Stress can be defined as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.
At the simplest level, stress is a disturbance of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the body’s ability to regulate its inner environment. When the body loses this ability, disease and breakdown occur.
The adrenals are two walnut-shaped glands that sit above the kidneys. They secrete hormones including cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine that regulate the stress response. It is the adrenals that determine your tolerance to stress and are also the system of your body most affected by stress.
Most people are aware of the obvious forms of stress that affect the adrenal glands: impossibly full schedules, driving in traffic, financial problems, arguments with a spouse, losing a job and the many other emotional and psychological challenges of modern life.
Other factors not commonly considered when people think of “stress” place just as much of a burden on the adrenal glands. These include blood sugar swings, gut dysfunction, food intolerances (especially gluten), chronic infections, environmental toxins, autoimmune problems, inflammation and overtraining. All of these conditions sound the alarm bells and cause the adrenals to pump out more stress hormones.
Symptoms of stress are diverse and nonspecific, because the adrenals affect every system in the body. Some of the more common symptoms include:
- Decreased immunity
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up
- Mood swings
- Sugar and caffeine cravings
- Irritability or light-headedness between meals
- Eating to relieve fatigue
- Dizziness when moving from sitting or lying to standing
- Digestive distress
Impact of Stress
Stress impacts the body is every way possible. It would take books to explain the full effects of stress. And those books have been written. In summary, when stress becomes chronic and prolonged, the hypothalamus is activated and triggers the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is normally released in a specific rhythm throughout the day. It should be high in the mornings when you wake up (this is what helps you get out of bed and start your day), and gradually taper off throughout the day (so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep).
Recent research shows that chronic stress can not only increase absolute cortisol levels, but more importantly it disrupts the natural cortisol rhythm. It is this broken cortisol rhythm that wreaks so much havoc on your body. Some if its effects include
- Raises your blood sugar
- Weakens your immune system
- Makes your gut leaky
- Makes you hungry and crave sugar
- Reduces your ability to burn fat
- Suppresses your HPA -axis, which causes hormonal imbalances
- Reduces your DHEA, testosterone, growth hormone and TSH levels
- Increases your belly fat and makes your liver fatty
- Causes depression, anxiety and mood imbalances
- Contributes to cardiovascular disease
It is not a stretch to suggest that stress contributes to much of modern, chronic disease.
You have probably witnessed the negative effects of stress firsthand, every day of your life. The question becomes what do you do about it?
Reducing The Impact Of Stress
Reducing stress means just what it sounds like: reducing your total exposure to all forms of stress, whether psychological or physiological. It is impossible to completely remove stress from your life, but even in the most stressful of circumstances, it is still possible to reduce stress and reframe the situation
Obviously, there are times when stress is unavoidable - a high-stress job, caring for an ailing parent, or difficulty with our partner or spouse to name a few. In these situations, it becomes about reducing the harmful effects of the stress rather than removing the stress itself.
Some actions and behaviours to mitigate the stress response can include:
Question Your Thoughts.
Recognize that your thoughts about the stressful event are just thoughts—they aren’t real, and you don’t have to believe them. Ask yourself whether your thoughts are really true and accurate, or whether they are just a perception or belief.
Expand Your Time Horizon.
Ask yourself whether what you’re upset about will matter in a month, a year, or a decade. Imagine yourself at 100 years old, in a rocking chair, reflecting on your life. Will this event matter? Will you even remember it at all?
Increase Your Sense Of Control.
You can’t control everything, and trying to do that is a recipe for suffering (both for you and for those around you!). That said, research has shown that it is your sense of control, rather than actually being in control, that determines how strongly stress will impacts you. Focusing your attention on the things that you can influence, finding creative solutions, and making a list of resources you can draw on or people you can ask for help can increase your sense of control and minimize the effect that the stressful event has on you.
Change Your Scenery.
Get a new mental and physical perspective, even if only temporarily. Leave the room. Sit in a different chair. If you have stress rituals (like visiting the vending machine at a certain time), shake things up, take a different route and avoid the familiar (and habit-filled) routine if you can.
Stress builds up in your body and then creates more stress and discomfort. If you changing your life (or the next hour) seem overwhelming or impossible, you can still be kind to yourself and stretch out your neck or your back. Try to create a little comfort.
Put Thoughts On Paper.
Untangle your feelings, check in with yourself, and decompress. Try writing for ten minutes at the beginning or end of your day. You will become more likely to understand some of your triggers and create the opportunity to think about what you might do instead.
Stress is exhausting. Getting at least 7½ hours of sleep a night will go a long way to allowing your body and mind to recover, and rest. You will become be more productive and better able to focus. Successful people guard their sleep!
It is physically impossible to grow more stressed and more relaxed simultaneously. When you start relaxing, even just a little, you reverse the cycle of growing more and more stressed or anxious. Focus on your breath for just sixty seconds or put your hand on your heart and breathe. Focus on your heartbeat. Small, short centering breaks like this can help you break vicious cycles and be more mindful and relaxed.
Simply shifting your focus from what is not okay or not enough, to what you have and are grateful for or appreciative of can completely change your perspective, and relieve stress. Work at not allowing the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let good enough be good enough, and be grateful for it.
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Supplements for Stress
Magnesium is a mineral that is essential for muscle and nerve function. Multiple studies have shown that magnesium is especially crucial for sleep, with supplementation helping in this regard.
Vitamin B Complex
Low energy and fatigue can contribute to irritability and stress levels. This is why the B vitamins, which are well-known for keeping energy levels high and improving cognitive performance, can have a positive effect. Clinical data suggests that supplementing with a vitamin B-complex can help keep your energy high and stress low.
While probiotics are commonly known to support digestion and immune system health, most people don’t realize that they have also been studied for years for their impact on brain health. Maintaining a healthy number of gut bacteria affects a healthy response to chronic stress and has been shown to promote mental health and cognitive function.
Research shows that in addition to supporting heart health, fish oil contains a specific omega-3 fatty acid called eicosapentaenoic acid, which has been linked to mood. Omega-3s are the basic building blocks of the brain and nervous system, so taking fish oil helps maintain a healthy level of cognitive function and supports your body as it regulates stress.
Vitamin D is a steroid hormone that can be obtained from your diet — in egg yolks, cod liver oils, fatty fish like salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel. It can also be synthesised in your skin during sunlight exposure. The hormone cortisol, which is produced when your body is under stress, can block the calcitriol receptor, and the absorption of vitamin D as a result. Vitamin D supplementation has been shown to have a positive impact on the biomarkers of stress, anxiety and mental health.
At the end of the day.....
One of the most important things you can do to manage stress is to bring more pleasure, joy and fun into your life. Live in the moment and cultivate presence. Your body and your mind will thank you, and your life will become richer and more fulfilled. This may not mean stress-free, but you will definitely create a better environment to effectively manage what comes your way.