Some stress is good for us. Adversity is an inevitable part of life for everyone and the stress that comes with it helps us learn to adapt and build resiliency. However, more research is finding that persistent and elevated stress has a negative influence on our health.
The stress we experience has significant effects on the nervous system. (1) The imbalance of hormones and inflammatory mediators caused by a shift in signals from a stressed out nervous system can injure the body. (2)
The Modern Day Saber Tooth
The stress response helped our caveman ancestors survive. When faced with a life threatening situation, say a saber-toothed cat, the stress response would mobilize our ancestor to turn and run.
That physiological response has remained the same even though our landscape has significantly have evolved. The thing is... the stress response is designed to protect us… however it can’t distinguish the stressor. So now, the saber tooth takes form in our world as…
· Driving in morning traffic
· A crowded place
· Concern over finances
· Worry about our lives
· Relationship dynamics
· Thinking someone has unfavorable opinions about us
· The workplace
· Home responsibilities
· [fill in your other stressors here!!]
…And dealing some of these, or all of these, within a 16 hour window of time!
The Role of Adrenal Health
Our adrenal glands, are part of the endocrine (the glandular) system. They sit on top of the kidneys, and play a very big role in the stress response. (3) They produce many hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, during times of stress.
Life circumstances that bring about stress such as the examples listed above, and other influences, including:
· Lack of sleep
· Poor nutrition
· Reliance on stimulants like coffee or energy drinks
· Negative thinking
· Emotional trauma
· Chronic pain
…Can alter the function of the adrenal glands and the way they secrete hormones. This is a maladaptive state rather than a pathological one, however it must be recognized as it causes health issues.
Mind, Body, Burnout
Imbalanced cortisol levels interfere with the most essential first line influencers in our health…our digestion, sleep, blood sugar balance and our immune system. (2, 4 – 6) When these systems are compromised, we encounter delayed healing time, colds and flus, decreased mood, heightened anxiety, lowered metabolism, lowered energy, lowered libido, less nutrient uptake and/or flora imbalances (e.g. IBS, H. pylori, UTIs, yeast infections, sinus infections). Moreover, stress also can lead to high blood pressure. (7)
Currently there is no official conventional diagnosis for stress related adrenal maladaptation, and medical doctors only associate adrenal dysfunction with Addison’s disease, Cushing’s disease or adrenal cancer. However, for decades Naturopathic Doctors have been attuned to the significant role the adrenal glands have in the total picture of patient health. Historically, we have connected suboptimal health in stressed out people and have seen people feel better when we address adrenal health to protect them from the effects of stress.
Similar to when I started my practice in 2003, the medical community discredited the importance of probiotics, which are now widely recommended by doctors and specialists. I am certain that in the next decade we will see more support of the connection between adrenal function and health.
Build Your Stress Sheild
Although we often can’t resolve all of our daily stresses, we can work on protecting ourselves and minimizing the impact stress has on our bodies. I like to think of it as building a coat of armour to guard against this modern day world we live in. Here are a few ways to to this:
1) Eat well, namely plenty of vegetables and water. They provide vital nutrients we need for optimal function. Avoid coffee as it's a nervous system stimulant. If you can’t go without your coffee, limit consumption to one small cup in the morning if possible.
2) There are many natural options, specifically botanical formulas, that are very helpful in supporting nervous system and adrenal function at the same time. Talk with a Naturopathic Doctor to find out which are the right fit based on your health status.
3) Get to sleep before midnight.* This helps to reset your body. Many restorative hormones are secreted based on your sleep-wake cycle. Getting to sleep before midnight promotes this rhythm. *If you work shift work, talk with a Naturopathic Doctor about how you can support proper sleep hormone rhythm.
4) Do something you enjoy each day. Have a good laugh, talk with a friend, spend time with a pet, exercise, walk, practice free writing, spend time outdoors. Things you do for enjoyment helps neutralize stress.
Rebalancing and repairing the body when it’s been under stress can take anywhere between six months to two years, depending on the severity of stress and how compromised a person’s health has become. We all need to allow time for our bodies to heal. This can seem like a long path to take, but it's short considering the lifetime of good health you'll experience once your health is balanced and fortified.