Let's break-down and debunk stress.
What is stress?
Well stress is anything that causes a response from the stress response system (SRS), in the body. The SRS involves many systems including the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the locus coreleus.
The HPA axis is a unique feedback loop that controls the stress in our body. It senses stress, releases hormones and neurotransmitters to deal with the stressors then feeds back information to return to normal.
Stress is something we deal with every day. In small amounts, stress is actually beneficial. It challenges us, encourages change, adaption, and makes us stronger, emotionally and biochemically. The body remembers every stress from birth, even as a fetus – studies have shown that maternal stress can impact a developing baby and have impacts on child development – but the brain remembers these stressors throughout life and determines how we respond to stress... So small amounts of stress can actually be beneficial and a necessary part of life.
But, the problem is that we do live in a world that exposes us to constant stress. A lot of us are so busy all of the time and our stress response system is constantly firing. And when our stress response system is constantly firing, it becomes chronic stress and then physical problems start manifesting in the body.
Chronic stress, especially the stress that leaves us feeling powerless and out of control, slowly but surely leads to the development of mood disorders and other diseases – which we will talk about later.
So how does stress affect our body on an internal level and cause problems??
WE have all heard of the ‘flight or fight response?? What happens here is that a stressful stimuli gets the stress centers in the brain activated such as the locus coeruleus. The locus coeruleus stimulates noreadrenaline and adrenaline production and this causes an increase in cardiovascular performance and brain cognitive function which basically means that our heart rate increases and we become very alert so that if we were faced with a very stressful situation like and angry tiger, our brain is focused and switched on to decide what to do and our body is ready to react.
At the same time, the hypothalamus activates the HPA axis which results in the production of cortisol from the adrenal gland. Well cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory and insulin resistant hormone which helps to control immune system during stress and increases energy to deal with the stress by increasing glucose and fatty acids into the blood.
These are the chemical changes that occur when we are faced with stress. And they are very important and beneficial when we are faced with an acutely stressful situation. Ideally when the stress has passed the function of the HPA axis will return to normal and our body’s go back into homeostasis.
So what happens when we are facing ongoing regular stress all the time?
Well what happens is that our bodies launch into an adaptive, long term stress response and in this state our bodies are exerting a huge effort to try to maintain homeostasis and keep the body balanced and we start to see the beginnings of the symptoms of chronic stress, such as anxiety and depression. So our mood might be changing, we might feel anxious in situation where we were confident before and when faced with more stress, we don’t handle it as well. And then we move to where the stress is actually causing sleep disorders and then chronic diseases such as cardiovascular and auto immune diseases.
Chronic stress is also referred to as Adrenal Exhaustion which is where the circulating hormones will not return to normal and the body stays alert and where we have high levels of circulating cortisol causing wear and tear on the body, then if the stress continues, the adrenals burnout and chronic fatigue results. This is one of the many area’s that Naturopaths can test for to see what the cortisol is doing, is it low or high as both are treated differently.
Other consequences of chronic stress are that stress depletes the immune system because when you are going through a stressful situation, the stress response shuts down the immune system, so if stress is constant you will be more susceptible to colds and flus and certain tumors that the immune system hasn’t picked up.
Stress causes premature aging, as stress increases oxidative stress internally.
Angry outbursts from stressful events affect the cardiovascular system and heart function.
I have mostly been talking about physiological stress here – or constant life stress or worry grief and trauma. The stress response can also be activated by physical occurrences in the body like – chronic inflammation, autoimmune diseases infections and allergies.
Other stressors include:
Toxicity in the body in the form of environmental pollution heavy metals and gut toxicity.
Nutritional deficiencies especially the B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and vitamin C.
Being overweight or obese.
A sedentary lifestyle or over exercise.
Substance abuse – alcohol smoking recreational drugs excessive caffeine
These things can contribute to chronic stress in the body and/or exacerbate stress.
And as a Naturopath, we look at all of these things going on and try to bring the body back into balance.
So management of chronic stress and support of the stress coping mechanisms in the body is how Naturopaths look at treating stress.
We adopt an individual approach because stress affects everyone differently. What might be stressful for one person another person may thrive and love that sort of stress. Everyone reacts to stress in different ways.
NATUROPAHTIC TREATMENT OF STRESS
Reduce the strain of the HPA axis
Increase physical and emotional stamina and sense of wellbeing
Offer nutritional support such as a low glycaemic diet, decrease stimulants like caffeine and use nutritional supplements and herbal formulas to help nourish things like cortisol if depleted
Offer ways to support rest and relaxation
Diet , lifestyle and thought patterns influence the HPA axis
Decrease stimulants such as tea and coffee as these place further stress on the adrenals. The use of stimulants such as coffee increases the stress response and adrenal output. If coffee is used as a pick me up with no effect, then this shows that the adrenals are depleted and that caffeine would only stress out the adrenals even further. Replace with decaffeinated beverages, herbal teas and or filtered water. I t is best to slowly decrease caffeine consumption as caffeine withdrawal can lead to headaches and further fatigue
Stress affects our blood sugars causing sugar or carbohydrate cravings – eat 5-6 small meals a day to balance blood sugars with protein at every meal and snack. Limit fruit to 2 pieces a day and use whole grains. The carbohydrate cravings can lead to weight gain during stress and also high cortisol levels leads to weight gain. Protein powders for snacks are a good idea – smoothies
Balance of work, rest/relaxation and sleep, socializing, physical activities and daily chores etc. is very hardtop achieve in modern life for a lot of people. Finding this balance is vital
Regular exercise is also vital to regulate stress hormones
NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENTS – a healthy diet and a balanced lifestyle and regular exercise will help to settle imbalances in the stress response, but supplements/nutrients help replenish deficiencies created by stress.
Key nutrients lost during stress and that are needed to promote healthy stress hormones/levels are the B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C
B vitamins are depleted during stress and are needed for energy production, so I usually prescribe a good multivitamin with good levels of the b vitamins
Mg is used in over 600 enzyme systems/processes……in the body and is readily lost due to stress, over exercise and a high caffeine and or alcohol intake.
Vitamin c at 1500mg/day can reduce high circulating hormones and can reduce inflammation in the body.
A herbal formula may be used an would be made up or prescribed due to what the causes and symptoms the patient is experiencing
Licorice is good for adrenal function and low cortisol levels
If there is anxiety, sleep problems and restlessness, then chamomile, valerian and passionflower may be used
Panax ginseng is good for exhaustion and also withania
Others to consider are rhodiola, rehmannia and ginkgo biloba.
Most of the herbs for stress will be very nourishing, adaptogenic and calming for a stimulated system.
Some people may require counselling to talk about their problems, sharing with friends of family where appropriate
Meditation is a fantastic technique to bring about calm and relaxation – studies have shown meditation to help people to deal with stress more effectively, promotes positive thinking, and can reduce anxiety and pain and to promote healing
Cognitive behavioral therapy has many benefits and may help health problems such as anxiety, depression, phobias, panic – things like what Patty is/has talked about or Hypnosis
Other things such as imagery and creative visualization,
Massage and reflexology
One of my favorites is a warm Epsom salt bath with a few drops of lavender
Stress is everywhere, it is unavoidable. It is how we perceive and act in this stress that will determine our bodies response and how it affects our life. If stress is impacting your life poorly, please get in touch to learn ways to mange your stressors more effectively .