Everyone has stress in their life, but it is our resilience and our ability to bounce back after stressful periods that is one of the most important aspects of leading a healthy life. Why is it that some people can be cool as cucumbers, and others lose hair, sleep, and perceivably, their minds?
David Hoffman states that “Stress is the response of the body to any demand.” Demands of life bring about reactions within the body, varying by intensity and by our perception of the intensity of those stresses. Stress can include unhappy worry about financial matters, but also joyous events, like a birth or a wedding.
The stress response helps us survive. It helps us run away from danger and keep ourselves safe. Our body however, cannot differentiate between the stresses that we experience today which are not necessarily life threatening, and the response that helps us run away from wild beasts that want to eat us. We are very lucky to not be living in fear of getting eaten by a tiger, or the fear of zombie apocalypse, for that matter….. But there are other things in which we perceive to be threats to our survival or general well-being. These include money and job security, family issues, and especially not to be overlooked, emotional issues.
The nervous system sees little difference between the pain of a drastic change in temperature, and the pain of the loss of a loved one. Good stress and excitement for life can be just as stressful as something traumatic. It is the body’s resilience and its ability to return to a state of homeostasis after periods of acute stress which is fundamental to our health (Hoffman, 2003). Illness itself can be a major form of stress. It could even be that the stress of an illness is perpetuating the illness!
Quick Nervous System Overview
The autonomic nervous system (the one that is responsible for all those bodily functions that we do without thinking) is divided into 2 parts. There is the parasympathetic (or the rest-and-digest) nervous system, which allows us to digest our food, and perform all the things we do when we are relaxed and content (you know- dilating the blood vessels, absorbing nutrients…..sending blood to the genitalia….all that good stuff!). The sympathetic (or the fight, flight, or freeze) nervous system on the other hand, prepares our bodies to run away from danger. When we are in sympathetic mode, our pupils dilate (to take in extra information about the surroundings). Additionally, there is a rise in blood pressure, and more blood is sent away from the internal organs and into the muscles where one is then able to make a speedy dash away from danger. Fight or flight can be initiated by fear and anxiety, and sustained stress can lead to depression and withdrawal.
Effects of stress on the body-
When you perceive a threat, whether it be real or imagined, emotional or physical, the inner part of the adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys) pump out adrenaline (activated by your nervous system). The adrenaline goes into your blood stream, and acts upon the different systems of the body causing the aforementioned sympathetic (fight-or-flight) response.
Next, the outer part (or the cortex) of the adrenals pump out cortisol. The release of adrenaline and cortisol is referred to as the “alarm” or acute phase of stress. In the short term, cortisol increases cognitive ability and immunity and decreases pain. Cortisol is also involved in glucose metabolism, appetite, mental function, immunity, and blood pressure.
Over the long term, however, the opposite can happen!
The “resistance” phase occurs when there is a prolonged period of stress (therefore increased blood cortisol) over time. This cortisol flood can lead to an increase in blood pressure, blood sugar imbalances, central weight gain, insomnia, lower bone density, immune suppression, indigestion, slow wound healing, an increase in inflammation, muscle tissue loss, hormonal imbalances, and lowered mental performance (from the stress itself, but also from blood sugar imbalances) (Cauldwell, 2013).
The “Exhaustion” phase occurs when levels of cortisol have been depleted, leading to anxiety or depression, fatigue, further inflammation, and more low blood sugar episodes.
Coping with stress:
Everyone is different, so everyone has a different way of handling the stressful periods in their lives. Everyone needs a healthy way to manage stress, but some have turned to unhealthy ways of coping (in the short-term), and these include drugs, alcohol or other addictions, all making things worse in the end.
Making sure that one is getting enough sleep is especially important, and more so if someone is experiencing adrenal burnout and exhaustion. It is ok to sleep for more than 8 hours! The body will need time to recover from all it has been through. Making sure that all electronics are off and that there are no glowing or flashing lights in the bedroom can help if someone is experiencing insomnia. Sleep deprivation can further increase cortisol levels.
Exercise enhances insulin sensitivity, improves glucose tolerance, and is a great stress-buster, but too much exercise can have negative effects by stressing the body. Always exercise and move your body lovingly, never “punish” your body by exercising, especially if you are punishing yourself for eating an extra brownie! Long walks and yoga can be just as effective as intense cardio, so don’t beat yourself up!
Taking care of your emotional, mental and spiritual life is also important, since these can all be sources of stress. Live in an environment that supports emotional stability (although this is not always accessible for everyone). It is important to connect with others and reach out for support when we are experiencing hectic times. Emotional stress is still a stress, and this Heartmath website has some useful tips about the “heart-brain”: http://www.heartmath.com/research/#emo.
“Our thoughts should be creative, life enhancing, and open to influence of intuition and imagination, rather than conceptually rigid” (Hoffman, 2003). The practice of meditation can help us be in the present, keeping us focused, and our minds away from the big list of things we need to do. Will anyone die if the list of chores is not complete by a certain time? Likely not. So let’s stop worrying about it! Without our health, those tasks will never get completed anyways! Deep breathing is a great way of controlling the stress response. Different relaxation techniques can also be helpful, such as relaxing your tongue, listening to music, or getting a massage. Being in nature is a must. Put your feet and hands in the dirt, or hug a tree!
Supplementation with a mulit B-Vitamin, vitamin C, and magnesium can be helpful. Dietary changes can also be beneficial, like cutting out sugar and caffeine, as well as incorporating more fat and protein in your breakfast to help keep those blood sugar levels under control. Eating smaller more frequent meals can help with blood-sugar imbalances. Do not skip meals, as this can cause cortisol levels to increase.
And now, saving the best for last, here are some herbal allies that can offer support during intense periods!
Adaptogens are herbs that increase the body's resistance and vitality, helping the body adapt to stresses, including environmental, emotional, mental, and physical stresses. “Adaptogens moderate stress by enabling a more rapid but less exaggerated response, allow a more sustained peak, and foster a more gradual decline by making sure the blood glucose levels do not raise too high during stressful periods, keeping it sustained for a longer period of time, then having a less precipitous drop after the stress has passed” (Hoffman, 2003). Adaptogens also help our cells to use glucose by helping it get into the cell, and also by helping the liver convert glycogen to glucose. Adaptogens also work on the hormones, and more specifically, the stress and sex hormones. Some examples of these include Siberian Ginseng, Rhodiola, Ashwaghanda, Schisandra, Reishi, Gotu Kola, and Holy Basil.
Herbs which are nourishing to the adrenal glands include Licorice Root (not to be used if the blood pressure is elevated), Rehmannia and Borage.
The nervous system is the connection between the physical and the psychological parts of our body, where perceived psychological threats manifest physiologically. This is why when dealing with stress, the nervous system needs to be addressed. In the herb world, we use herbs called nervines, which are nourishing and calming to the nervous system (Hoffman, 2003). These are especially useful use during periods of debility, stress and shock. Nervine tonics strengthen and restore nervous tissues directly. They also contribute to the healing of damaged nervous tissue. Some examples include Valerian, Skullcap, Passionflower, Oatstraw, and St. John’s Wort.
And what about that brain fog? Try some herbs for the brain (cognitive enhancers), such as: Ginkgo, Schisandra, Gotu Kola, and Rosemary, to help you focus and think clearly.
To keep those blood sugar levels under control, herbs such as Cinnamon, Holy Basil, and Gymnema can help stabilize. This could be as easy as adding cinnamon to your breakfast every morning!
The liver is responsible for processing our hormones, and is very important in regulating the blood sugar levels. If the liver is sluggish, then we can experience worse blood sugar dips. Herbs for the liver (hepatics) like Milk Thistle and Schisandra, can be great herbal allies.
Relaxant herbs which are useful include Hops, Valerian, Skullcap, California Poppy, Kava Kava, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Catnip, Motherwort, and let’s not forget the lovely Chamomile!
Now let’s all relax and enjoy a nice cup of herbal tea.
By Megan Tardif-Woolgar, Medical Herbalist
Bone, K. & Mills, S., 2013. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy, Modern Herbal Medicine. Second ed. Elsevier, London.
Cauldwell, D., 2013. Therapeutics II- The Stress Response. Pacific Rim College, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Hoffman, D., 2003. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.