We all experience stress, but some of us feel the effects more deeply than others.
Although much of the stress response comes down to individual perception, one thing is clear: chronic stress is devastating to health.
What is stress?
Our bodies mount a predictable response to stress: when faced with a panic situation, our adrenal glands – located atop each kidney – begin to secrete cortisol into the bloodstream.
This hormone increases heart rate and breathing rate, and diverts blood flow away from the core of the body to the limbs. Placed within the context of our ancestral history, this is an appropriate and potentially life-saving response. When faced with a saber-toothed tiger, our cardiovascular, nervous and muscular systems must jump into overdrive to flee quickly.
This stress response in today’s world, however, is sometimes quite maladaptive. The same physical reaction can be triggered by jammed-up rush hour traffic. There is no opportunity for escape in this scenario. The temporary increase in strength and speed is only realized as frustration and high blood pressure.
The biggest problem is that our modern world provides stress all day, every day – a situation we are poorly adapted to. While our ancestors relaxed around the communal campfire after escaping the tiger to tell their epic story of survival, we rarely give ourselves the time to unwind. Additionally, there are many hidden stressors in our lives that may go unnoticed by our conscious selves, but continue to wreak havoc on our internal systems.
There are many common life stressors felt by most people in the modern world.
Work, deadlines, family, and money issues can all stimulate the stress response. On top of those perceived stresses, our bodies are taxed by pollutants and toxins in the environment, food and water. Dysregulated blood sugar is more than a source of hunger and irritability – the body perceives both high and low blood sugar as an emergency and this elicits a stress response. Inflammation from allergenic and processed foods, high sugar and alcohol consumption and sleep deprivation are all stressful on the body, as is lack of exercise.
Over time, this state of being on constant high alert can have catastrophic effects on the body and health. The body is well equipped with emergency mechanisms to protect itself, but sometimes these seem counterintuitive. When individuals are constantly over-consuming carbohydrates, and thus continually spiking insulin levels far beyond normal levels, the cells become “insulin resistant” as a protective measure. Similarly, the body can become “cortisol” resistant. The adrenals are still producing cortisol, but the body cells are no longer able to receive as much.
At this point, people begin to feel chronically fatigued. They sometimes turn to sugar or caffeine as stimulants. Other signs that the cortisol system is breaking down are having a “flipped” circadian rhythm – being very tired and a slow starter in the morning, but being up at night, having back pain when tired, getting very sleepy in the afternoon, feeling chronically tired or having trouble adjusting to bright light. If any of these sound like you, it’s time to take action! There is no need to go through life stressed and exhausted.
The number one step to relieving chronic stress and healing its effects is to remove stressors.
There are several ways to do this. The first is obvious – get them out of your life. Which chemicals can be eliminated from your home? Check your household cleaners and body care products, and replace them with gentler, more natural alternatives. Drink only filtered water. Ditch chemical and sugar-laden processed foods. Throw out your perfumed room fresheners. Turn off wifi in your house at night. Move more through the day and get fresh air. Commit to staying outside at least 15 minutes on sunny days.
Most of us do not have the option to quit our jobs and move to Fiji – but if you do, you should! Jobs and bills are typically a fact of life, but mindset makes a world of difference. If you are unhappy with your employment or your hours, try making the decision to just like your job. Consider who you are helping or the difference you are making. Try excelling or committing to mastering your trade. If those are not possibilities, find gratitude. Consider the freedoms your paycheck gives you that you may not have without it. These simple reframing practices can be applied anywhere in life. Choose optimism, and your health will follow.
Finally, it is important to simply find time to relax. Sorry, vegging with social media is not it. For many people, social media is another one of those hidden stressors. In fact, it is likely that social media time is actually taking away from potential relaxation time. Reducing online time and replacing it with real-life activities with family and friends, a yoga class, a meditation practice, or just a walk outside will pay back in dividends with health and happiness.
Our world today is stressful, but you do not have to be a victim.
Small, daily choices can be the difference between being crushed by stress and thriving with vibrant health.
Weatherby, R. (2004.) Signs and Symptoms Analysis from a Functional Perspective. Bear Mountain Publishing: Jacksonville.
Kresser, C. (2017.) The Myth of Adrenal Fatigue. Revolution Health Radio. chriskresser.com/myth-of-adrenal-fatigue/
Sara Kennedy is a certified Nutritional Therapy Consultant. She lives fitness, nutrition and wellness – and wants to help save lives and change the world’s view on health and nutrition. Learn more about Sara and her plans at thriveak.com. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.