Stress is a part of life. You have probably been told that all you need to do is decrease your stress and you will feel better. That sounds great, but how do you do that. There may be a few things that you have added to your life that can be removed which will result in decreased stress. However, you can’t do that with everything or even most things. You still have bills to pay, people to take care of, a job to do…the list goes on and on. Since we can’t eliminate all stress from our lives, maybe it is not about eliminating stress but learning how to manage it.
Stress and Our Body
Let’s begin by looking at stress more closely and how our body responds to it. In a previous article (link), we discussed the HPT Axis. No discussion on stress would be complete without discussing the HPA Axis.
Here is the broad overview of this system. You experience a stress that is real or perceived, psychological or physical. The Hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) which travels to the Pituitary. In response to CRF, the Pituitary releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH will travel to the Adrenal Glands, which are located just above the Kidneys. The Adrenal Glands will release cortisol in response to ACTH. There are negative feedback loops that are designed to return the body back to normal function, i.e. homeostasis, after the stress has passed.
To understand stress, we also need to look at the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is comprised of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Most people are familiar with the Sympathetic Nervous System which gives rise to the “fight or flight” response. Most people are not familiar with the Parasympathetic Nervous System which allows us to “rest and digest.”
The Sympathetic Nervous System is activated by a real or perceived threat. It will result in activation of the HPA Axis. This allows for the release of cortisol and adrenaline from the Adrenal Glands. These hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, will help activate systems in your body to prepare you to fight for your survival or run away for your survival. (2) This is advantageous if your immediate survival is at stake. However for us, our immediate survival is not often at stake, yet we get bombarded by those signals and repetitive stressors throughout the day.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System should be active when we are at rest. Activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System leads to increased heart rate, mobilization of energy stores and inhibits digestion. Once the threat has passed or you are at rest, the Parasympathetic Nervous System leads to slowing of your heart rate and improved digestion. (3) This shows that there is a connection between our brains and our guts. It also explains why it is so common for us to have gut issues when we are overly stressed. We will delve deeper into that topic in a future article.
How Can We Manage Stress
Now that we have an understanding of what is happening when we experience stress and what should happen when that stressful experience passes, what do we do about it? Knowledge and understanding can be very powerful in reducing stress because they can decrease the threat level we perceive. There are also practical things we can do to manage the stress we experience daily. Here is a short list of practical tips that are easy to do and can provide tremendous benefit.
Meditation can be very helpful in dealing with stress. It appears to help us switch “OFF” the Sympathetic Nervous System and switch “ON” the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Meditation can be performed in many different ways. You can sit quietly and focus on your breath or you can meditate while moving. There is research showing that meditation can decrease CRP (a marker of inflammation in the body) levels in patients who are battling cancer. (4) You can even use your smart phone and one of the many apps available, like Headspace, to begin meditating. There is also a weekly podcast (link) you can follow via your phone, computer or tablet.
2. Gut Health
Gut health is a diverse and complex topic that will be explored more completely in future articles. For now, we have discussed how there is Gut-Brain Connection. There also appears to be more and more people who are dealing with food allergies or sensitivities. If you are eating foods that your body does not like, then you are increasing the stress your body must handle with each meal. Figuring out what foods and what type of diet/eating plan works well with your body can greatly reduce stress and improve overall health.
There are some supplements that can be helpful in regards to stress. One such class of supplements is Adaptogenic Herbs. There are several different Adaptogens that each have slightly different effects.They seem to give our body exactly what it needs to handle the stress response with little to no side effects. Studies indicate that these herbs are linked to the HPA Axis and other mediators of the stress response. (5) It is worth mentioning that while these supplements can be quite helpful, they are only supplements. Their use needs to be combined other strategies to obtain the greatest benefit.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of items or supplements that will help you manage stress better. Stress is a complex issue and we experience it in its many forms on a daily basis. We will continue to cover stress, adrenal fatigue, etc. in the next article. In the meantime, begin a daily/weekly meditation practice. It does not have to be long, 5–10 minutes is a great place to start. Improve your gut health and stop eating foods that are increasing the load on your body. If you need help in these areas or just want to improve your health, contact me so that we can work together to empower you to be in control of your stress and your health!
This article is for educational use only. Nothing contained in this article should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This article does not constitute the practice of any medical, nursing or other professional health care advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions regarding personal health or medical conditions. Never disregard, avoid or delay in obtaining medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health care provider because of something you have read in this article. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, you should contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and are experiencing a medical emergency, you should dial 911 or call for emergency medical help on the nearest telephone.