Welcome to a new decade! You made it through hectic holidays, travel adventures, and weeks of delicious comfort food. But beginning this new chapter of our lives doesn’t mean the stress is over.
Perhaps you’ve committed to an ambitious “boot camp” January workout, overextended your finances during holiday shopping, or are having trouble sleeping after all the festivities the past couple months.
Unfortunately, stress isn’t localized to the brain, as many of us can probably attest. We experience very significant consequences on our physical, mental, and emotional health when stress gets the better of us.
Let’s take a look at the bodily systems that are actually suffering, so we can understand where to step in and rebuild with better habits.
How Stress Affects Your Body
When your mind experiences something it deems a threat, a series of physiological changes happen in the body to prime us to react to stay alive. We call this the fight-or-flight response.
In humans, this started out as an adaptive mechanism to increase alertness, heart rate, and blood flow to major organs in case we needed to run away from a predator, or protect our children or ourselves from a physical threat.
Because modern humans generally don’t live in places where we’re running from physical threats, this stress response happens when we’re feeling the pressures of our way of life. Our kids are wearing us out, financial worries weigh heavy, and our ability to perform at work all create demands that can exceed our ability to cope.
Our modern perceived threats don’t resolve as quickly as the problems our ancestors were having, either. Nature’s problems tend to be physical in nature, and they resolve quickly. The fight-or-flight response was activated, and then we returned to a resting state once it had passed (1).
We’re faced with issues like chronic stress from our inability to return to a relaxed state. Our stress response system wasn’t intended to be activated continuously, and can exhaust vitamin stores, and take a significant toll on our health.
What Causes Stress
We can experience stress from many sources, both internal and external. Whether it’s pressure at work or a poor diet, a cascade of communications begins within the body, and that cascade is what causes the negative side effects we associate with poor stress management.
The hypothalamus, which is a region in the brain that regulates important nervous system functions like hunger, thirst, and temperature. It connects our nervous system with our hormones through the pituitary gland.
The pituitary is a tiny-but-mighty gland in the brain that regulates all the other endocrine (hormone) glands.
The adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys, and they produce a variety of hormones we need to stay heathy and alive, including cortisol, adrenaline, and our some of our sex hormones.
The HPA axis plays a heavy role in regulating energy levels, immune function, metabolism, inflammation levels, and of course–stress (2).
In short bursts, these three parts of our body were designed to work like a well-choreographed performance with many dynamic parts, but during times of chronic stress, or if one becomes compromised, it can throw the entire system out of balance, and we call this HPA axis dysfunction (3).
When Stress Makes You Sick
Most of us will likely experience some degree of HPA axis dysfunction in our lifetime. You may have heard the term “adrenal fatigue” being used to describe a set of symptoms that include:
- Brain fog
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Digestive problems
“Adrenal fatigue” doesn’t give us the full picture of what’s going on, and it doesn’t make the symptoms any less real. Unless, your doctor is well-versed in HPA axis function and how to treat the effects of chronic stress, you run the risk of being dismissed at your appointment, or being told it’s “all in your head.” This is one area in which integrative medicine excels. A good integrative physician will acknowledge the possible dysfunction of this system and respond accordingly.
The HPA axis’ primary role is to maintain our homeostasis, or the set of physiological circumstances that make our body function optimally. This is a big job, as you can imagine. So if any point in this system isn’t running smoothly, it can create a domino effect with each step affecting the rest. Over time, we become desensitized to stress hormones and the body is unable to reclaim it’s balance like it once could (4).
How You Can Reduce Stress
7 Steps to Let Go of Stress
- Set boundaries. With friends, family, and work. Recognize where your limitations are and protect your time. It’s ok to say no to things you know overextend your capabilities.
- Prioritize movement, but not too much. Exercise is a great way to actually burn excess cortisol produced by stress, but overdoing it during workout (or if you’re working out multiple times per day) can be detrimental in the long run. For great, relaxing ways to get your daily movement, consider yoga, walking in nature, Tai Chi, or swimming.
- Take sleep seriously. Poor sleep–either not enough (less than 7 hours per night, 5 nights per week), or of poor quality–complicates every part of our day. In Chinese Medicine, the meridians involved in detoxification and hormone balance need rest and rejuvenation from 11p.m. to 5 a.m. at minimum. Clean up your nighttime routine with no devices before bed, dim light in the evening, and a bedroom that feels welcoming to you. If you are still having issues, my formula Sleep Savior, has been designed to help you fall asleep and stay asleep using magnesium, melatonin and magnolia bark.
- Have a mantra (or a few). Your brain doesn’t know the difference between thoughts, and something that’s actually happening in terms of stress response. When we can identify patterns of negative thinking, and strengthen positive patterns instead, our brains are more likely to naturally see the positive. I love and personally started out using simple apps to help with this. Some of my favorites include Calm, Headspace, or BrainWave. Training your mind is like exercise, you have to keep at it to build strong, positive patterns.
- Feed your body. This is less about sticking to a perfect diet than it is about having a healthy relationship with what you’re eating. Food is nourishment, and should be seen as such. When we’re overwhelmed, we often turn to sugar, fatty foods, alcohol, but these foods ultimately worsen our stressed-out body.
- Find your peace. Our lives are busy, but taking a moment for yourself, whether it’s a walk around the block, expressing creativity, or talking to a friend is important. Self care isn’t indulgent. It fosters passion and positivity, helping us to feel inspired about life.
- Drink water. Our cells thrive when properly hydrated, and nothing quenches them like water. Also, be mindful of your caffeine intake, or omit it altogether. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, there’s a big chance your HPA axis is feeling it, too. Relying on caffeine to get you through the morning could be doing much more harm than good. Work on decreasing by one (or more) cups per couple of days. And if it’s the flavor you like–try decaf!
What strategies do you use to cope with the demands of our modern lifestyle? Tell me your favorite ways to relax and recharge.
Do your friends or family have trouble dealing with stress? Share this blog!