How to Live a Stress-free Life
We have all felt stress at some point in our lives, whether it’s going through a break-up, worrying about finances, being stuck in traffic, meeting deadlines, living up to our responsibilities or going through trauma. We cannot necessarily avoid these stressors in our lives, but we do have control over how we respond to them and how they affect our lives. This article will show you what stress is, how it affects us and tips on how to manage it!
What is Stress?
There are a number of ways that the body is exposed to stress. The most common categories are:
- Perceived stress determined by our unique reaction and perception of common stressors like deadlines, public speaking, finances, etc. These stressors are called “perceived” because they will not actually cause us any physical harm.
- Sleep deprivation or disrupted cycles
- Change in blood sugars when we don’t eat healthy and regular meals
- Inflammation from infection or diet & lifestyle choices
These stressors activate two pathways to produce our stress hormones (Cortisol, Adrenaline and Noradrenaline) to help you get out of harm’s way or deal with the stressful event.
- Sympatho-adrenomedulary System (SAM): SAM is our immediate “fight or flight” response to stress, like when a loud noise startles you.
- Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis: The HPA axis is used for chronic or recurrent exposure to stress, like when you’re constantly worried about finances.
These systems are very useful when we need to jump out of the way of a fast car or to give us energy and alertness during an important presentation. However, they become problematic when they are constantly being activated by every-day stressors.
How Does Stress Affect Me?
When we are exposed to repetitive stress, we move through three different stages to try to adapt.
- Stage 1 (Super Human): When exposed to repetitive stress, the body adapts by pumping out more cortisol to give us energy to complete university degrees, start our professions, provide for our children, etc. This keeps us in an energized state, but it can disrupt our sleep and cause anxiety.
- Stage 2 (Caffeinated Survival): When stress exposure lasts for years without resolution, the body needs to protect itself from high cortisol levels. The adrenals slow down its production of cortisol and we lose our energy source. We start relying on caffeine to keep us going and enter a state of “wired but tired” with fatigue throughout the day and possibly a boost in energy in the evening making it difficult to fall asleep.
- Stage 3 (Burnout): As cortisol levels continue to drop, we enter a state of complete exhaustion. It becomes difficult to get out of bed in the mornings and you can’t seem to find the energy to carry-out your responsibilities for the day.
What Can I Do About It?
In order to heal from the impact of stress, we must first correct the causes of stress.
- Perceived Stress: The body cannot tell the difference between a physically harmful threat and events that the brain perceives as threatening. These responses are greatly influenced by a history of stress or trauma, learned behaviors from childhood, and/or certain personality traits. It is very important to reflect on the perceived stressors in your life and take action to transform the way you perceive these events.
- Sleep Deprivation: Cortisol follows a natural diurnal pattern, it rises in the morning as light is let in and slowly lowers through the day to reach low levels in the evening. Appropriate and consistent sleep time is the most important way to keep your body’s natural processes in sync. The best time to sleep is somewhere between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m., you can facilitate this with supplementing with sleep aids in the evening (melatonin, magnesium, calming herbs, etc) and expose yourself to natural light or light therapy in the mornings.
- Blood Sugar Imbalance: Cortisol increases blood sugar levels to provide our cells with energy for life-saving functions. When we experience low blood sugar levels from poor meal timing or from eating refined and processed foods, this triggers the HPA axis to release cortisol and further fatigues the stress response. Make sure you’re eating whole food high in fiber, protein and healthy fats regularly to balance blood sugars and eat a wholesome breakfast!
- Inflammation: Cortisol is one of our body’s most potent anti-inflammatory agents. When there is inflammation in the body, our HPA axis is activated to release cortisol to dampen the inflammation. It is important to identify and correct sources of inflammation like food allergies and sensitivities, leaky gut, auto-immune conditions, obesity, inflammatory diet, alcohol, and infections.
Certain herbs and nutrients help during particular stages of Stress Adaptation to help support your adrenal glands and balance the HPA axis. For example, those in stage 1 require calming herbs like passionflower and skullcap, while those in stage 3 would need more stimulating and nourishing herbs like licorice root and ginseng. If you would like support in finding the right nutrients and botanicals for you to nourish your HPA axis back to balance, I recommend booking an appointment with me or with your Naturopathic Doctor to help get you started!
Yours in Health,
Dr. Smulders is a Naturopathic Doctor and offers appointments at Local Health Integrative Clinic on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Click here to book an appointment with Fiona.