I was recently invited to speak at Mother Nature’s Market to members of the community on the topic of stress. I was really excited because stress is something that almost all of my patients are struggling with (whether they know it or not) and it impacts so many parts of our health and wellbeing. The challenge can be figuring out how much stress is impacting your health then, what to do about it!
According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 4 Canadians perceive that most of their days are “quite” to “extremely” stressful. That’s a lot of stress! And those are just the people who recognize that their lives are stressful. A lot of people are so busy keeping their heads above water they often don’t even recognize the constant stress they’re enduring. Stress isn’t just word we use to describe how busy and chaotic the world is; it’s a physiologic process that affects our entire body.
Stress starts in our brain – when we perceive a threat, our brains use chemical signals to tell our bodies how to respond. This cascade of signals is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Ultimately, to escape the threat, the brain wants to flood the body with stress hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol). These hormones produced from our adrenal glands give us instant energy and optimize our bodies for survival and physical performance. We call this the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) response. This state is extremely important for survival – if you were being chased by a bear in the woods, you would rely on this flood of adrenaline to save your life.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that, in our modern society, we are not usually encountering the occasional bear in the woods but we are now under constant, low-grade, stimulation and stress. When stress levels stay high we don’t allow our bodies to return to a normal “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) state. It’s in this state that our bodies can heal, sleep, and digest our food. This means that if we are constantly in “fight or flight” we may experience insomnia, fatigue, blood sugar issues, infertility, weight gain or loss, and poor digestion. Long term exposure to high stress (specifically cortisol) the HPA axis becomes dysfunctional. Chronic HPA dysfunction (aka “adrenal fatigue”) can have major health implications including diabetes, heart disease, low thyroid function, and autoimmune diseases.
How Stressed Out Are You?
- Morning fatigue — You don’t really seem to “wake up” until 10 a.m., even if you’ve been awake since 7 a.m.
- Afternoon “low” (feelings of sleepiness or clouded thinking) from 2 to 4 p.m.
- Burst of energy at 6 p.m. — You finally feel better from your afternoon lull.
- Sleepiness at 9 to 10 p.m. — However, you resist going to sleep.
- “Second wind” at 11 p.m. that lasts until about 1 a.m., when you finally go to sleep.
- Waking easily during the night between 1-3am
- Cravings for foods high in salt and fat
- Increased PMS or menopausal symptoms
- Mild depression
- Lack of energy
- Decreased ability to handle stress
- Muscular weakness
- Increased allergies
- Light-headedness when getting up from a sitting or laying down position
- Decreased sex drive
Testing to see how stress is impacting your body can be done in a variety of ways.
- Testing cortisol levels can be done via blood, urine, or saliva. Urine or saliva testing is best for understanding chronic stress.
- If fatigue is one of your concerns it’s important to understand why. On top of testing cortisol levels, you must also look at your complete blood count (CBC), ferritin (iron stores), thyroid function (TSH, T3, and T4), and vitamin B12.
- If digestion is a concern then it will be important to determine food sensitivities or intolerances, test for intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), and possibly assess the gut microbiome health of the small intestines (SIBO)
All of these tests are not necessary for everyone but a naturopathic physician will help determine what testing options are appropriate for you.
5 Tips to Help with Chronic Stress
Give yourself time to recharge – get away from the stresses of life every 90 days!
Practice mindfulness, every day. Need help? Check out my post on ways to get started.
Do things that relax you. Massages, acupuncture, yoga all help put you back into a parasympathetic state so find a way to incorporate them regularly into your life.
Replete lost nutrients! Stress makes you burn through vitamins and minerals AND it prevents you from absorbing it from your food. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin C, vitamin B5, and magnesium to keep those adrenal glands happy!
Herbs can help. Adaptogenic herbs were put on this earth to help you cope with stress. Some of my favourites are eleuthero, ashwagandha, and ginseng. It’s smart to talk to an expert to make sure the herbal medicine you choose is right for you.