Any time a demand is placed on your energy, both mentally and physically, you have a stressor. By definition, stressors are any stimulus that causes stress. This means that you could find your alarm clock a stressor because it is a loud noise that interrupts your sleep, where some people may not be bothered by it. The point here, is stress is a relative term because different things cause stress for different people. Other life events such as death, change in job or financial status, divorce, etc. typically have a negative impact for most people however.
Is all stress bad? No. There are two different types of stress: eustress (good) and distress (bad). Eustress is an event that can cause excitement (euphoric) such as your wedding day, a work presentation that went well and you are celebrating afterwards, etc. This type of stress can be motivating and improve focus, even push our limits during a workout by increasing stamina. The types of events that cause distress are the negative occurrences we typically label as “stress” such as backing your car into a pole, getting a speeding ticket, getting called into work on your day off, etc.
I Am Stressed Out!
How do you currently deal with stress? Do you let stressors accumulate until you reach your breaking point, and then have to apologize later to the person that pulled the last straw? We hope not, but often times, this is what people do.
Where do you fall on the spectrum of stress: acute or chronic? Acute stress is when it comes on quickly and is typically a brief event. Does this sound like you: always saying “yes” even if you don’t have time, have multiple to-do lists that never quite seem to be complete, constantly rushed from one thing to the next, rush through conversations, multi-tasking at a high level to the point things fall through the cracks? That is a long chain of acute stress strung together and is termed Acute Episodic Distress.
Chronic stress is what occurs with long-term events that are typically out of your control such as being a caregiver, constantly feeling overwhelmed at work or home with conflict, severe financial stress, etc.
The persistent exposure to stress can be causing some serious damage internally that you are not thinking about. Constant stress has been linked to excessively elevated cortisol levels, high blood pressure, compromised immune system, skin and hair issues, aging, cancer, stubborn belly fat, diabetes and coronary heart disease, just to name a few.
What Does Stress Look Like Internally
The body is made to be able to handle stress, but typically would choose to do so in small bursts so that it can respond appropriately, and then return to normal for relaxation. Due to the culture we live in, however, this is typically not the case.
We are used to consistent stress being thrown our way and it is taxing to our bodies. So taxing in fact, that stress is now commonly referred to as “the silent killer” being linked to the top six causes of death. According to the American Psychological Association, two of out of three visits to the primary care doctor are for health issues where stress has played a significant role.
The stress system is made up by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). These two systems are responsible for our fight-or-flight response that helps our bodies in dangerous situations or urgent situations. In these situations, you will note heightened awareness, accelerated heart rate and breathing pace. These are to help you appropriately respond to whatever situation you’re facing.
A key component of the HPA axis are the adrenal glands, which sit on top of each kidney. The adrenal glands release hormones and chemicals in response to stress. They release cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Cortisol results in heightened awareness, increased blood sugar, rapid pulse and blood pressure, decreased immune defense, decreased digestion, breakdown of bone to release calcium and breakdown in muscle. DHEA is the anti-cortisol hormone that helps balance things out once the stressor is dealt with by binding to receptors in the brain to promote relaxation. The adrenal glands also release epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (fight-or-flight chemicals).
Now that you know the components, let’s put it together:
- Stressful event occurs
- Brain receives “stress” signal
- Brain activates the hypothalamus (gland inside the brain) to begin the stress response by releasing corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF).
- CRF stimulates the pituitary gland in the brain to release adrenocortiotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream to get to the adrenal glands.
- Adrenal glands receive ACTH and release cortisol (see above).
- As part of the SNS response, the adrenal glands also release epinephrine (adrenaline).
In the short-term, these are beneficial to help you get away from danger. Where it becomes concerning, however, is when there is continuous release of these chemicals into the bloodstream. It is incredibly damaging to the body if it is not resolved.
A lot going on right?
Do you know what your cortisol levels are? If not, you may want to consider having them checked and you can do that through the clinic, as well as your DHEAs. Below you will see why you may want to consider following your curiosity on this one:
There are three stages of HPA dysfunction and can be defined as:
Stage 1: Alarm Phase (Hyper-Cortisol)
- High cortisol production but inadequate signaling to shut off production
- Feeling restless, irritated, “wired”
- If left unchecked, can cause weakened immune response, loss of sleep, anxiety, weight gain, insulin resistance and blood sugar fluctuations
Stage 2: Resistance Phase (Cortisol-Dominant)
- Results from ongoing acute stress or Acute Episodic Distress
- Labs show erratic patterns of cortisol production and reduced DHEA levels
Stage 3: Exhaustion Phase (Hypo-Cortisol)
- Depleted levels of cortisol and DHEA
- Issues include fatigue, severe insomnia, depression, hormonal imbalances, increase in pain and/or inflammatory conditions.
- Simple tasks may become difficult to complete
So now you ask, what are these 4 key stressors that are weighing me down and how can I fix this situation, right?!
- Blood Sugar Control
- Mental and Emotional Stress
- Overcoming Insomnia
- Reducing Inflammation
Blood Sugar Control
Your daily diet plays a major role in controlling the stress cycle. When you eat foods that are high in carbohydrates (simple sugars found in junk food in particular), your body releases insulin from your pancreas. This large amount of insulin dumped into the bloodstream causes a dramatic decrease in blood glucose for a short period of time as it is sucked up by the cells. This is why you will typically experience drowsiness after a high-carbohydrate meal.
So as your energy is decreased and you need to pep back up, cortisol gets released by the adrenal glands to stimulate cells to release more glucose. This is a glycemic cycle that places a lot of burden on the HPA axis.
Your diet should be avoiding simple sugars for this reason, and many others. Include nutrient dense foods with high fiber, high protein and
healthy fats (omega 3s). This will help your body maintain blood glucose levels, and therefore help you avoid those crashes, so you can maintain energy levels and mental focus during the day.
If you are looking for a good meal replacement shake, this producthelps prevent those crashes.
Mental and Emotional Stress
While there are several life events that most find painful such as a death of a family member, loss of job, divorce, etc., the bulk of our day-to-day stressors do not fall under that category. The average stressful situation, and if the fight-or-flight response will occur, is directly correlated to how you perceive the stressor. For example, public speaking. Some people love being in front of an audience and some just about lose it! Situations, from person to person, can elicit different responses, but it all goes back to how you perceive it.
Knowing what causes you to stress out is a good start on how to plan for it and keep the fight-or-flight response from occurring. Don’t try to attack everything at once, but work on the things that frequently cause you to be anxious and work through it. Going back to the example of public speaking, keep working on it and watch the anxiety level decrease. Another positive about being mindful of what causes you stress, is being able to know when you need to take a moment away before any serious anxiety sets in.
If you have had a particularly stressful day, it is important to develop a stress-management plan that works for you to help reduce the release of cortisol.
Sleep is an area of your health that needs dire attention. When we sleep, our bodies are able to rest, rejuvenate, grow muscle, repair tissues, synthesize hormones, etc. Our brains also do some catching up from the day. Sleep allows us to solidify and consolidate memories from the day. Our memories are transferred from short-term memory storage to more long-term memory in a process called consolidation. You will remember information much better after a good night’s rest.
Babies sleep through just about anything. Toddlers and children fight you initially but typically sleep like champions. Teenagers hardly leave their beds unless you force them. Then you become an adult where sleep seems to be a sought after privilege. As an adult you have typically acquired a good amount of sleep debt even though the amount of hours needed each night has declined.
As we age, our sleep/wake cycles and needs change. This cycle is called our circadian rhythm. The National Sleep Foundation has the following recommendations as we age:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours
- School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17 years): 8-10 hours
- Young adults (18-25 years): 7-9 hours
- Adults (26-64 years): 7-9 hours
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
Why the range? Some people function better at the lower end of the spectrum, and some people function better at the higher end of the spectrum. For instance, one person may feel refreshed after 7 hours of sleep, but feel fatigued if they sleep for 9 hours.
So the million dollar question of: how do I sleep?!
Well to start, I have some news for those of you that sleep in late on the weekends… that is not the best way to fix your sleeping issues!
Your sleeping habits need to become consistent. You should try to keep a routine, including on the weekends. You can help achieve better sleep by doing some of the following:
- Stick to the Same Schedule – EVERY. SINGLE. DAY: This helps your body develop a rhythm.
- Practice Relaxation Before Bedtime: Try reading before bed with dimmer lights or do some meditation. Breathing exercises and meditation are great to do before bed. Taking a nice hot bath with essential oils such as chamomile, geranium, jasmine, lavender or rose can also be beneficial.
- Make Sure Your Bedroom is a Cave: cold (not too cold), quiet and dark. If you need it try using ear plugs or a sound canceling headset, blackout shades and/or eye mask.
- Proper Mattress and Pillows: if your mattress is showing visible signs of overuse such as sags or hasn’t been replaced in the last seven years or more, it is probably time to replace it. Pillows should be supportive to your head and neck. If you wake up with a stiff neck every day, this may be your indicator to buy a new pillow. For those that tend to get too hot at night, there are also pillows that help keep you cool and allow your neck to breathe.
- Activate “Do Not Disturb”: put your electronic devices face down and on DND so your sleep will not be interrupted by any text messages, phone calls, emails, app notifications, etc.
Inflammation in the body sends signals to the HPA axis to release cortisol to help reduce inflammation.
While the inflammatory response that occurs in our bodies is healthy and necessary, it is easy to get into an unbalanced zone where there is an overstimulation of the inflammatory response and be perpetually stuck in the cycle. This happens when the body is no longer shutting down the inflammatory response after the threat is gone.
When there is an imbalance, people can experience anything from headaches to arthritis. Inflammation is an underlying symptom for a number of diseases effecting your skin (psoriasis, eczema), gastrointestinal tract (Chrohn’s, IBS), and musculosketal system (joints, back).
So now some practical application on how to fix an unbalanced system:
- Reduce consumption of inflammatory foods.
- Intake healthy vitamin D. We do offer weekly injections for those in the clinic to help your body better absorb.
- Increase omega-3 fatty acids.
- Eat colorful fruits and vegetables.
- Maintain a healthy level of fitness.
- Get proper sleep.