Stress – Discovering the final frontier.
Stress – the final frontier. These are the chronicles of our search for that elusive thing called bliss. This would be funny if most of us didn’t resonate so easily.
We all know the feeling of stress. We are equally aware of how stress affects us individually, but what is stress? Why do we stress and what does it do to the body?
Stress has become a very broad definition for several different things. it is often described as emotional pressure and a feeling of being unable to cope with situations.
What does stress do to the body?
If we dig a bit deeper and look at what these kinds of stress do to the body, we find that external triggers cause the body to release a series of stress hormones which affect the body in the ways that we are trying to figure out.
We go into the so-called “fight-or-flight” mode wherein one can enter a state of acute awareness and might react without thinking.
This mode came in very handy when we were still hunter-gatherers. When a beast suddenly roared next to you, there wasn’t time to ask it politely to shoo away. You ran for your life and then took stock afterwards.
YouTube scare pranks demonstrate this to us beautifully – some people run. Others hit their pranksters – those are usually the more entertaining ones to watch.
So, we know why we have and need a stress response – now let’s take a look at what stress does to the body when triggered.
The brain, through the amygdala and hypothalamus, perceives danger and raises the alarm through the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system puts the body in fight-or-flight mode by releasing stress-related hormones and optimising several body systems for performance.
What the body experiences when reacting to stress
- Breathing becomes short
- Heartbeat increases
- Blood pressure rises
- Immune system activity decreases
- State of alertness heightens
- Sleepiness decreases
- Tensing of muscles
This effects allow us to react swiftly to the danger that the brain has perceived.
Three noteworthy hormones that are released by the adrenals are cortisol and adrenaline and norepinephrine.
The after effects of stress
We now enter the resistance or adaptive phase.
Once one is safe, the brain shifts into a gear where it learns how to cope with the threat and look at it more objectively. It becomes less sensitive to the effect of cortisol, although the levels of cortisol remain high.
After the perception of danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and restores the body to a calm state. It allows for the reversal of the things that the sympathetic system triggered and for the cortisol and adrenaline levels to normalise.
Why does stress affects us today
All of this is great when it comes to beasts and pranksters, but why is stress such a big thing today and why is it affecting us so much?
The answer to that lies in the fact that there are two types of stress – acute stress and chronic stress.
Acute stress is usually something that happens once-off and the fight-or-flight response is warranted – after which one can feel tired, have an upset tummy, and even a headache.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is where the emotional pressures that we face on an ongoing basis does not allow the parasympathetic system to fully return the body to a calm state, leaving us in the resistance phase and with unbalanced levels of cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine in the body and depleting the adrenals over time. This is like a slow-burning ember where the body.
An acute stress response lead to:
- Respiratory issues
- Cardiovascular issues
- Immune system issues
- Reproductive issues
- Muscle weakness
- Memory loss in elderly persons
- Depletion of amino acids, enzymes, hormones, minerals, neurotransmitters, proteins and vitamins
Because this is something that happens over time, we oftentimes don’t notice that we are burning out from chronic stress until one day we look back at what “normal” used to be. Many times we still don’t recognise the effects of stress, calling it the ageing process and accept a body that is not functioning at its optimum as normal.
So what can we do to aid our adrenals and bring stress levels back to normal state:
One can divide the options to deal with stress into three broad categories:
Lifestyle management is arguably the most important factor to address when we are burnt out by chronic stress and to tell the body that it is now safe to relax. By introducing some simple changes, we can lower our stress levels significantly:
Lifestyle - Try and remove stressors
It goes without saying that if we can remove the triggers for stress, we will have a better response:
- Get adequate sleep
Sleep allows the body to normalise your stress hormones naturally
- Avoid caffeinated beverages
These stimulants can disturb sleep, adding to the strain on your adrenals
- Avoid TV and computers or use blue light filters at least 2 hours before going to bed. Blue light from devices can lower the release of melatonin, the hormone of sleep
Exercise has many beneficial effects, including normalising cortisol levels
Eating breakfast is imperative to curb the release of cortisol, since the body needs sugar to function and with no breakfast will instruct the adrenals to release more cortisol
Diet - A healthy diet helps to combat stress
A healthy and balanced diet can contribute to lowering cortisol levels. 8 easy dietary tips are:
- Combine small amounts of whole grains with a generous portion of protein and fat at every meal and snack except at bedtime. This will ensure sustained energy is available at and between meals.
- Eat 20-25% whole grain, 30-40% above the ground vegetables (50% of which should be raw), 10-15% beans, nuts, and seeds, 10-20% animal food, 10-15% good fat, and 5-10% whole fruits (except banana and fruits in the melon family).
- Whole fruits are permitted in lunch and dinner except banana, figs, and those in the melon family.
- Sprinkle sea salt liberally onto food to provided that your blood pressure is normal. Food that is high in potassium such as bananas and dried figs can should be avoided.
- Start each morning with a full glass of water and half a teaspoon to one teaspoon of sea salt.
- The breakfast of fruits and yogurt will only worsen the adrenal fatigue sufferer. Those with adrenal fatigue usually experience an increase in shakiness after a breakfast high in fruits. A good breakfast would be high in protein and fats such as eggs and raw nuts. A very small amount of grains is acceptable.
- Eat 5-6 frequent small meals per day instead of 3 large meals
- Take in a small amount of healthy snacks high in protein and fat such as cottage cheese or nuts before sleep if there is a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night.
- Take a small amount of carbohydrates such as whole-grain bread before sleep if you have difficulty falling asleep.
It is oftentimes necessary to help out the body with supplementation after it has been through the trenches and is facing adrenal burnout. Let’s face it – after years of being stuck in resistance mode, we could all do with a little help.
Ten nutraceuticals that combat stress and help the body to reach a state of normality again:
The sitoindosides content in ashwagandha may help to counteract stress
- Vitamin C
May protect the body against the toxic effects of stress
Hydroxytryptophan may alleviate anxiety, improve mood through an increase in the feel-good hormone serotonin and also boost sleep through increasing brain melatonin
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These fatty acids may inhibit inflammation and counteract the toxic effects of stress
Excessive release of cortisol due to excessive stress may be inhibited by phosphatidylserine.
- Vitamin B5
May help the body to counteract stress
- Vitamin B6
May protect the body against the toxic effects of excessive stress
Valerian may reduce stress and improve the quality of sleep
Magnesium may alleviate stress by improving the function of the adrenal glands
Theanine may be useful the treatment of anxiety, since it can sedate the central nervous system and generate relaxing alpha waves in the brain.
With a better understanding of how stress affects the body and how we can take control of our responses to it, we can start focusing on optimising our lives and continue the mission to boldly go where no one has gone before.