Reducing Stress on the Body and Mind
While stress is a universal experience, we all experience it, and it’s a normal and even necessary part of life. We also experience varying degrees of stress based on our personality traits and the resources we have available. In spite of these differences, most people experience stress on a daily basis, and many of the stressors are the same for everyone. Stress is any kind of outside factor that our body perceives as a threat to our safety or well-being. Many people think this only refers to emotional stress or trauma, but it also includes physiological stress on the body, such as infection, traumatic injury, or a poor diet. Stress can also include environmental factors like exposure to chemicals and other toxins.
One of the bodily processes that occurs during acute stress is often referred to as “fight or flight.” It is the defense mechanism that kicks in when we are in danger – or think we are. In addition to the adrenals pumping out more hormones, bodily functions that are unnecessary in the moment (such as digestion), are put on hold to preserve energy for the “fight or flight.”
While this can be a very useful and sometimes life-saving response to a threat, problems can begin to occur if stress becomes frequent or chronic. As the adrenal glands become over-worked, they eventually can’t keep up with the body’s demands for the various hormones they’re responsible for.
How Chronic Stress Affects your Health
The adrenal glands produce more than just cortisol. They also produce neurotransmitters such as adrenaline (epinephrine), norepinephrine, and dopamine. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers (also considered hormones of the brain) that help regulate things like mood, performance, weight, pain perception, and sleep. Depending on the degree to which the adrenals have been affected, the neurotransmitters become unbalanced in various ways.
In addition to neurotransmitters and cortisol, the adrenals also produce small amounts of the hormones estrogen and testosterone. Along with balancing out hormones based on whether a person is male or female, the sex hormones also help keep the negative effects of too much cortisol in check, acting as an antioxidant. But once the adrenals become chronically over-worked, more and more of the precursor materials (used to make sex hormones) get diverted to make cortisol, resulting in a decrease in sex hormones. This results in decreased libido and other symptoms related to hormonal imbalances, such as PMS in women or erectile dysfunction in men.
Blood Sugar Balance
When cortisol is released, another hormone called glucagon is signaled and insulin is then directly suppressed. Glucagon controls glucose storage in the liver so that glucose can be signaled for realease into the blood. Insulin is the hormone that is responsible for regulating the amount of glucose or simple sugars being taken from the bloodstream into the cells.During chronic stress, the cells start to become resistant to insulin, leaving blood glucose levels elevated. This is why insulin resistance is the precursor to type II diabetes. A few symptoms of insulin resistance include inability to lose weight, high cholesterol and triglycerides, brain fog, and elevated blood glucose or insulin levels.
The adrenal glands are part of the HPA-axis and this is where the thyroid comes into play. The adrenals are regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. When cortisol is released under stress, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands work in a feedback loop with cortisol to slow down their production of hormones all together. Unfortunately, this will inevitably slow down function of the thyroid gland since the hypothalamus and pituitary regulate thyroid hormones as well. Stress can also negatively affect the enzyme that converts inactive thyroid hormone to the active thyroid hormone. There are a few other mechanisms involved in the stress/thyroid dysfunction connection as well. Hypothyroid symptoms such as cold extremities, dry skin, depression, and constipation often indicate lowered adrenal function. Most likely, thyroid treatment will be less effective if the adrenals are not addressed as well.
Stress triggers inflammation. Our body knows that chronic inflammation is damaging, so it compensates by slowing down the immune system in order to keep the inflammation in check. The immune system is also directly suppressed during stress since it is one of those “unnecessary” functions when we’re in “fight or flight” mode. This also affects thyroid health since a suppressed immune system can activate viruses capable of attacking and damaging the thyroid.
As you can see, so many functions in the body are interconnected and related back to adrenal function and the stress response.
How Diet and Lifestyle help Moderate the Effects of Stress
Eat Good Mood Foods
Nuts, dairy, leafy greens, citrus fruits, whole grains, black tea, and raw vegetables, which have all been shown to have a positive impact on mood, therefore decrease stress levels. Walnuts are rich in healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, that help nourish your nervous system and calm your mind. Healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that can help counteract the negative effects of stress hormones.
Heal your Gut
Because stress affects everyone differently, and because you might not be getting all of the nutrients you need from your diet, your stress level might be higher than average because you are depleting your stores of protein, vitamins, and minerals that your gut is unable to absorb. Therefore, healing our gut becomes vitally important in reducing the stress on your body. Consider one that also contains botanical ingredients to help reduce stress-related eating, help maintain normal cortisol levels, aid in weight management, and improve your mood.
There are many breathing techniques that take only a few minutes from your day, but will make a significant impact on reducing the effects of stress. Box breathing is one technique used by Navy SEALs to stay calm and focused. It’s easy: find a comfortable spot to lie down. Inhale for 4 seconds, then hold the air in for 4 seconds. Exhale for 4 seconds and hold your lungs empty for 4 seconds. Continue for 5 minutes or however long it takes you to relax, regroup, and refocus; then repeat as necessary.
If you’re interested in balancing your hormones naturally and relieving the stress on your body and mind, please contact the office to begin.