Stress kills. No, really… Even if a person has all the other factors right, high levels of stress can derail health. Unfortunately, just knowing stress is a problem doesn’t fix it. If you’re like me, the need to reduce stress just adds another item on the “to-do” list. Laundry… check. Dishes… check. De-stress… not so much.
What Stress Does
Chronic stress keeps stress hormones elevated, suppresses the immune system, and can put you at higher risk for heart disease or cancer. High stress levels over extended periods of time put you at higher risk for many diseases and can shorten your lifespan.
Elevated stress hormones will interfere with the body’s ability to properly digest and assimilate food, and lowers insulin sensitivity, which can lead to weight gain or pre-diabetes.
Factors besides just mental or emotional stress can create the same physical reaction. Toxins from our food, water and air can create a stress reaction in the body, as can an unhealthy diet or lack of sleep.
What Causes Stress?
Stress reactions and activation of the stress hormones can be caused by physical, emotional/mental, or chemical factors. Bad news for us, since these sources are abundant these days! Emotional stress we are all familiar with (those of us who have been pregnant, perhaps more so!). Physical stress can come from obvious factors like injury or trauma, but also from less obvious sources like poor diet, lack of good fats (which are needed for proper hormone production), and lack of sleep (repeat: lack of sleep can cause physical stress!).
Chemicals put undue stress on our bodies too, and can come from food and water sources, environmental toxins, and products we purposefully put on our bodies (like deodorants and personal care products). Add up all these factors, and it is quite logical that we are under more stress these days than when life or death situations (like invaders, wild animals or famine) presented themselves daily, and we don’t know how to get rid of the stress.
Poor diet, which often includes lack of nutrients (making the body think it is in famine mode) and concentrations of toxins (diet coke anyone?) causes a legitimate stress on the body and can interrupt normal bodily functions.
What Stress Does to the Body
As I mentioned before, stress causes reactions in the body that prepare it for danger situations. In the absence of true danger situations, this means that the body still operates without some normal functions. For instance, the body uses progesterone to manufacture cortisol in the adrenals during periods of stress. Progesterone is also needed for the body for successful ovulation and hormone balance (not to mention carrying a pregnancy). Ovulating wouldn’t be a priority for someone running for her life, but for a woman with chronic low level stress who wants to conceive, this can be devastating.
The stress reaction is controlled by hormones, and the endocrine system functions as a whole rather than in isolated parts, chronic stress affects much more than just the adrenals. An overabundance of adrenaline and cortisol can interrupt other hormones like serotonin, melatonin, and fertility hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, lutenizing hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, etc.) and cause problems like anxiety, depression, insomnia, muscle problems, infertility, and menstrual disturbances.
Prolonged stress also contributes to aging and weight gain, which I am not a fan of myself. Weight gain around the mid section (especially in women) is actually often a symptom of impaired adrenals and the low progesterone that results. In these periods of chronic stress caused by not sleeping enough, not eating quality foods, inadequate exercise, and mental/emotional stress, the body will let certain aspects of health deteriorate because it thinks it is keeping you alive in a period of danger (more danger than a missed deadline at work!).
When Stress Made Me Sick
Stress and sleep are the big gaping holes in my own health. Sure, it’s easy to write about them, and I know what I need to do to optimize them, but with four little ones, a blog, and a part time job I do from home, the execution is often difficult.
Several years ago, my stress reached a level that drastically impacted my health. My husband had an emergency appendectomy and that the doctor said his appendix had likely been calcified since childhood.
The original surgery required a 2-day hospital stay (and it was the first time I’d left my baby overnight). He came home and felt awful for another week. He wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping well, and couldn’t do anything.
At his follow up appointment, the doctor discovered that he had a secondary infection that he’d picked up in the hospital. They found an abscess where the appendix had been and drained about 8 ounces of puss from it. They put in a drain that stayed for about a week.
A culture of the puss revealed 4 types of bacteria (picked up in the hospital) including the flesh eating bacteria c-diff. This time, he had to stay in the hospital for 8 days, and was on IV broad spectrum antibiotics every 6 hours. (I cringed for his poor gut every time they brought them in!)
For me, this meant another week of being away from the kids, and in the hospital with him. When I started getting a sore throat and flu-like symptoms, I was put on an antibiotic too, to make sure that I hadn’t picked up any of his resistant bacteria and that I wouldn’t carry it home to the kids.
He finally got discharged from the hospital, and both of our symptoms were clearing up, so we got to go home. He was still under the weather, and hadn’t been able to work for about a month thanks to the surgery and infection, so I was taking care of the kids, the house and him, plus trying to keep up with both of our work deadlines to make ends meet financially.
I was definitely stressed…. to say the least, but I’d always worked well under pressure, so I brushed it off and figured I’d relax and catch up on sleep when things got back to normal.
Then, I started having numbness in my fingers, toes and lips, and my heart was racing. My blood pressure and pulse were high and I was shaking. I called the doctor, since I’d had allergic reactions to antibiotics in the past, and was afraid I was having an allergic reaction.
The doc checked and told me that none of these symptoms were listed as side effects or allergic reaction symptoms to this antibiotic, and asked what my stress level was…
After a follow-up, it turns out that I was on the verge of a panic attack… The remedy? Learn to relax and reduce stress (yeah, right, I’ll just add that to my to-do list).
Since then, things have calmed down, my husband is doing much better, the kids are sleeping normally again, and my blood pressure is back to normal, but my brush with it all really re-enforced how much stress can affect your physical health.
How To Reduce Stress and Feel Better
We all know that reducing stress is important to optimal health, but how do we do it, practically speaking? Since we can’t truly function at our best with chronic stress, this is an important factor to address in the quest for good health.
1. Eat Real Foods
You’ve heard this one a lot if you’ve read anything else around here, but it rings true again. Poor diets full of processed foods, grains, sugars, and chemicals put a tremendous stress on the body. For many people (Some experts estimate close to 85%) grains can put a huge stress on the body as they can cause an immune reaction, damage the intestinal lining and lead to serious disease. Excess carbohydrates can cause this problem too, since if the sugars in carbohydrates cause increased insulin if they aren’t immediately used as fuel.
For a stress-reducing, adrenal nourishing diet, focus on getting your nutrients from fresh, real foods in as close to their natural source as possible. Drink a lot of water and avoid the caffeine.
2. Avoid Toxins
This step goes along with the step above, as unfortunately, our “food” supply can be a major source of toxins. Other sources of toxins include chemicals in toothpastes, personal care products, deodorants, medicines, and cleaning chemicals. Our exposure to large amounts of plastic, especially plastics that have been heated in the microwave, can also cause toxic build up in the body. If the body is in a state of stress, the liver and kidneys are also not functioning optimally, making toxin removal slow and ineffective.
Top steps for reducing toxins include:
- using only natural beauty and personal care products
- avoiding plastics and storing food in glass
- drinking enough water to make sure toxins are being flushed out
- avoiding processed foods full of chemicals
- using only natural cleaning products
- avoiding environmental toxins like pesticides and herbicides
Sleep is one of the most important steps in stress reduction, and the one we are worst at. Historically, the body is used to sleeping when it is dark and being awake when it is light. When we stay awake long after the sun has set and don’t get enough cumulative sleep, we interrupt the body’s natural time for restoration and removal of toxins. The optimal time for regeneration during sleep is roughly between 10 P.M. and 2 A.M. Many people don’t sleep during part or all of this time, causing a backup of toxins and hormones in the body.
The body also has a delicate balance of hormones and depends on serotonin and melatonin to regulate good sleep and alertness during the day. Lack of sleep or interrupted sleep can disrupt the balance of these hormones, making you groggy during the day and restless at night. Poor sleep can also (logically) lead to fatigue, brain fog, memory troubles and additional stress on the body.
4. Learn to Say No
Another logical step that we are all bad at (me especially). I’m not just talking about saying no in a parenting sense (though that could be good too… I recommend “No, you many not eat that candy bar/happy meal/ding dong/fill in the blank”) Many of us have a commitment list as long as our arms, and the stress level to prove it. It is wonderful to help out whenever we can, but make sure you make yourself a priority and realistically evaluate what you can handle while keeping stress low and quality family time high. (Confession: I am really bad at this step myself!).
Exercise is really helpful in reducing stress in the body. It releases endorphins, helps the body regulate insulin and improves hormone levels. Exercise also boosts your immune function and helps the body use up excess stress hormones. Try to mix it up and try weights and high intensity exercise instead of strict cardio.
6. Get Enough Good Fats
Fats are present in every cell in your body and are necessary for enzymatic reactions and hormone production. There are many kinds of fats, and while your body will use whatever it has, some are certainly more beneficial that others, and some are flat out dangerous. Your body needs saturated fats (coconut oil and animal fats) to produce new cells, manufacture hormones, coat the lungs, for optimal brain function, and many other reactions. The body also needs quality fats to produce, utilize and store vitamin D, a necessary nutrient for immune function and disease prevention. A low-fat diet can actually be a stress on the body, as it won’t have the raw materials it needs to function at its peak.
7. Consume Antioxidant Rich Foods
Many herbal teas contain antioxidants and other nutrients that help reduce stress.
8. Balance Your Hormones!
If your hormones are out of balance, there will be stress on your body even if you are not mentally stressed. Balance your hormones to help de-stress from the inside out.
How do you reduce stress? Share below!