In the modern world, stress is considered a normal part of our everyday lives. We encounter different types of stress from different situations, and our bodies react to these stressors in various ways. Smaller bouts of stress are actually good for us (e.g. exercise), whereas too much stress can have detrimental effects to our health. We might have a job that we dislike, and even just the thought of heading there day-in and day-out can be a stress trigger for some. The drive to and from work may be particularly exhausting, or you might have family troubles at home causing you stress. Being a student with mountains of homework, studying, and deadlines can be quite stressful. These stresses may keep us awake at night with our brains overthinking and anticipating another day of exhaustion, which can lead to insomnia. And this, as you can imagine, perpetuates a vicious cycle of chronic stress.
This chronic stress can lead to imbalances in every system of the body and eventually manifest as illness and even disease. It is important that we understand how stress works, how it affects us, and how to manage it to the best of our abilities so that we can remain healthy and happy.
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress refers to the condition in which an environmental demand exceeds the natural regulatory capacity of an organism. There are two types of stress: eustress and distress. Eustress is not considered damaging and is a normal psychological stress that can actually be beneficial to the person experiencing it. An example of eustress would be exercising, as it is putting stress on your body yet you are receiving benefit to your health from it. You can also view eustress as a task that perhaps isn’t too challenging though not too easy, either. It allows you to use creative and logical thinking, and ultimately improves your skills. Distress, on the other hand, would be considered a negative stress. An example would be a major injury or illness, or being fired from your job. If we are constantly experiencing this type of stress, even at low levels, it can affect our body’s balance or homeostasis.
Homeostasis refers to a state of equilibrium, or balance throughout our bodies. All living things possess this fundamental and naturally built-in feedback system which serves to maintain a stable internal environment, regardless of changes to the external environment. Different variables, such as blood glucose, temperature, and blood pH are all maintained by the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems and must fall within an acceptable range in order to stay healthy. However, when these variables change beyond this range due to external stressors, our systems engage in stress responses in order to return the body back to homeostasis.
The HPA axis translates to the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal axis, which is a multi-step biochemical pathway in which information is transmitted from one area of the body to another through a chemical messenger system. This system is self-regulating and can either enhance or suppress these messages. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands work together to regulate the stress response, among other important functions in the body.
The hypothalamus is a region of the brain that connects the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system with the pituitary gland. It essentially tells the pituitary gland to start or stop making hormones. It also plays roles in maintaining homeostasis by regulating sleep, body temperature, and hunger, to name a few.
The pituitary gland is also found in the brain, and as mentioned is regulated by the hypothalamus. It is known as the “master gland” of the endocrine system because it uses information received from the brain to basically tell all the other glands what to do. The pituitary synthesizes many important hormones, including growth hormones, prolactin (used in breastfeeding), and luteinizing hormone, which manages estrogen in women and testosterone in men.
The adrenals are a set of glands, each located on top of the kidneys. These glands are responsible for secreting various hormones that act as chemical messengers by traveling through the bloodstream to various body tissues in order to help them function properly. They are also responsible for the “fight or flight” hormones - adrenaline (epinephrine), small amounts of dopamine, corticosteroids (stress hormones), and sex hormones. These hormones affect metabolism, mood, stress levels, sexual function, and more.
THE STRESS RESPONSE
When we encounter a stressor, the hypothalamus receives signals which indicate that homeostasis might be compromised, and so it sets off a stress-response cascade. First, the hypothalamus secretes corticosteroid-releasing hormone, which is targeted for the pituitary gland. This causes the pituitary to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream and eventually binds to the adrenals. Then, the adrenals release cortisol, and this can have a widespread effect in the body, including immune suppression during the stressful situation.
Once the stressor or stimuli has been mitigated, cortisol is inhibited by the pituitary and hypothalamus, and the stress response cascade is ceased. However, if we cannot overcome the threat, the system becomes overtaxed and this can be harmful to the body and the brain. When our bodies continuously produce stress hormones, we eventually become less and less sensitive to them and this results in the system’s inability to rebalance homeostasis. Additionally, if anyone point of the HPA axis isn’t operating accurately, it can negatively impact the next series of reactions, which affects the following, and so on. This is known as HPA axis dysfunction and is the result of the body becoming desensitized to stress hormones from chronic exposure.
HPA AXIS DYSFUNCTION
So often we hear that adrenal fatigue is the result of chronic stress exposure, and is the reason behind our constant lack of energy, as well as mood and hormonal imbalances. This condition is thought to stem from the cortisol “switch” being left in the “on” position, which eventually wears out the adrenals. However, several studies claim that adrenal fatigue does not even exist, as the folks who claim to suffer from this affliction do not actually have abnormal cortisol levels. Instead, it is believed that HPA axis dysfunction is actually what’s at play. This imbalance is caused by a modification in the stress response over time - that is, after being chronically exposed to stress - and has been associated with many diseases.
Constant stress to our mind and bodies can not only make us more susceptible to disease, but it can raise our blood pressure, contribute to anxiety and depression, increase our risk of infertility, and even accelerate the aging process! We need to make sure we are taking stress reduction very seriously, and know that simply consuming coffee and sugary products to keep us awake and energized is NOT the answer, and in fact is contributing to the problem.
SIMPLE WAYS TO REDUCE STRESS
There are many things we can do to reduce the stress in our lives, or make it more manageable. How stress affects us and how we deal with it will differ from person to person, but below are some general guidelines for getting back on a healthier, happier, less-stressed path.
- Exercise regularly. Even just a 30-minute walk in nature has proven to be very effective at reducing stress. Exercise lowers cortisol levels, increases “happy” hormones, and generates an overall feeling of wellbeing. Too much exercise, however, can have the opposite affect - so be mindful of what your body needs. Yoga is a great de-stressing exercise to keep your body and mind strong and healthy.
- Research shows that even 7 minutes of meditation a day can vastly improve symptoms of chronic stress, such as anxiety and depression. Using guided meditation videos or apps is helpful.
- Get adequate sleep. Ensure you are getting 7-8 hours of GOOD QUALITY sleep – every night. Turn off technology at least 1 hour before bedtime, don’t eat at least 2-3 hours before sleep, make sure your bedroom is dark or wear a sleep mask. Drink calming and mildly sedative teas before bed, such as chamomile, lavender, passionflower, valerian, or skullcap. These can also be taken as supplements. Diffuse essential oils before bed or while you are sleeping, such as lavender and ylang-ylang.
- Get into a routine. Plan your days out so that you aren’t getting overwhelmed or stressed. Stick to a schedule if you are someone who feels like there are always things to check off the to-do list.
- Do what makes you happy. Spend time with friends and family, make time for hobbies, spend time outdoors and in nature, read a book, take a long bath, write in a journal, watch a movie, relax.
- Take adaptogens. These are herbs that can naturally help your body adapt to different types of stress. Examples are ashwagandha, rhodiola, holy basil, panax ginseng, astragalus, licorice root, red reishi, cordyceps, and more.
Author: Rejan Magee, Holistic Nutritionist. Visit her at wholeharmony.ca.
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