Understanding Stress

Yeah, yeah, stress…you’ve heard it all before. But what does it really mean to be stressed? And how is it affecting your wellbeing?

It seems every day we hear the word ‘stress’.

 “Work is so stressful right now, don’t stress, she must be stressed” are commonly bounced around as part of our daily vocabulary. Even primary school aged children know what the word stress means. I didn’t even need to learn about stress until the latter years of high school!

But, what is stress from a physiological perspective, what is it doing to your body and why is it impacting on your health? 

Stress is defined as pressure, tension or strain placed on a physical object. In terms of your health, that strain is placed on your physical body. We need to understand the impact that this it is having on your health, because sadly enough the word ‘stress’ itself has fallen into the norm for most of us; it has become an acceptable part of everyday life.

Credit: Musings from the Moon

There are 3 phases to stress. The alarm phase is the initial reaction when you secrete cortisol and adrenaline in response to the stress trigger. This is usually short lived lasting only hours. You then move into the resistance phase where if the stress continues you learn to adapt. Often this involves long term cortisol secretion and can last weeks to months, even years. And often at this time you are still functioning but insufficiently, I call this a feeling of being wired and tired, i.e. exhausted but the nervous system is on high alert. When the adaptive phase ceases you reach the exhaustive phase which is when you are most likely to suffer chronic systemic illness.

Let’s take a closer look at some of those stress hormones. Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland when the sun rises to have you rising out of bed bright and chirpy. It should then taper off throughout the day as you source energy from nourishing food and hydration from water. However, when you are stressed, you secrete additional cortisol throughout the day in response to the increased pressure or the strain the day (or worse longer term circumstance) is placing on your body. This can cause a myriad of physical symptoms such as tissue inflammation, weight gain, blood sugar dysregulation and furthermore fatigue. When you are in this state, the brain will signal that you are stressed and have the adrenal gland secrete adrenaline; aka your “fight/flight” hormone. This will cause increased heart rate, shortness of breath, muscular tension and sometimes anxiety. Between these two hormones (there are others, but let’s focus on the main ones) you will start to function in survival mode in response to the pressure that has been created. 

When survival mode kicks in, you can basically survive without water, food or sleep. Short term this is a perfectly normal response but the issue these days is that adrenal gland hormone release is rarely just in the face of a catastrophe. Most of us have periods of long term cortisol and adrenaline secretion and this brings with it a multitude of health risks and general ill health. 

Survival mode will inevitably disrupt digestion. Appetite is usually the first thing to disappear. Poor appetite can lead to skipped meals and then, when you do eat, poor food choices are made. For example, when you are stressed you will crave refined carbohydrates as a means of assisting with dopamine release. Dopamine, a brain messenger assists with mood, motivation, memory and movement. If you think about it, these are the factors that you are struggling with when you are stressed for e.g. foggy head, fatigue, feeling emotional, etc.  However, consuming foods high in sugar, and low in nutrients, only band aids your immediate need for dopamine in the brain. It will give you a nice quick rise in blood sugar and a release of insulin to get fuel into your cells fast. All this falls short when the nutritional value of the food consumed is low, creating more need for activation of your survival mode setting, increasing the release of more adrenal hormones and so the cycle continues.

These stress hormones are part of your sympathetic nervous system, which drives your fight/flight response. Prehistorically this allowed humans to be true hunter gatherers, hunting and running from danger. But although this mechanism still exists in our physiology, our day-to-day activity has changed and doesn’t warrant such extreme measures in response to today’s types of stress. The companion of the sympathetic nervous system is your parasympathetic nervous system which allows you to rest and digest. Ultimately, you should have a perfect balance between the two nervous system responses. But, due to the fact that we no longer live in a world where our day is balanced with 8 hours work, 8 hours rest and 8 hours play, your poor parasympathetic nervous system pales in the shadows of the attention seeking sympathetic stress response.

Stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) and sleep are like positive and negative, day and night, hot and cold. They oppose one another and if stress is resulting in elevated cortisol and adrenaline, then melatonin and GABA (brain messengers) that assist with relaxation and sleep onset can’t do their job. Then, if you do by chance of a miracle fall asleep due to pure exhaustion, chances are that the quality of sleep is poor and most likely you will be waking throughout the night. Little sleep results in waking unrefreshed and guess who turns up to try and help out? You guessed it, the adrenal gland and those stress hormones. 

Stress hormones are extremely inflammatory. These may be the thing that is exacerbating your aches and pains, causing food sensitivities, or creating headaches to name just a few symptom pictures. Many patients ask if they can look at food sensitivity testing to determine what is causing inflammatory reactions but very few people understand that the need to assess stress hormones is almost as important, if not more important, in resolving your health issues. We can eliminate food groups until the cows come home, but until we truly address the stress response you will continue to react to food and your environment due to the constant underlying inflammation and poor barrier this inflamed tissue is creating.

But, what can you do about all this? The world in which we live won’t slow down; in fact our fast paced lives are getting faster. 

What is refreshing is that there are numerous studies that confirm that the stress stimuli may not always be able to be removed, but what can be achieved with a positive effect on both your health and longevity is how you adapt to stress. 

Some simple adaptation techniques might include:

  • Changing the things you can to eliminate unnecessary stress, however, consider tools that may assist you in adapting to stress that is unchangeable e.g. exercise, schedule relaxation/time out or plan a holiday etc.
  • Nurture your parasympathetic nervous system. Switching on our parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system can be achieved with breathing exercises. Slowing down the breath and breathing deep into the diaphragm can help. However, if you find it difficult to sit still with your breath, gentle exercise or singing can also help achieve this.
  • Eat nourishing food regularly and avoid the temptation of sugary treats and coffee as a temporary fix for your fatigue.
  • Consider the support of a clinical practitioner – it’s too easy to self-prescribe that herb or vitamin formulation that has been labelled and marketed for stress. But the truth is, every individual is different and trusting your nutritional status with a qualified practitioner is a much more effective and long term fix for your stress induced nutritional needs.