What the hell is stress? Hint, it might not be what you think……..and what you can do now to help!

“Reduce your stress”

We hear it from our doctors, our yoga teacher, our partners, our friends, nutritionists, or healer of any type and most of us know it at a cellular level.  We know we would benefit if we did but still we are all stressed out today and most of us are exhausted because of it.  Understanding  the various forms of stress is key to getting a handle on it and giving our body the break it is desperately seeking. 

You will most likely  be surprised to learn how many places stress is coming from today.  Jump right to the list at the bottom if you can’t wait.  Otherwise, a bit on stress itself. 

Stress is the body’s way of responding to any demand and then bringing our body back into balance. These demands can be physical, emotional, or mental and come from the inside our outside world. The stress response involves a chemical cascade of events that prepares the body to ‘fight or flight’, activating our sympathetic nervous system.  Our pupils dilate, blood is pumped from the digestive and reproductive system to our muscles and heart, our blood sugar spikes so we can have fuel, our heart rate increases, and blood pressure increases. If functioning properly we return to rest and digest when the stress is gone so all other vital body systems can function again, and our parasympathetic nervous system takes over, ahhhh.  We need to be in ‘rest and digest’ to procreate, grow hair, maintain hormone balance, digest our food, think intellectually, have that oh so yummy feeling of calm, and much more. We need to be in ‘fight or flight’ to fight off the tiger, survive a famine, or a similar acute stressors that we evolved to face for thousands of years. It turns on, then it turns off. We are back in balance, in theory, but alas….

Today stress comes from all of the following and they each have the same ‘Stressful’ effect on our body. Our ability to adapt to stress has kept us brilliantly resilient and able to handle all sorts of demands over thousands of years.  We are well adapted at handling acute stress and some stress actually makes us stronger. The problem today is we are not successfully turning off this stress response due to the amount and steady influx of triggers, which is leading to long term damage, depletion, and Chronic Disease.   Most of these go round robin also, creating more stress, which creates more of the problem, more depletion, and the cycle continues. 

Excessive cortisol (our stress hormone produced in the adrenals in response to all forms of stress) from nonstop stress can increase visceral fat, break down muscles, increase inflammation, increase cravings, decrease immune function, deplete adrenals, disrupt hormone balance, breakdown bone, decrease memory or intelligence, increase depression, slow down metabolism, and more.**

Sources of Stress-

Emotional Stress- This is the stress we are most familiar with:  Money, partners, kids, work, bills, trauma, early childhood trauma, etc. No two people respond to emotional stress in the same way.  Something that brings me joy may be your nightmare and vise versa. Many people have a hard time turning emotional stress off these days with our busy fast paced lives.

  • What to do to help? Try meditation, deep relaxation, adaptogen herbs, daily breathing exercise, restorative yoga, tai chi, leaving toxic relationships, laughing, dancing, or guided imagery. 

Toxic or Environmental Stress There are thousands of new chemicals in our world today that we are exposed to daily and our bodies have not had the time to adapt to the quantity or quality we are exposed to. The build up of toxins and increased nutrient burden on our body to detox them can create a chronic stress response, putting us in chronic ‘fight or flight’. Toxic stress comes through our air, water, food, skin products, cleaning products, furniture, laundry detergent, lawn care products, paint, plastics, and more.

  • What to do to help?   Reduce your exposure to toxins by eating organic, washing produce, getting a water filter, throwing out all plastic food/drink containers, using organic skin care products, eating pastured raised grass fed antibiotic free meats, swapping out home cleaning products with vinegar and water, etc. 

Nutrient Deficiencies The foods we are consuming today have far less nutrients than the foods our ancestors ate. We are generally overfed and undernourished. This is due to several reasons including consuming popular and highly processed nutrient deficient foods, less nutrient soils producing less nutritious produce, problems digesting and absorbing foods properly and the need for more nutrients today to handle the extra stress and toxins we are processing. Being deficient in one nutrient alone, such as iron or magnesium,  is stress.

  • What to do to help? Grow your own vegetables, eat organic, eat foods in their whole form, reduce/eliminate processed packaged convenience foods, eat the rainbow (colorful fruits and veg), include nuts/seeds, add booster foods, restore digestive function so you digest and absorb the foods you are eating, etc.

Silent, undetected, or chronic Infections and Parasites– Infections both acute and chronic are stressful on our body and cause a chronic low grade immune response. Viruses can hide out in the body without symptoms and re-emerge in times of weakened immunity. Two viruses that do this are Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus. Yeast imbalances also do this. When the immune system is activated by these and other silent or recurrent invaders or imbalances it uses energy and precursors needed for other functions and is in a constant state of inflammation which causes a stress response.

  • What to do to help? Be aware of the terrain in your body and what it attracts.  Keep inflammation low, reduce sugary foods, keep the immune system in balance, maintain healthy microbes, and if needed use antimicrobials, antivirals, and antiparasitics to rid the body of pests.

Blood Sugar Imbalances– Every time your blood sugar drops too low the stress response is activated to get fuel for your body.  Cortisol rises and the stress cascade begins. When we consume too much sugar with not enough fiber and protein we get dysregulations and the ups and downs in blood sugar are bigger than we are meant to handle which is perceived again as stress.  Even trendy intermittent fasting can be too stressful for someone with blood sugar swings.  Insomnia can be due to blood sugar fluctuations alone!  Jump over here to learn more about your blood sugar

  • What to do to help? Check your blood glucose levels at home, make sure to eat fat/fiber/protein at every meal and snack, reduce sugary foods, eat regularly throughout the day to maintain steady glucose/insulin, eat healthy fats (coconut, olive oil, avocado, nuts/seeds, olives) and fiberous fruits and veggies. 

Lack of Sleep- Sleep is when we repair and rejuvenate, when we rest and digest.  When we are deprived of sleep it spikes our blood sugar and increases night cortisol (stress) leading to a cascade of downstream hormone dysfunction.  More stress, less sleep, more stress, less sleep, and the cycle continues no matter what came first. Lack of sleep is stressful on the body.

  • What to do to help?  Go to bed and wake at the same time every day, make sure your room is dark and cool, skip daytime caffeine, try amino acids, find a night time ritual, get blood sugar under control, ‘catch the night time low cortisol wave’, try herbs such as passionflower or kava. 

Food triggers- Eating foods that our body cannot digest properly causes inflammation and a stress response.  70% of our immune system is in our gut and is activated when we ingest hard to ingest foods for you specifically, which causes inflammation. Often these are foods people eat regularly and crave. Common food triggers people eat and don’t realize are triggers are gluten, dairy, soy, nuts, nightshades, and yeast.   If hydrochloric acid is too low in the stomach and proteins bypass an important step of digestion in the stomach it can act as a food inflammatory food trigger as well.  Same goes for a shortage of digestive enzymes leaving undigested food in the small intestine.  

  • What to do to help?  Avoid all food triggers, chew thoroughly, slow down when you eat, eat whole foods, drink apple cider vinegar before meals, take digestive enzymes, do an IgG food sensitivity test, avoid processed foods, etc. 

Bacterial dysbiosis  The lining of the gut is composed of millions of diverse organisms that when balanced helps us digest food, detox our environment, maintain the integrity of our gut lining barrier (aka prevent leaky gut), balance our neurotransmitters, keep our hormones balanced, synthesize vitamins, keep our immune system from overactivating, and more.  Various things in our environment can throw this balance off such as antibiotic use, eating a low fiber or high sugar diet, stress itself, certain medications, lack of nutrients, lack of friendly microbe exposure, being born via cesarean, or not being breastfed.

  • What to do to help? Avoid unnecessary antibiotics and medications, limit alcohol, eat fermented foods, reduce sugary foods, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, play in the dirt, breastfeed, supplement with probiotics, etc. 

Physical Stress or Trauma Overexercise, accidents or trauma, excessive hot or cold, childbirth, surgeries, diagnosed diseases or system dysfunctions, overeating, sunburn, etc all cause our sympathetic nervous system to kick in and the stress cascade to begin or continue.

  • What to do to help? Protect your body from physical injury, do not overeat, rest and recuperate after trauma, find moderation and joy. 

Stress directly affects our brain, our hormones, our thyroid, our sleep, our metabolism, our immune system, our mood, our energy, and more.  All the stress we are exposed to accumulates to form our total stress load. Which specific stressor that overflows our ‘bucket’ might not have had a huge affect normally but it may be just enough to tip the scale, overflow the bucket, and get our attention.  How much stress we can tolerate, aka how resilient we are, varies from person to person depending on our genetics, history, nutrient intake, mindset, and more. Knowing what is adding to your total stress load is key in helping to reduce it, process it, or eliminate it so you can function better.

What stressors are filling your bucket? What are you doing to decrease this stress or increase your resilience?

Decrease any of these stressors here and improve your health!

Emotional Footnote- This is not meant to stress you out.  Instead, this is meant to empower you to take a front seat in your journey towards wellness.  Stay tuned for more on Stress and Adrenals and How You Can Become More Resilient!!!

**Check out this 6 minute video to see how high cortisol (stress hormone) impacts physiology.    You Tube Video- How High Cortisol Impacts Physiology (and fat loss) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLUU0b-VuD0

 

References

Bauman, Ed and Friedlander, Jodi. 2019. Therapeutic Nutrition Textbook Part 1.  

Romm, Dr. Aviva.  The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution. 2017. New York, NY. Harper One.

Cass, Dr. Hyla. 2018. Lecture on Insomnia. Functional Nutrition Lab.

Nakayama, Andrea.  2018. Functional Nutrition Full Body Systems. Endocrine 3

Plus, what you can do right now to help reduce your systemic stress!!!

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