Christina Carreau BA, ND
Your stress response is a complex series of interactions between your nervous system, adrenal glands and a number of other organs, which signal the release of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream. The effects of these hormones in our system is variable depending on the frequency and duration with which these are activated.
Prehistorically, our stress response was activated in order to increase our odds of survival. Our increased heart rate and circulation to large muscles, along with a decreased appetite and increased mental focus; prepared us to fight or flee from predators.
Many of us are activating this same stress response on a daily basis in order to meet work deadlines, to beat traffic, to catch the bus, to make supper, to fit in a workout, to pick up kids, to walk the dog, to buy groceries, to connect with friends, to enjoy some downtime – we are burning ourselves out by trying to accomplish too much in a day. While stress used to increase our odds of survival, stress is now decreasing our quality of life – both physically, physiologically, mentally and emotionally. We need to break the cycle!
Here are some of the negative impacts of chronic stress:
Mood: It is a major risk factor for developing anxiety and depression as it impairs serotonin transmission in the brain.
Heart: It can cause elevations in blood pressure and increase our risk of heart disease.
Thyroid: It can slow down thyroid function and metabolism leading to weight gain and low energy.
Gastrointestinal: Ongoing stress decreases blood circulation to the stomach, which can result in symptoms of Irritable Bowel, GERD and Reflux.
Immune System: Cortisol suppresses immune function, which increases our susceptibility to infections and vulnerability to disease.
Reproductive: Promotes estrogen dominance which leads to heightened symptoms of PMS and infertility.
Pancreas: Raises blood sugar levels and increases risk of both insulin resistance and Type II Diabetes.
More than 70% of disease is thought to be stress related. We cannot underestimate the harmful effects of long-term stress.
Identifying and recognizing our stress levels, triggers and how we are dealing with stress is the first step in breaking the cycle.
- Rate your Stress on a Scale of 0-10. Be honest with yourself. When is your stress highest? When is it lowest? Do you feel on edge or overwhelmed most of the time? Are you able to relax and unwind at the end of the day? Do you sleep well and awake feeling rested?
- Identify your stressors. What are the main sources of your stress? Work? Home? Relationship? Family? Friends? Money? Health? You need to know what is triggering you.
- Coping Tactics – How are you dealing with your stress? Are your coping strategies helping you or hurting you? Are you overeating? Are you relying on coffee and alcohol to get you through your day? Are you withdrawing from relationships? Are you irritable and angry most of the time? Are you too tired to workout? Are you staying up late watching television? Are you living on junk food?
If we do not keep stress in check – it can turn into ‘distress’ and this is where many of us get into trouble. Sometimes we get so caught up in the busyness of our lives that we forget to check in with ourselves, and stress becomes the driving force in our day to day.
Treatment Strategies to Support a Healthy Stress Response
Nutrition – Limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol and sugar as these all deplete the adrenal glands. Increase your intake of vegetables and try and eat protein with every meal. Eat slowly, chew your food thoroughly and eat mindfully.
Breathing– This is one of the most important treatment strategies for restoring adrenal function. Daily mindfulness of belly breathing and re-training the diaphragm to relax is an essential component of adrenal repair. When we are under stress our breath becomes more shallow and this sends a signal to the nervous system that we are in distress.
Sleep – A regular sleep schedule is key to supporting healthy adrenal function and optimizing our response to stress. Getting to bed early allows the adrenal glands to rest and repair.
Laughter/Joy – Happiness activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which supports relaxation and calm. What makes your heart feel full? Try and fill your life with things that bring you joy. Laughter each day, keeps the doctor away.
Herbal Support – There are a number of herbs that are beneficial for supporting the adrenal glands. Adrenal adaptogens, help increase the body’s resistance to stress. These include Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, Siberian Ginseng, Astragalus and Licorice Root. Talk to your naturopathic doctor to determine which herbs are most appropriate for you.
Vitamins and Minerals – There are also a number of vitamins and minerals that are nourishing to the adrenal glands – Vitamins B5, B6, B12, C and E and Magnesium can help strengthen the adrenal glands and support a healthy stress response.
While all of these things can be helpful for reducing or alleviating stress levels, the best way to combat stress is to ‘de-stress’ our lives. We need to slow down. We need to make time and space everyday to ‘turn off,’ to be still, to be at peace. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, “In today’s rush we all think too much, seek too much, want too much and forget about the joy of just Being.” Don’t let stress run your life. Take control and make time for stillness and calm. You are worth it!