Work deadlines. Mortgage payments. Food guilt. Cross-fit 7 days a week. Constant stress is a part of daily life. But how do you bust the stress mess and avoid the pitfalls of chronic stress? Modern society is ripe with dozens, if not hundreds, of everyday stressors that keep our bodies on high alert.
External stressors like work, family commitments and traffic woes are abundant. Mental stress, like worry or fatigue, can bring us down. Physical stressors include blood sugar swings, poor nutrition, food intolerances, chronic infections, inflammation and autoimmune problems.
Stress is a fact of life. Our bodies have a built-in system – the ‘fight or flight’ response – to help us deal with stress. We need this response system to prepare our bodies to survive against real threats.
Unfortunately, this stress response can go into overdrive when we’re constantly exposed to or worrying about stress! And chronic stress is unhealthy so we need to learn to bust the stress mess and calm our minds and bodies.
Types of Stress
Stress can hit us in two different ways:
- Acute stress is a temporary threat that triggers the fight or flight response when you come across a very real threat, like a knife-wielding maniac in a dark alley. Our bodies respond to acute stress only temporarily, so when the threat is gone, your body naturally returns to its pre-stress state.
- Chronic stress is the type about which we need to be concerned. Chronic stress occurs because we constantly expose ourselves to perceived threats – deadlines, too much exercise, self-criticism, or incessant worry. While perceived threats won’t put our lives in immediate danger, your body doesn’t know that and responds by activating that fight or flight response.
Fight or Flight?
When our fight or flight response is activated, the adrenal glands are stimulated to secrete our main stress hormone, cortisol. They also release another hormone, aldosterone, which plays a role in blood pressure regulation.
Cortisol stimulates the release of glucose from muscle cells so that your body has the energy it needs to, you guessed it, fight or flee. In turn, that glucose stimulates the release of insulin to help get the glucose into the cells that need it while you fend off that maniac or run like hell for help.
In other words, our natural stress response is designed to get energy ready for physical response to stressors – either fight back or run like the wind.
Perils of Modern Day Stressors
Unfortunately, most of modern-day stress doesn’t require us to exert much energy so that glucose, insulin and cortisol just circulate in the blood with nowhere to go. Chronic stress is what causes stress-related symptoms in the body and leads to the breakdown of some very critical body systems. We must bust the stress mess to regulate hormones, blood pressure and other health systems associated with chronic stress.
There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ stressors – only the type of response you have to stress! If you respond to stress positively, you’ll feel energized, focused, alert and you’ll feel like you’re able to learn and grow.
However, if your response to stress is negative, you’ll be distracted, worried, and unmotivated. If this sounds like you, learning to bust the stress mess will help avoid health issues associated with chronic stress. Plus, you’ll just feel better – calmer and more relaxed!
Why the need to Bust the Stress Mess?
Chronic stress has a HUGE impact on your health. Chronic stress creates quite the mess in your body!
Mess #1 – Increased risk of heart disease and diabetes
When your body is in a chronic state of stress, your cortisol level is chronically elevated. Cortisol is very inflammatory so this affects your cardiovascular system and increases your risk for heart disease.
Chronic stress can also lead to diabetes because cortisol indirectly triggers the release of insulin. Too much insulin can eventually sensitize cells to its effects, making them shut their doors and not open them anymore for glucose.
Elevated blood sugar is dangerous to our arteries and veins. The pancreas pumps out more insulin to try to knock down those doors and get that glucose into the cells. Insulin resistance occurs and eventually turns into diabetes.
Mess #2 – Immunity
Have you ever noticed that you get sick more frequently when you’re feeling stressed?
If your body turns on you when you most need it to be healthy and alert, don’t freak out – it’s happening because you’re chronically stressed. Bust the stress mess to boost your immunity.
When your blood has chronically high levels of cortisol, your white blood cell count and antibody formation decrease. This lowers your immunity.
For some people, though, they never get sick while dealing with everyday stressors. They can power through work deadlines, meet family commitments and keep up their crazy workout schedules. And then, when they finally get some downtime, they crash and they get the dreaded ‘vacation cold’.
The vacation cold happens because your body, while relaxed, stops producing cortisol, which then gives your immune system a break. So, while you’re on hiatus at a tropical resort, so too is your immune system. And you get sick.
Want to enjoy your next vacation? Bust the stress mess now before you hop on the airplane!
Mess #3 – “Leaky Gut.”
Leaky gut is a term that describes intestinal permeability, when the tight junctions between intestinal wall cells become weak. This weakness leads to small openings between the cells, allowing unwanted substances (i.e. food particles, bacteria, toxins) to ‘leak’ into the body.
And you don’t want this to happen!
Leaky gut leads to allergies, inflammation, toxic overload and memory and brain health issues.
Mess #4 – Sleep Disruption
I find that sleep and chronic stress are so related that it’s often difficult to tell which problem should be addressed first. Lack of sleep adds to your stress levels, but stress interferes with your sleep. It’s a nasty cycle!
Think about how difficult it can be to sleep when you’ve got thoughts running through your head. These don’t even need to be important thoughts; incessant worry over small things can be stressful and impact your ability to sleep.
Lack of sleep affects your energy, memory, thought processes, mood and appetite. And, in these states, you just end up exposing yourself to more stress through frustration, emotional issues and poor food choices!
If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep, maybe it’s time to bust the stress mess!
Mess #5 – Infertility, PMS and Early Menopause
Chronic stress impairs the liver’s ability to detoxify excess estrogen from your body. Excess estrogen continues to circulate, throwing off the delicate balance of estrogen to progesterone. Problems with fertility, PMS and early menopause become more prevalent.
Another issue that leads to hormone imbalances is known as the ‘cortisol steal’. All sex hormones and stress hormones are made from cholesterol. Cortisol, however, takes top priority – to keep you safe – so it uses up cholesterol when you’re chronically stressed. This happens at the expense of testosterone and progesterone. An imbalance in your sex hormones and ‘estrogen dominance’ occurs.
Estrogen dominance results in miscarriages, inability to get pregnant, mood swings, irritability, weight gain, hot flashes and painful menstrual cycles.
Mess #6 – Hypothyroidism
Your thyroid gland is very sensitive to chronic stress. There is this intricate connection of tissues and messengers between your hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid and adrenals (also called the HPTA axis).
The hypothalamus receives information from what’s circulating in your blood – namely, thyroid and adrenal hormones. If there isn’t enough thyroid hormone, the hypothalamus tells the pituitary to release something called Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) that, you guessed it, stimulates the thyroid to release its hormone, T4.
Bust the stress mess to balance this intricate messaging system. Low thyroid happens because cortisol suppresses the hypothalamus and pituitary signals.
T4 needs to be converted to T3 by the liver and some other tissues so that the body can use it. Excess cortisol prevents this conversion. Excess cortisol can also impact other areas of the body that affect thyroid function.
Let’s Bust the Stress Mess
I probably don’t need to tell you that to bust the stress mess you need to reduce most of the stressors in your life, right? We all know this but it’s tough to figure out what that really means.
Our lives have stress, and some stress is good. Too little and we end up bored and lethargic, unable to motivate ourselves or get anything accomplished. Too much stress and we end up sick with no explanation as to why.
But, if you think you’re chronically stressed (or have something called adrenal fatigue), you do need to figure out how to reduce your stress before it’s too late.
- Exercise less intensely and/or frequently?
- Ask someone for help with chores or commitments at home?
- Tell yourself that some things aren’t worth worrying about?
- Say ‘no’ to pressure to help others or commit your time to things you don’t have time or energy for?
- Delegate some of your responsibilities to your spouse or kids?
- Sit down and make that important decision so that it’s not weighing on you?
Figure out which stressors are your biggest pain points and handle them first. You’ll never eliminate all stress but you can learn how to approach stressful situations more positively so that they’re more of a challenge than a worry.
Practice Stress Reduction Techniques
You also need to find a few activities that actively help you bust the stress mess. You need to feel happy, calm and in control for at least 15 minutes every day. Get started today with these ideas!
- Deep breathing, especially belly breathing before bed
- A cup of herbal tea
- Child’s pose
- Yoga classes
- Mediation or affirmations
- Watch a funny movie
- Read an enjoyable book
- Take a bath
- Go for a walk outside in nature
Choose any activities that are relaxing, mindless and enjoyable to you.
Bust the Stress Mess
Chronic stress is a bigger issue in our culture than we realize. Our health is at risk by the sheer volume of everyday stressors we experience. Not only does chronic stress affect your physical body, it also affects your emotional and cognitive well-being, triggering premature aging and unhealthy choices.
To bust the stress mess, understand what stressors affect your life and find ways to reduce your stress as much as possible.
Avoid sugar, refined and processed foods, and high-fat foods. Eat a diet that contains whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, raw nuts and seeds, and some legumes and beans. Stick to whole, real food and drink plenty of fresh water each day.
Chronic stress really affects your adrenal health so supplement your diet with adrenal-friendly options like a B complex vitamin, greens powder and EFAs or fish oils.