So what is stress anyway? Sometimes, we just keep moving forward in life with our obligations but we don’t realize all the body has to do to keep us going. Life is not always easy, as I am sure you know. Stress can come from just our obligations in life, family, work, friends, activities, weather, changing seasons, traffic, etc. Other types of stress can be; Chemical Stress which is caused by environmental Pollution or Toxic Chemicals. Emotional Stress include Anger, Depression, Fear, Frustration, Sadness, Betrayal, or Bereavement. Mental Stress include high responsibility, long hours, perfectionism and Anxiety. Nutritional Stress include Nutrient Deficiency, Protein or Fat excess or lack of a balanced diet, Food Allergies (you might not even know your body is reacting to a food, it’s not always apparent). Physical Stress includes Exercise, Hard Labor and Birth, or a very active job or repetitive motion or standing on concrete all day. Traumatic Stress include Infection, Injury, Burns, Surgery and Extreme Temperatures. Psycho-Spiritual Stress include relationship pressure, financial pressure, pressure in your career, issues of life goals, and spiritual enlightenment.
Did you know that if you continue to just push through the signs and symptoms of stress you can burn out your Adrenals. These are small glands on top of the kidneys that secrete hormones to help you manage stress. The stages of stress are;
- The “fight or flight” (alarm) response (confrontation with a stressful situation) causes the release of Adrenaline, Norepinephrine and Cortisol from the Adrenal Glands. These Hormones direct blood toward the muscles and limbs in order permit an individual to fight or flee. In addition, the pupils of the eyes dilate and alertness increases.
- When the stressful situation subsides, the increased production of Adrenaline, Norepinephrine and Cortisol reverts back to normal. This occurs via a negative feedback mechanism that produces homeostasis.
- The Resistance phase (adaptive phase) is characterized by adaptation which involves learning to cope with a perceived threat. During this resistance phase, Cortisol Receptors in the Hypothalamus of the Brain become less sensitive to the negative feedback mechanism that produces homeostasis after “fight or flight”. This causes increased production of Cortisol and results in various disorders controlled by the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. Ideally, the Resistance phase continues until the stressful situation is resolved, leading to a return to the resting state. Stress-induced diseases such as Headaches, Insomnia, Hypertension and Cardiovascular Diseases occur during this phase.
- Exhaustion occurs when the capacity for resistance (adaptation) is overwhelmed. Exhaustion of adaptive capacity results in Stress-induced diseases. This stage is characterized by depletion of Energy. The Exhaustion phase of continual Stress can eventually lead to Adrenal Insufficiency or total shutdown of the Adrenal Glands. This is also known as adrenal maladaptation syndrome.
Stress costs the US healthcare system more than $300 billion annually. The American Institute of Stress has shared that 44% of people feel more stressed out than they did 5 years ago. 1 in 5 people experience symptoms of extreme stress, shaking, depression, heart palpitations and more. Chronic stress raises your risk of heart attack by 25% and your risk of stroke by 50%.
Being stressed out isn’t normal. Acute stress is a natural, normal part of your body’s response. It is short-term stress that lasts minutes, hours or a couple of days or weeks, like with surgery. Your body should return to a normal circadian rhythm after such events. Chronic stress is not natural or normal. Long terms stress that doesn’t get resolved stems from big events such as childhood abuse or trauma, war, grief, relationship dysfunction or an illness that is chronic or terminal. This form of stress is deadly and significantly increases your risk of cancer, chronic fatigue, heart disease, digestive disorders, and other forms of mental illness.
Long term stress is dangerous and causes an overproduction of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines and down-regulating overall immune response leading to greater risk of disease, prolonged infection and premature death. It is best to find your triggers and not ignoring them. Regaining control over your life by taking steps to ease specific areas at a time. Adopt the attitude that your health is more important than anything else. A quote I heard a few years back, “Sooner or later your health will become a priority in life, better to take action now, using preventative measures, then to have your health falter and force you to make it the only priority”.
Antidepressants may not be the answer for you, in fact, I have seen them in my patients who were prescribed antidepressants by their MD get more stressed over trying to find one that doesn’t cause so many side effects and feelings of more depression. The amount of profits the pharmaceutical industry receives is astounding and these drugs may be pushed on people who only need to make a simple lifestyle change.
Some natural methods to help with stress;
- Meditation, sitting quietly for 10 minutes in the morning or evening can have a tremendous effect on the stress response. Practice deep breathing down into the belly.
- Did you know that smiling very big for 60 seconds with your eyes closed increases serotonin, an inhibitory neurotransmitter by 35%.
- Exercise, even low-impact, for 20-30 minutes resets the hypothalamus, the gland that is part of the feed back loop during stress.
- Limit or eliminate tobacco, alcohol and highly processed foods.
- Hobbies and activities you once enjoyed can help.
- Sleep is important, 7-8 hours a night, but people who have been chronically stressed stop sleeping well.
- Drink 1/2 your weight in ounces of good pure water daily (not tap water or distilled water).
- Journaling is an excellent way to identify your personal stressors.
- Tryptophan, Omega-3 Fatty acids, GABA, and Adaptogens such as ginsengs or ashwagandha are all very helpful.
- Carefully consider what you watch on TV, Murder and Mayhem may not help you to relax. Listen to music instead.
In Herbert Benson’s book, “The Relaxation Response” he offers many suggestions to elicit relaxation, here are a couple that work well;
- Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system, such as “one”, “peace”, “The Lord is My Shepherd”, “Shalom”, or “Om” and take 10 minutes to close your eyes and repeat it over and over while breathing deeply in and out.
- Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head and neck with your eyes closed.
If thoughts come into your mind of rushing or needing to do something, disregard it for the 10 minute exercise. If you are in traffic and feeling stressed, put some relaxing music on and turn your phone off for the duration of your drive. When stopped at a red light, use that time to focus on your breathing. A very calming way to breath is inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 4.
I also recommend optimizing the biochemistry of the body with functional medicine. I believe also that the environment in which you live affects your health. Are you living a “green” life or are you eating fast food everyday? Are you exposed to harmful chemicals in plastic, pesticides, lead, toxic household chemicals, or mold? These are also very stressful to the body. I have tests available to determine how stressed your body is and what stage of adrenal failure you might be in. Don’t lose hope, you are not alone. Get help if you need it. If you want to prevent disease just take time to relax.
References provided upon request.