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TOO MUCH STRESS OR CORTISOL CAN HARM YOUR HEALTHJune 27, 2013 Blog
Do you feel on edge, easily irritable, anxious, burned out, and weighed down – making it difficult to get through the day?
“Stress” is often the cause and often unavoidable. While pervasive, many people find it very challenging to mitigate its harmful effects. Often times, we may resort to popping a pill (or pills) to manage stress.
Stress management is hard. Managing very busy lives – such as maintaining and holding a job, paying the bills, taking care of our families – kids, parents, and elders can take a huge toll and demand on our health and well-being.
Stress management is crucial to obtaining optimal health and longevity. If we are not doing some form of regular stress management, all the efforts to significantly transform our health through diet, exercise, and supplementation will not make a huge difference unfortunately. We can still be at risk for degenerative conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and GERD, to name a few.
So what is “stress?”
Originally coined by Hans Selye in 1936, the term “stress” was defined in the following ways:
“the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change;” or
“a physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension;” or
“a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”
On the flip side, stress is also a good thing. It keeps you alert, motivated, and ready to respond to danger. Stress mobilizes the body to respond and improve performance in order to meet the demands of life.
The problem lies when too much sustained and chronic stress lead to inflammation, major depression, and ultimately to body degeneration.
Too much chronic stress leads to elevated hormones such as cortisol (stress hormone) and reduced serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, which has been linked to depression. These hormones, when working properly, regulate biological processes like sleep, appetite, energy, emotions, and sex drive.
The adrenals are two walnut-shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys. They secrete these hormones – known as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine that regulate the stress response. Its main purpose is to help you survive in an emergency or threat by utilizing the body’s resources into “fight or flight” mode.
When the stress response is in overdrive and fails to shut off and reset after a difficult situation has passed, it can lead to depression and other degenerative conditions. More specifically, research has shown that stress can harm the body in various ways:
disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm or body clock
affects your sleep quality
weakens your immunity
raises your blood sugar levels
increases hunger and sugar cravings
increases your belly fat contributing to weight gain
decreases the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel and energy
increases hormonal imbalances – affecting sex hormone balance, like fertility, PMS, etc.
causes depression, anxiety, and mood disorders
increases muscular tension and headaches
contributes to heart disease
contributes to skin disorders
The list can go on and on. The underlying message is that stress contributes to all modern and chronic disease. Many of us has experienced more than one of these harmful effects first-hand.
What can one do?
Research has shown for over 50 years, the medical establishment has proven that the body has the natural ability to heal itself without the use of drugs or surgery. A future article in this series will explain this in more detail, but the premise is that the power of our minds can help our bodies heal naturally.
To capitalize on this effort, it is highly imperative to practice some form of regular stress management. Developing and maintaining this practice regularly will help stop the cycle of chronic stress accumulation. When we are aware of this at the moment it is triggered, we can begin to proactively reduce its harmful effects on the body. Relaxing our nervous system will allow the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms to do their job.
How to Reduce the Impact of Stress for Your Body
To help reduce the overall burden of stress, we have to prioritize the management of our stressors. The body cannot handle everything at once, but it can avoid and mitigate the various forms of stress that affect us daily. The two methods are:
Minimize unnecessary stress
Reduce the harmful effects of stress you cannot avoid
1. Minimize unnecessary stress you experience
Although this may seem simple, however it is not. “Unnecessary” means stressful events that you can control and avoid. The next section of this article will focus on minimizing the harmful effects of stress that you cannot avoid. This typically involves your relationships – such as your family, your spouse, children, your work, etc.
Here are some tips to consider:
Identify what stresses you out
It could be as straightforward as watching or reading the news, watching a violent movie or film, to high stress at work. Identifying these stressors can help prioritize what is most important to handle and what is least important and unnecessary.
Avoid people who stress you out
You know who these people are. Although this may not be simple to do, these are situations where you may want to spend less time with these people or avoid them entirely.
Just say “NO” – keep healthy boundaries
Acknowledge what you can and cannot do. If you begin to feel the sense of “guilt” or “obligation” your body is signaling to say “NO.” Don’t take on too many projects you cannot handle.
Choose your battles
Sometimes there are too many battles or arguments to fight or debate about that will deplete your overall energy and energy reserves. Often times these battles are small or petty. Prioritize what is important to you.
Listen to your body
If your body cringes or suddenly feels tense and tight, this is your body’s signal to either avoid this potential stressor or acknowledge and communicate what and how you are feeling at that moment. You can also ask yourself what you need at this particular moment to relax your nerves. This will help stop triggering the stress response.
Prioritize your to-do list daily
Often times we are just “too busy.” There are endless tasks to do that can overwhelm you causing accumulated stress. Look and review your list and prioritize what is important and handle those first.
Address your physiological impact of stress
This entails addressing your body’s current health needs in the midst of stress. Because stress has accumulated and is chronic (with continual triggering of the stress response causing inflammation in the body), the body will experience any of the above health issues discussed earlier. Therefore, it is highly imperative to begin the process of handling fluctuating bouts of energy, blood sugar swings, insomnia, food intolerances, digestive issues, poor immunity, etc. Seek a skilled practitioner to help you.
2. Reduce the harmful effects of stress you cannot avoid
Stress is difficult to avoid. It is around us all the time. No doubt in many instances we cannot avoid certain stressors – such as the demands of a highly stressful job, caring for our family members, especially those who are ill, or challenges with our relationships such as our partner or spouse. The focus of this section is to reduce the harmful effects of these stressors.
Here are some tips to consider:
As humans, we often desire things we don’t have versus focusing on what we do have. Many have more than others, but having perspective on your life compared to others can humble you.
Cultivate compassion and understanding
Often times when you are in conflict with another person(s), make an effort to listen with empathy and connect with their feelings and needs without judgment. If you can understand where they are coming from, you can save yourself from potentially reacting or taking it personally.
Sometimes it is better to accept what things are versus trying to resist. I am not saying that you accept everything, but many things are beyond our control. The only thing we can change is ourselves or how we may perceive the situation. We often wish for things to be other than they are.
Assume things may not always go as planned
Things happen and we are not perfect. When plans or events change, we must learn to adapt and not let the internal stress response take over you and your body.
Change your perspective
Sometimes an event or incident becomes stressful because of the meaning we assign to this particular event or incident. Sometimes changing your perspective can be enough to relieve the stress. A common example is being stuck in traffic. This can either become a disastrous event of “road rage” or it can be an opportunity to reflect and slow down.
Abort the stress response by listening to your body
Once the stress response has been triggered, it typically does not last very long – some have stated about 90 seconds – unless the stressor becomes chronic. Our bodies know exactly what we need. Just by listening to your body, you can significantly counter and reduce the potential harmful effects of stress before it becomes chronic. If you feel a sudden rise in tension or tightness in your body, this is your body’s signal to warn you of a potential stress response trigger! Counter it now by relaxing your nerves as soon as your body alerts you.
Manage your time
As stated earlier, prioritizing your to-do lists daily can help focus your attention and energy towards the necessary tasks at hand versus the unnecessary tasks that may steer your focus away leaving you falling behind or overwhelmed. Do what you can. Know your limits and boundaries.
Create a regular stress management practice
In this stress series, a future article will discuss this in more detail. Essentially, a combination of the above tips/techniques with whole-based, nutrient-dense real foods, physical exercise, relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, taiji, acupuncture, getting enough quality sleep, etc. can make all the difference to allow your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms to flourish over stress.
Like this article? Stay tuned for more on the Stress Series Part II.