Practitioner before you begin taking any of these.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, our perception of and response to stress is highly individualized; a situation that one person finds anxiety-provoking or exhausting might be quite invigorating and enjoyable to someone else. This emphasizes the importance of knowing what your stressors are; what your experience of stress is; and how you cope with stress. If you can answer these questions for yourself and find adaptive ways to deal with and reduce your perceived stressors you will minimize the risks of stress making you sick.
‘Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.’ ~Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne