Stress and Your Health5 Minute Read
Stress is a response that your body uses to protect itself from danger. Your brain and hormones coordinate to make sure your body has what it needs to get away from this danger. If you come across a lion in the wild, your body needs to prioritize your organs that will help you run away or fight that lion!
Stress being put on the body can fall into two categories: acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is a short-lived response where the danger, like almost getting into a car accident, is over pretty quickly. How do you feel when this happens? Your heart races, you feel alert, and shaky. Chronic stress on the body occurs over a longer period of time and can become quite damaging to the body. You may not realize the toll of chronic stress until it has been going on for a while! It’s amazing how your body will compensate as it becomes damaged, which is why we may not feel the true effects of chronic stress for many years or even decades.
Stress can come from both internal and external sources. External sources would be anything outside of you: real or perceived dangers. For example, your boss, money issues, relationships, physical dangers, and even over exercising are all stresses on the body. Internal stresses include your diet (i.e. high blood sugar levels), infections, and exposure to toxins and heavy metals.
Cortisol and Stress
Cortisol is your main stress hormone that helps to regulate your stress response. Immediate threats, like a potential car accident will initially be controlled by adrenaline. Cortisol will kick in to control the stress response if that threat doesn’t go away immediately. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys. The release of cortisol is regulated by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, meaning the hypothalamus and pituitary are involved in controlling cortisol levels. Even though we sometimes demonize cortisol, it is a necessary hormone within the body. Without cortisol, you would not be able to survive!
Cortisol has a variety of functions and plays a role in most of our cells. Cortisol does regulate your stress response, but it is also involved in blood sugar levels and your metabolism. When you are under stress, your body will prioritize preserving your life by allowing for more glucose to enter into the blood to be used to make energy, increase oxygen uptake, and increase your heart rate. Your body will NOT be prioritizing digestion, your immune system, or reproduction while it is prioritizing those organs necessary to protect itself from the stress danger.
So, what happens to the body when it is exposed to high amounts of stress for a long period of time? Chronic stress will cause inflammation within the body, which leads to a variety of issues such as weight gain, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and decreased immune function. The heart of all chronic diseases and hormonal imbalances come from stress!!!
How can you reduce stress?
Stress is inevitable in our lives, but it is HOW we deal with stress that affects how your body will respond. We can’t always control stress in our lives, but we CAN control our response! So, let's find a solution to reducing that stress:
Find your gratitude! Gratitude for the things that we do have in life makes such a difference in your hormonal response and your cortisol levels. Interestingly, we have a part of the brain called the reticular activating system that helps to send important information to higher orders of the brain. Essentially, it helps us notice what is important to us. Do you ever notice when you see a new car that you like, you suddenly start to see it everywhere??? That is your reticular activating system at work. So, if we focus on what we are grateful for in our lives, we start to notice these things more and that will help relax your mind.
To get started with gratitude, first write down just one thing that you are grateful for each morning. That will help keep you focused on those things throughout your day! Once you get more comfortable with this, you can start a gratitude journal to help build on this activity. For example, write down why you are grateful for these things, what is something you would like to say to someone you are grateful for, or how can you further appreciate your practice of gratitude?
Meditation does not have to be difficult! It does not have to take long and all you need is a quiet place to sit. The key to meditation really is consistency. There are many apps that you can use to help you meditate and let everything go!
What you put into your body can be a huge stress! Our food itself can be full of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, preservatives, and colorings. These are not natural things we should be eating. Toxic chemicals end up creating a stress on the body because your cells become damaged AND your body has to eliminate these toxins. Your goal should be to focus on real, whole foods. A banana is real food, a box of cheesy crackers is NOT!
Eating organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, pasture-raised poultry, and wild-caught fish are other goals you can set to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals in your food. You are what you eat!
The other part of your diet that you should be on the lookout for potential stressors is your blood sugar. Eating a diet high in refined sugars will mess with your blood sugar regulation and fluctuations in blood sugar will cause cortisol spikes.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to make all of these changes at once. Take it slow and choose one thing today that you can change.
Movement helps relax the mind and it’s good for your body! This does NOT mean hardcore exercise. It means going for a walk around your block, gentle stretching, or light yoga. Exercise can also be a stress on the body. Be sure you are moving, but in a way that you ENJOY and be careful not to overdo it! Even better, if you have nice weather, get outside for movement and get some sunshine.
Better sleep will come with reduced stress, but it’s important to develop good sleep habits as you try to reduce stress. Keep your room dark and cool. Set your bedtime to be consistent every night to get your body into the habit of falling asleep at the same time. Avoid all screens at least 30 minutes before going to bed, an hour before is even better! As you reduce stress, you should have an easier time falling asleep.
Start building these suggestions into your life now to make a REAL change in how you feel! Take it one step at a time and continue to make changes as you start to feel better.