TIRED? THIS MAY BE WHY
Stress, and its energy sucking quality, is something that I personally have struggled with over the years. Quite frankly, I was a bit stressed about writing this article, and am still suffering the consequences of a 4 year stress stint in medical school. As a naturopathic doctor, I see how stress has influenced my health as well as so many of my patients’ lives. I can only assume that being a member of the chamber, thus a business owner, has its unique set of stressors tied to it. Being a business owner in general doesn’t stop at 5 pm. Theres no real clocking out. One of the most difficult things to do can be removing your mind from thoughts of work, even when you’re not even physically there. My hope with this article is to provide you with some nerdy background information about what stress is, how it can impact our bodies, and what we can do to help mitigate its effect on our current and future health.
In 1935 Hans Selye was the first person to develop theories regarding stress and its impact on our over all function, physiology, and health outcomes. What we have learned from his research is that stress and it progressive effects occurs on a continuum known as “General Adaptation Syndrome” or GAD. This theory states that stress is a non-specific response of the body to any demand made on it. Meaning that no mater what the stressor is (ie. being faced with a bear on a trail vs. rushing to get out the door each morning vs. worry about your kids, the future or previous bad experiences), our body will have the exact same physiologic response. The continuum aspect of this is that GAD has three phases. Each phase is a progression of the physiologic impact on the body
Now, back in the 1930’s, research was conducted on rats a lot of the time. What Selye found was that when his research subjects (rats) were in the acute alarm phase their sympathetic nervous system was activated. That’s the part of our brain that tells us we are in danger and thus prepares our body to fight or flight by up-regulating the release of cortisol and adrenalin. Once the stressor is gone the response usually stops (emphasis on usually, but not always). In the resistance phase, the body (whether that be rat or human) will try to adapt to the stressor if it persists/if our minds won’t let go of it. This is where most of us who suffer from stress related conditions tend to reside. In this phase we don’t feel the same physiologic effects as we do during the alarm phase (increase heart rate, shortness of breath or quickening of breath, heightened arousal, cessation of digestive processes, and an increase in blood pressure). With these symptoms gone, it’s easy for us to think that we aren’t stressed, because our bodies are doing such a good job at adapting to it. But that doesn’t mean that your body isn’t working in overdrive to keep these symptoms at bay.
Ok, back to the rats… so what Selye found was that when they reached the exhaustion phase, their adrenal glands had hypertrophied/enlarged, their lymphatic organs/immune system had atrophied/shrunk, and they developed gastric ulcers. Not good, right? Today, this would be considered our version of burn out or end stage adrenal fatigue. At this point the body has depleted most of its resources to resistance stress and sustain proper adrenal function, which in the rats/ case leads to their overall decline in health.
Now that’s all fine and well. We all now have a pretty good understanding of what the stress response is and the stages in which we experience it. Below is some more info regarding stress, how it’s expressed in our bodies, and what influence it may be having over your general health.
Here are some of the more common symptoms we experience when dealing with chronic stress:
- Fatigue/low energy (this is often the most common presenting symptom)
- Waking not feeling refreshed
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Low stamina
- Muscle weakness
- Slow to recovery from exercise, or illness
- Difficulty concentrating or brain fog
- Increase in frequency and duration of colds and flus
- Poor digestions
- Low blood pressure
- Afternoon dip in energy (around 1-2 pm)
- PMS symptoms prior to your menses/period
- Reduced sex drive
Here are some specific systemic effects of long term stress on your body:
- Brain: Impaired serotonin transmission leading to changes in moods
- Increased production of substance P which leads to increase pain
- Pancreatic: hyperglycemia/elevates blood sugar levels. In the long term can lead to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain.
- Immune: stress suppresses your immune function which reduces your ability to fight off infections
- Thyroid: can lend to or cause hypothyroidism
- Gastrointestinal: can lead to increase permeability of intestinal cells (predisposing you to leaky gut), and decreases blood flow to your stomach lining (which can precipitate gastric ulcers).
- Reproductive: increase in PMS and potentially contributes to infertility
Alight, that’s great. By now some of you may have realized stress may be impacting you in more ways than you realized. Now what can we do about it? Well, that’s a loaded question, and as a naturopathic physician, I always try to make my suggestions to my patients as individualized as possible (individualized care is one of our first priorities). But for the purposes of a general starting point, there are quite a few things we can all do without spending a dime that can have a major impact:
- Get outside and play: it doesn’t matter what you do really, as long as you’re getting out there. We now know that compared to city dwellers, those that live in more rural areas and are exposed to nature more often have lower cortisol levels overall.
- Get into your body and out of your brain: the starting point of stress is a thought. That thought leads to an emotion, that emotion sends a signal to the adrenals glands to kick into high gear. If we can shift our focus on our physical body through meditation, yoga, going on walks, lifting weights, or progressive muscle relaxation, we will have a better chance of weakening the quick fire response between our brains and the adrenal glands.
- Get your sauna on: not only does sauna therapy detoxify, burn calories, and act as a cardiovascular workout for the heart, it is also one of the best ways to get you into rest and digest/relaxation mode.
- Just say no: there are actually current research studies that tell us those who can’t say no, have worse health outcomes than those with the same health condition, but are able to say no to things. This might mean saying no to friends who want to go for a drink because you need to netflix and chill, or saying no to letting negative people into your life.
- Be more selfish: as a mom, my instinct is to always put my daughter first. But at the end of the day that leaves me with no self care. You can always do more as a mom (or dad). I have had to learn to put myself first sometimes and allow myself that nourishment. So now, when I am tending to my many roles (mom, business person, doctor) I feel like am excelling instead of just getting by.
- Sleep it off: if you aren’t sleeping, your cortisol curve and stress responses will be thrown off. Not only that but sleep is a time for the brain to solve problems without us even knowing it, a time for recovery, repair, and brain detoxification. Without this glymphatic/detox process in place, we aren’t as resilient and may suffer with more mental health issues as a result.
- Try your best to see the sunny side: this is often a tricky one for many reasons. Mental health issues are a growing epidemic and make this very challenging. But if we are in a position to use tools like gratitude and positive thinking, the health benefits are grave. The act and practice of gratitude over time can positively influence our cortisol levels and stress response.
- Eat whole foods: this is my go to for everything. Well, nutrition AND exercise. If we are packing our diet full of whole, nourishing foods, we are literally eating our medicine. I am sure you have heard this 1000 times, but its true. Our fruits, veggies, nuts, grains, and meats (yes I said meat) are packed full of all the micronutrients we as naturopathic doctors prescribe in supplemental form. The dosing is obviously not the same. But the long term impact of eating our medicine daily is far superior to eating a typical western diet. Whether I am working with someone with mental health concerns, thyroid dysfunction, musculoskeletal complaints, gastrointestinal concern, or cortisol dysregulation, I have a food recommendation that contains the nutrients that help support the weakend system we are working on. Food is the best, isn’t it 😉
Wow, that was a lot of information. I hope your attention span lasted longer than what research is now quoting the average persons to be (8 second.yikes!). With that said, that was really all I wanted to say (and by all, I mean going a 500+ words over my original goal). But in all seriousness, stress and it impact on our ability to function day-to-day is a serious thing. And as easy as it is for me to make these suggestions, I know it is often hard to actually implement them. Not only that but sometimes they aren’t enough, and sometimes we need added support when it comes to bringing our bodies back into balance. Thats where having a solid support network comes into play. Whether that’s reaching out to friends and family, or drawing on more medically related support like a counsellor, medical doctor, or naturopathic doctor (like the ones at Restorative Health). Doing one, the other, or both are great places to start.