Stress can come in many different forms.  Yes, there are some obvious forms of stress: being fired from a job, divorce, a cancer diagnosis, and death of a family member are obviously incredibly stressful events.  However, positive events, like a wedding, promotion, or a birth of a child can be stressful too.  There is a large spectrum in which stress can lie. 

Physical or emotional stress can threaten homeostasis.  Homeostasis is the body’s ability to maintain or reach equilibrium, or balance.  Whether we know it or not, the body is constantly responding to external and internal stimuli, including stress, to reach and eventually maintain homeostasis.  Reaching this balance allows us to function at our best, increasing our chances of survival.

Luckily, we each have a variety of mechanisms in place to help manage and respond to stressors. All our systems, from cardiovascular, to endocrine, to neurological, to immune, to digestive, so on and so forth, help us maintain this balance known as homeostasis.  These mechanisms collectively are known as the “stress response.”

Stress helps us deal with acute situations, like meeting a deadline or running from a sabertooth tiger, more effectively.  However, it can become dangerous when we expose ourselves to constant acute stressors, or chronic stress.  These can cause an overload, and it compromises both our ability to handle stress and our overall health.

Added stress can play a role in many chronic disease processes.  There are studies that suggest continuous stress can play a role in the development and proliferation of disease

Increased stress on the body means increased levels of cortisol.  Cortisol is the main stress hormone in the body, which is necessary in certain situations.  However, problems can arise when there is too much cortisol!  Excess cortisol can lead to carbohydrate cravings, particularly high-sugar carbohydrates, and can turn into storing fat around the midsection.  In other words, you can gain weight due to stress even if you are eating the same amount of food!

Some stressors that can lead to a chronically elevated stress response include:

  • Poor sleep
  • Poor nutrition (including crash dieting)
  • Stressful experiences
  • Environmental toxins
  • Toxin exposure (fragrances, makeup, pesticide usage, molds, etc.)
  • Surgery
  • Adverse childhood events
  • Reliance on stimulants, like energy drinks or caffeine
  • Negative attitude/mood
  • Pain
  • Food sensitivities
  • Prolonged exposure to stressors (poor relationships, financial stress, etc.)

In order to help improve stress-related concerns, it is important to understand how the body regulates the stress response with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or the HPA axis.

https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php%3Ftitle%3DFile:HPA_axis.jpg&rct

The HPA axis is responsible for the production of cortisol, and other steroid hormones.  It consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland (the anterior portion), and the adrenal gland.  Proper function of the HPA axis relies on all the components of the axis working and communicating effectively.  This allows us to reach and maintain homeostasis and regulate cortisol levels.  They are managed by a series of feedback loops.

The mechanisms that make the HPA axis work are the same for everyone, but how they function can vary.  A variety of factors can affect how well the HPA axis functions, including neurotransmitter activity, environmental factors, genetic variations, stressful events early in childhood, and overall day-to-day stress levels.

When we are exposed to a stressor, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF, also known as corticotropin-releasing hormone, CRH).  When CRF binds to the anterior pituitary gland, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is released.  When ACTH binds to the adrenal cortex (part of the adrenal glands), it releases cortisol into the bloodstream. 

Once the bloodstream is concentrated with enough cortisol, cortisol exerts a negative feedback effect on both the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, slowing the release of CRF and ACTH respectively.  This is how the body maintains homeostasis via the stress response.

Normally, exposure to cortisol is short and effective, as the stress response is able to do its job and regulate itself.

However, when we are repeatedly exposed to stressors, the negative feedback loops begin to malfunction, meaning cortisol levels can become chronically high.  Therefore, it is crucial to support healthy cortisol release and maintain the sensitivity of the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. 

In terms of supplements, there are a few options that can be helpful in addressing stress and sleep issues, including lavender, kava, passionflower, and valerian.   Adaptogenic herbs, like ashwaganda, holy basil, and rhodiola are great for addressing the stress response overall.  These are all slightly different, and have different side effects, so try them and see which one works best for you.

In addition, there are other practices you can employ to help regulate the stress response:

Practice meditation. Try to recall times you felt loved and appreciated.  Reflect on them.  Recall how you felt when you were loved and appreciated at that time.  Look back on this at least once a week, and cherish the times you were happy with others.  Reflecting will help you appreciate all the great people and moments you have had in your life.

Relax and let go.  Life is hectic nowadays, and there’s not much you can do to avoid all the commotion.  Even when you might think you are relaxed, other things might be on your mind.  Things like work, family, friends, and other commitments tend to creep back in.  Do yourself a favor and allow yourself some time to really unplug.  Ditch the cellphone, computer, and TV completely for a bit.  Even if it just for five minutes a day, make sure you spend it completely free of distractions. 

Find your creative side.  Having a creative outlet gives you a method of self-expression you would not otherwise have.  Find something you truly enjoy, and explore your own methods of creativity. 

Focus on your breathing.  Try breathing only through your nose slowly and steadily into your abdomen.  Monitor if you snore, yawn, or mouth-breathe, and make an effort to consciously change this.  When people are stressed out, they tend to breathe at a faster and more shallow rate.  You should be taking slow, deep breaths into your belly.  This is a fantastic way to relieve stress and can help you think more clearly.

Monitor your sex life.  Believe it or not, your libido can be affected by your overall health.  There are many studies out there that point to the correlation between heart disease and diabetes with erectile dysfunction (ED) in men, for example.  Research indicates oxytocin, which is a hormone that is released after orgasm and other intimate acts (cuddling, holding hands, simple touch), has soothing qualities and can uplift your mood.

Reduce your usage of social media.  While it may not seem like it, social media is more likely stressing you out than calming you down.  Stress levels go up when you are on social media for a few reasons. 

First off is the blue light exposure, which is more of an issue when scrolling through social media or favorite news outlets at night.  Secondly, you may get into arguments, fights, or read upsetting posts without another means to process your information.  It is fine to go on your social media once or twice per day. 

Use this time instead to actually spend time your friends and family in real life.  This is a great way to reduce stress levels, as you will gain a sense of security and connectedness with people in the real world. 

Environmental stresses are a major issue as well.  From the air we breathe to the water we drink, there is simply no way to avoid all the toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis.  However, we can take steps to minimize our exposure and lessen the burden on the liver and our detoxification pathways.  Here are some simple changes you can make to lessen this burden:

Use a water filter.  Bottled water is harmful for the environment and is usually of poor quality following the packaging and shipping process.  Bottled water companies do not have disclose where their water comes from, or what materials are used in making the bottles themselves!  Additionally, a shower water filter can also be helpful.  Shower filters will remove all the chlorine from your water.  Chlorine can be harmful to your skin, lungs, and hair.  You will be surprised how quickly you will feel the difference in your skin and hair once you install one of these filters.  You can find out what is in your tap water by going to https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/ and plugging in your zip code.

Clean your air ducts and furnace filters.  These should be cleaned at least every two years, as build up can lead to toxins in your air supply. 

Avoid herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides.  These products kill soils, deplete nutrient stores, and are everywhere nowadays.  They are in our food, workplaces, schools, backyards, parks, the list goes on.  You can begin by making changes in your own home.  Weeds and other lawn invaders can be killed with a vinegar-water solution.  Healthier soils lead to healthier plants. 

It is almost impossible to eliminate all stress for good, but there are a variety of strategies that can put into place to help minimize the stress in our lives and improve our ability to cope with it.  Stressors in our life trigger stress responses in the body, and these can disrupt normal balances.  By employing some of the strategies outlined above, you can help normalize the HPA access and the stress response overall.

Disclaimer

Though based in research, personal, and clinical experience, the opinions in this article should not be taken as medical advice. The information is designed for educational purposes only and is not designed to diagnose, treat, or cure disease.  Botanical medicine and nutraceuticals should be treated with the same caution and care as pharmaceuticals, as both have the potential for strong, potentially adverse effects and allergic reactions. Please consult a trained, licensed health care practitioner before proceeding.  Neither the publisher nor the author takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person reading or following the information in this book. All readers, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition or supplement program.

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