First the bad news - Stress will most likely remain part of our daily lives. Stress is unavoidable even more so in these challenging times of a pandemic! Unfortunately, stress is not only threatening our immune system, our relationships, and our emotional balance, but our health in general.
On the other hand - when you are a first responder to an accident or jump out of the way of an approaching bus your stress reaction is lifesaving! Your adrenal glands produce much needed hormones to contract your muscles, raise your blood pressure and your blood sugar to enable you to react as quickly as possible. The vessels in your lungs are widened to provide you with more oxygen. Energy consuming processes such as digestion or an immune response are halted.
There is a thin line between a healthy stress reaction and chronic stress. What some people experience as life-threatening is a welcome challenge for others. Some people thrive under a certain amount of stress, others feel stressed out by the little things. There are abundant reasons to feel stressed out - financial struggles, unsatisfying work situations, loneliness, noise, health issues, and trauma. Social media, hundreds of e-mails a day, unanswered phone calls add on to this endless list.
However, stress also has a lot to do with perception as well as with expectations towards ourselves. We juggle work, the kids, the household and our relationships, always afraid to lose a ball, always striving to be the best mom, the best partner, employee, boss, not having a moment to breathe… but wait a minute… who is in the driver seat of your life? Although, it often feels like the world is running our life story, I truly believe that we are able to rediscover the master switch for our life. How we “perceive” what life throws at us, how we deal with expectations, how we “manage” our everyday stress, and give ourselves permission to relax and recharge is crucial for our emotional and physical well-being.
Now let’s have a closer look at the stress reaction, the classical fight or flight response. It is “run” by our sympathetic nervous system which is part of the so-called autonomic system. It regulates a variety of body processes which happen without conscious effort. For our bodies it makes no difference if we encounter a lion or realize that we have forgotten to pick up the kids from school… our stress reaction is the same as it was in ancient times. As mentioned above your adrenals produce stress hormones, which
trigger a cascade of reactions such as increased blood sugar and blood pressure … the only difference being that in former times we would have had a little rest under a tree afterwards. Our cortisol levels would have normalized, our digestion and our immune system would have started working again until the next predator showed up…
Not so in our so-called modern times. The traffic jam on the way to that school, project deadlines, challenging relationships, mortgage payments, all these are difficult to fight off or run away from. Most probably they keep coming back again and again and we feel stuck in a not so lovely version of the movie Groundhog Day. In consequence chronic stress is omnipresent and will continuously elevate our cortisol levels, and here is where the damage is done. With overexposure to stress cortisol is flooding our system which may lead to constantly high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar and a weakened immune system. Over time we might even face Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or cancer.
Elevated cortisol levels also have an impact on our hormonal balance, our sleep patterns as well as on our brain and tissue health. As Cortisol is necessary for survival, our bodies promote its production before anything else. Unfortunately, Cortisol is made of the same building blocks as Estrogen, Progesterone, Testosterone and many other hormones. This endangers the production of those hormones potentially causing emotional imbalances, thyroid disorders, or sexual dysfunction.
This can also lead to a hormonal rollercoaster, especially in Perimenopause, typically resulting in hot flashes, insomnia, osteoporosis, weight gain and much more. One of the most notable effects of chronically elevated cortisol is an increased appetite and cravings for sweet and salty foods. Moreover, such Cortisol favors fat storage instead of muscle mass, resulting in unexpected weight gain especially around the waistline.
Additionally, Cortisol influences our circadian rhythm. It should be the highest in the morning and decreasing in the evening, so the production of melatonin can set in. If levels are constantly high, Melatonin production will dip, and you will be too wired to fall asleep. On top, constantly elevated Cortisol levels can cause cognitive impairment and are meanwhile strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
What can we do when we are too stressed out to sleep, feeling cranky and overwhelmed? How do we get back at the helm of our health, our life?
As the sympathetic nervous system is regulating the stress response there is another system which doing the opposite – the parasympathetic nervous system. It stimulates digestion, relaxation, and healing. Calming our hearts and minds supports our long-term well-being. The parasympathetic nervous system is controlled by the Vagus nerve which is the only of our cranial nerves which has a direct connection from the brain to the body, precisely to our digestive system. It is often called the gut-brain axis. We all know it when we have that special gut feeling, which we probably should listen to… New scientific research actually suggests that stimulation of the Vagus nerve can regulate uncontrolled inflammation.
What strategies are best to support our parasympathetic nervous system and to manage our stress?
For a start, we have to allow ourselves to be not as perfect as we or we think others want us to be. A homecooked meal doesn’t have to be as complicated as a five-star dinner, and often can be accomplished in the same time you need to drive to your favorite take-out. Is that fancy car you always wanted worth the extra hours at work leaving you too tired to play with kids? Most e-mails, Facebook posts and household duties can wait a while. If you will ask your significant other if they rather have a perfectly clean house, and a stressed-out wife/husband or if there is a little dust here and there but you are relaxed. What do you think they would answer?
It is necessary to question what is really important to you and to commit to nourish your body and soul! Research at the Alberta Cancer Board has shown that mindfulness-based exercises like Yoga, Chi gong, or Meditation result in fast stress reduction significantly and rapidly improving overall stress symptoms and sleep quality. You might think “I have no time”, but in fact there are many high-quality mindfulness breathing meditations out there (Fitbit, Calm, YouTube etc.) which span from 5 minutes to half an hour. Why not invest 5 minutes a day, before you get out of bed or into bed to create a significant difference?
Proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep also play an important role in lowering your stress levels. Eventually consider supplementation especially if you feel you are at your limits.
If you can only do one thing in each category I recommend:
1. Do a 5-minute breathing exercise before you get out of and/or into bed (e.g. Megan Winkler 5-Minute Breathing Exercise)
2. Reduce sugar, sugary beverages etc.
3. Go for a walk on your lunch break or after dinner
4. Go to bed at the same time every night
5. Get your Vitamin D levels checked*
*you will have to pay about 40 Dollars for that test, but as Vitamin D is important for your bone strength, your mood, and your immune response it is worth the invest. Don’t get tempted to just add it to your regimen, as an overdosage can be potentially dangerous. Always consult first with your MD, ND or R.H.N.
If you are able to do three things in each category:
· Do a 5-minute breathing exercise before you get out and/or into bed (e.g. Megan Winkler 5-Minute Breathing Exercise)
· Enroll in an online Chi Gong, Yoga or Relaxation
· Check your cellphone less frequently, unless needed for work. For instance, check your phone only every two hours. Don’t let the phone or social media rule your life!
· Skip the sugar
· Add as many vegetables, fruits and herbs to you diet as possible, preferably organic to enhance your enzymes (digestion) and to increase the amount of antioxidants
· Stay hydrated, drink as much as 2 liters of water a day, preferably between meals
· Go for a walk. The more time you can invest the better
· Incorporate some strength training into your routine, 2-3 times a week, e.g. Zumba toning
· Add some moderate cardio exercise 2-3 times a week
· Go to bed at the same time every night
· Keep your bedroom dark and cool
· Avoid watching TV, work on the computer/phone 1 hour before you go to bed. Their blue light interferes with the production of Melatonin.
· Get your Vitamin D levels checked
· Consider a good Multivitamin* supplement.
*If you take any medication, please consult with your doctor on side effects, before taking!
· Consider adding more Magnesium to your regimen. Magnesium plays a crucial role in your body such as supporting muscle and nerve function especially in stressful situations. Nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables like spinach are good natural sources.
If you consider supplementation please consult with a health practitioner, as Magnesium can be harmful when overdosed and interacts with several medications.
It doesn’t matter where you start, it is more important that you stick to your new routine. Even if you can do only one thing consistently it will spark your life on the long run! For more inspiration on each topic checkout my blog: www.4yourhealthonly.com
The above can only touch the complex stress management. If you would like to further explore your individual status and get to know how to achieve your very own balance in life, I will be happy to accompany you on that journey to claim your life back.
Please feel free to give me a call at 905-580-9946 or check-out my website www.4yourhealthonly.com
I will be there for you,
The information on this page is NOT intended as medical advice, nor is it intended to replace the care of a qualified health care professional. This content is not intended to diagnose or treat any diseases. Always consult with your primary care physician or licensed healthcare provider for all diagnosis and treatment of any diseases or conditions, for medications or medical advice as well as before changing your health care regimen.