“But I don’t feel stressed,” I hear frequently. Such is the dilemma of our age. Our bodies our stressed yet we don’t consciously recognize it. We think of stress as the feelings of worry, anxiety and fear. It is true that those feelings definitely are stress, but it is so much more. Stress is a specific biochemical response to perceived threats—mental or physical.
Stress causes disease. The longer I practice the more I am made aware of this.
What constitutes stress?
Most recognize worry, anxiety, fear, and feeling overwhelmed as stress, but did you know that multi-tasking has a similar chemical effect on the body? Boy if that doesn’t describe our lives!
Illness, toxins, and poor diet are all physical stressors that are easily understandable, but did you know that over-training with well-meaning exercise has the same chemical effect on the body?
Signs of stress
Feelings of constant alarm, being on edge, and anxiety are signs of stress. Some of the physical findings include poor sleep, headaches, weight gain (especially around the waist) and susceptibility to infections. A more subtle sign is hypothyroidism that is difficult to manage.
The History and Science
Pre-historic man had two main states of being—rest and alarm/fight. The rest phase was with family, tribe, eating, sleeping, “life is good”. The alarm/fight phase was brief periods of intense activity, either to catch food, or flee from becoming food to a predator.
The rest phase is dominated by the parasympathetic nervous system, while the alarm/fight phase, also known as “fight or flight”, is dominated by the sympathetic nervous system. Norepinephrine and cortisol are the dominant neurotransmitter and hormone of this phase. These chemicals increase heart rate, and raise blood sugar to provide food for an impending chase. Following the brief periods of fight or flight, there is (supposed to be) a recovery phase of returning to normal.
What happens with prolonged sympathetic dominance—when there is no recovery phase? Elevated cortisol wreaks havoc by irritating the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain, causing memory loss. It also causes intestinal hyperpermeability (aka leaky gut), insulin resistance, and thyroid dysfunction.
These are significant. Intestinal hyperpermeability allows foreign substances access to the body through gaps in the intestinal lining. This alarms the immune system causing inflammation. A prolonged alarmed immune system is at risk of targeting body tissues instead of bacteria, viruses and cancer… The result is auto-immunity, which happens to be on the rise in our society.
Insulin resistance is a condition where you may have normal blood sugar, but in order to KEEP it normal, your pancreas has to make significantly more insulin than your neighbor who does not have insulin resistance. Insulin tells your body to store fat and not let it go, making weight loss very difficult. Elevated insulin causes inflammation and is a risk factor for heart disease and some cancers.
Stress affects thyroid function negatively. High cortisol causes the pro-hormone thyroxine (T4) to be converted to the inactive hormone Reverse T3 (RT3) instead of the active hormone Free T3 (FT3). In this case, unless your physician is looking specifically at RT3 and FT3, he or she will tell you your thyroid is FINE, because your T4 is normal. Thyroid is a hormone and it, like all hormones, acts on the receptor very intimately, like a hand in a glove. The cell receptor, that stimulates cellular energy is like a right-handed glove. FT3 is a right hand and RT3 is a left hand. Elevated cortisol promotes RT3 formation instead of FT3. You feel hypothyroid. A left hand does not fit well into a right-handed glove. Period.
What can you do?
Here are two simple (notice I did not say “easy”) tools to reduce cortisol and norepinephrine levels, promoting the rest-and-repair, parasympathetic-dominant state. And they don’t need to cost a lot of money.
1–Learn to relax. Incorporate a daily routine of gratitude and meditation. I have heard this called “the classroom of silence”. It is so important. Meditate, read a short passage, journal three things you are grateful for, pray. There are guided meditations available online that are 10-15 minutes, and are available in spiritual and multiple religious themes. Two of my favorite books are “The Book of Awakening” by Mark Nepo and “The Rhythm of Life” by Matthew Kelly. I have them both on a table in my living room, and part of my morning routine is to read a short passage and then sit quietly, with a clear mind trying to let it absorb. Fill your cup—it is there for you.
If you need help with learning to relax, consider a biofeedback tool like HeartMath. Heart rate variability is a sign of parasympathetic dominance. When your body is in a relaxed state, aka parasympathetic dominance, your heart rate varies, termed “beat-to-beat” variability. The program calls this “coherence”. If you are in a sympathetic-dominant state your heart rate is steady with no variability. The program prompts rhythmic deep breathing, a meditative mind and monitors your heart rate variability. The device can be bought at amazon.com or other internet sites.
What if you don’t have 10 minutes?
Really? This is your life. This is your health. If you can’t find 10 minutes a day to relax, then eating right and taking even the best nutritional supplements probably won’t compensate. Believe me, I tried it for years as a practicing Ob/Gyn. I knew my lifestyle was stressful and I was starting to feel some negative health effects. I started to learn about nutrition and functional medicine with the initial goal of being able to withstand the rigors of my profession. I eventually learned (I’d love to say “quickly learned” but alas…) that nutrition and supplements cannot make up for a crazy, stressful life.
2—Exercise but don’t over-train. Movement is important for our health, but over-training is just as harmful as being sedentary. Prolonged vigorous exercise raises cortisol. Unless you are a professional athlete making lots of money is it worth that risk? Besides, professional athletes do indeed train hard, but they spend the rest of the day recovering with massage, jacuzzi, acupuncture. In contrast, we exercise and then run off to live the rest of our busy, multi-tasking lives. Moderation is important for exercise. If you are exhausted after a work-out then you over-trained. If you are exercising for health benefits please listen to your body and exercise in moderation.
When to seek professional help
If the above methods don’t promote full vibrancy, consider working with a functional medicine provider who can help you identify the root cause of your stress response, and help you find a treatment plan for normalizing cortisol levels. Expect it to be a partnership, not just a prescription. It will be worth the effort to achieve true health.