When you feel threatened, your nervous systems activates physiological changes such as the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, your blood vessels dilate, your pupils enlarge, your breathing rapidly increases and the body becomes ready for an emergency – all this just to make it rushed to school drop off on time!
These changes are designed to enhance your focus and put you in fight mode, regardless of whether or not you are in danger, as your body really can’t tell the difference.
The manifestation of stress
Ongoing exposure to stress is a huge factor in ill-health. The way stress manifests depends on the individual and their predispositions. High blood pressure, reproductive issues, weight gain, sleep issues, increased heart rate, slowed metabolism, imbalance of hormones, and mental health issues are only some of the conditions that can result from stress.
Why is stress a problem to our health?
When we are stressed, a number of body systems are immediately affected:
The endocrine system – metabolism is affected, as well as mood, growth and development, and reproduction. When stress hormones are released, glucose is released in order to provide more energy to cope with the life-threatening situation. This can result in blood sugar imbalances and insulin resistance over time. Cortisol is also linked to weight gain, and particularly storage of fat around the waist.
The cardiovascular system – heart rate and blood pressure are increased. Ongoing stress can result in damaged blood vessels. Carrying excess weight around your middle is also linked to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
The respiratory system – rapid breathing occurs in an effort to move oxygen around our body more quickly.
The gastrointestinal system – anything from heartburn, to bloating, to constipation, diarrhoea, as well as the body’s ability to draw nutrients from food is altered. This is because during stress, stomach acid production is lowered and food cannot be digested properly. Also, blood moves away from the digestive organs to be ready for fight mode.
The immune system – cortisol is released during stress which suppresses the immune system. This makes us more susceptible to infectious illness.
The musculoskeletal system – muscles become tense in order to protect us from injury. Ongoing tension can cause other issues with joint pain and even headaches or migraines.
The reproductive system – changes to menstrual cycles will occur during times of stress, as biologically reproduction becomes secondary to the emergency situation of fight or flight. In addition, changes in the endocrine system have a follow-on effect to the reproductive system by throwing reproductive hormones out of balance.
Other lifestyle implications
Stress usually erodes relationships; between partners and even between parents and children, as we find ourselves less able to cope, more irritable and snappy.
Another factor to consider is that stress also contributes to emotional eating (and often processed unhealthy refined carbs) which leads to weight gain and altered microbiota.
Stress can cause us to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drug or alcohol use which can become addictive behaviour.
Excess cortisol also impacts adrenal function. Adrenal burnout is a real health concern, as it affects all areas of life whereby the body can’t function optimally and fatigue is ongoing.
Cortisol is damaging to the skin, as it breaks down collagen causing premature aging.
Learning to manage how you respond to stress is an evolving process, however below are some popular techniques for improving stress response.
Research shows that people who meditate experience less symptoms from stress, and broader awareness about where their stress originates. Start small with 5 minutes per day focusing on your breath and then build up.
Deep belly breathing calms the central nervous system and lowers cortisol.
An antioxidant-rich diet is important, as well as boosting magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins which are depleted during stressful times.
Encouraging the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin is important. As the majority of serotonin is manufactured in the gut, by nourishing your digestive lining with healthy food choices, you improve mood and lower feelings of stress.
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet is vital. Stress results in digestive issues, and by calming your digestive system with anti-inflammatory foods, you can relieve many of the unwanted digestive consequences of stress.
Improving the gut flora is beneficial, as some of our B vitamins are manufactured in the gut. Increasing foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, and miso will help to maintain healthy insides, and in turn a healthy mood as the gut and brain communicate.
Although sometimes difficult during stressful times, adequate sleep is vital. Both acute and ongoing stress will fatigue the body due to the extra hormones circulating and the tension in your body. Your naturopath can prescribe supplements and / or herbs to assist with sleep dysfunction.
Daily exercise is important in aiding the detoxification of stress from the body due to circulating stress hormones, poor food choices, and alcohol.
See your naturopath, and consider herbal medicines that support the adrenal glands and nourish us in times of stress. Herbal support such as lemon balm, rhodiola, ginseng, passionflower, valerian, and adaptogens such as ashwagandha could be beneficial depending on your symptoms.
Yvette is a qualified Melbourne-based Naturopath and Nutritionist, MINDD Practitioner, member of the Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia, and Complementary Medicine Association. Yvette specialises in the treatment of conditions commonly affecting women and children, with a key interest in children’s digestive and neurological conditions, as well as women’s hormonal concerns, digestive issues, fatigue, anxiety, and skin concerns. Yvette consults in South Yarra, Melbourne, as well as Australia-wide via skype/zoom/phone.
The Naturopathic Co. Melbourne Naturopath 2020