Updated: Jul 14, 2022
As we transition from spring to the dog days of summer, with kids home, vacation planning underway, longer days with more activities and outdoor projects, many find themselves experiencing higher levels of stress. When we try to do it all our body suffers therefore it's important to understand what stress is and how best to manage it.
What Is Stress?
Stress is defined as any situation that disrupts the body’s inner balance, scientifically known as homeostasis. Stressors, or the factors behind stress, can be natural or perceived, causing physical or psychological strain or even both. Stress management is an integral part of functional medicine because chronic stress can cause various physical, mental, and emotional problems like headaches, high blood pressure, or anxiety.
The different types of stress:
When we think of stress we often associate it with our to do list and things we are worried about however stress can come in many forms.
Stressors can be physical, like intense workouts, injuries, or surgery. Stress can also be emotionally stemming from work and life issues. It can be biological, caused by various infections in the body, such as chronic diseases, exposure to toxins, or inflammation. And it can be psychological, resulting from trauma or psychological stress. No matter the type of stress, the body will react to it the same way.
The body’s reaction to stress:
The nervous system is the quickest system to react. Automatic functions in the body like breathing and heartbeat are maintained by the autonomic nervous system, which is comprised of two distinct nerve groups: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system is the stimulator of the body. It causes alertness, an increase in respiratory and heart rates as well as blood pressure. It is the system often referred to as our fight or flight nervous system. It is preparing your body to act in the face of perceived danger. The response shifts our blood to our limbs for a quick response. This response is necessary and life-saving. However, our bodies are designed to be in this response for only a short-term for survival.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system promotes relaxation and keeps parameters like heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure low. It is often referred to as the rest and digest system as it relaxes muscles and increases digestive activities to store energy for future use. Our bodies are designed to live in this state the majority of the time.
One nervous system is not better than another. Cortisol, our primary stress hormone, is not all bad. In fact, cortisol is necessary for some of our body functions, including stimulating the liver to convert amino acids to glucose and increasing glycogen in the liver, mobilizing fatty acids into the blood, and suppressing some inflammatory responses. However, chronic stress causes an over activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which explains the state of alertness, anxiety, increased heart and respiratory rates that we experience when stressed. Stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol create problems when they remain continuously elevated. You make experience the symptoms of feeling tired and wired at the same time.
For this reason, the over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system for long periods causes many health problems. There can be consequences to living in a sympathetic dominant nervous system much of the time, and chronic headache is a perfect example. Other issues associated with continued stress are decreased bone density, lowered immune response, increased inflammation, disrupted sleep, inability to lose weight, and so much more.
As a reaction to stress, the body also diverts blood circulation to the heart, the lungs, and the brain, minimizing blood flow to other organs like the kidneys, the digestive system, or the muscles. This dynamic can also lead to constipation and other digestive issues, kidney problems, and generalized aches and pain.
Over time when your body continues to remain in a state of sympathetic dominance eventually an adrenal "crash" will occur where the body can not keep up with the lifestyle demands. This happens to protect the body from the consequences of stress hormone. At this point people tend to feel exhausted all the time.
What Can I do?
Stress has become an integral part of our modern lifestyle, but there are many ways that we can deal with it:
Lifestyle and diet interventions:
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one of the most efficient ways to deal with stress. Keeping a regular sleep schedule, making sure to exercise, and indulging in positive activities like cooking, painting, yoga, journaling, or getting massages are good ways to manage stress.
Nutrition is also an essential factor when dealing with stress. It is essential to eat a diet that is high in healthy fats, protein, complex carbohydrates, fresh vegetables and fruits, and low in over-processed products. It is important to avoid skipping meals and keep blood sugar levels steady as insulin spikes can also disrupt cortisol balance in the body. The Mediterranean Diet is a good place to start.
Supplementing with nutrients like Vitamin C, Magnesium or a B Complex can help. Many people have great success with adaptogenic herbs. However, various adaptogenic herbs help cortisol increase or decrease levels depending on the specific herb. In the case of hormones, it is always better to test rather than guess. I recommend seeing a Functional Medicine Practitioner to have your levels tested before supplementing with adaptogens to not further any potential imbalances.
Aside from lifestyle interventions, we can benefit from coping strategies. To cope with stress, we can either manage the problem causing the stress (the stressor) or learn to control our reaction to this stressing factor better.
In problem-focused coping strategies, we either try to distance ourselves from the stressing factor, or if we cannot remove it from our lives, we learn the skills necessary to manage this stressor. Such skills include: learning to set personal boundaries, time management, or even learning to ask for help when needed.
In emotion-focused coping strategies, we can learn tools to better manage our reactions to this stressor.
One of the best emotion-focused coping strategies is using the breath. Breathing techniques like deep abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which signals the mind to calm down and enter a more relaxed state. Meditation and positive visualization are also helpful, as well as progressive muscle relaxation techniques like body scan meditations or Jacobson’s progressive relaxation method.
The effects of stress on the body are numerous, hence the importance of stress management. Aside from the tools mentioned above, it’s also important to develop one’s self-awareness, be more compassionate with oneself, and cultivate meaningful relationships with friends and family.