The Importance of Reducing Stress for Your Overall Health
“69-90% of the problems that bring people to doctors are stress-related”
Stress has been found to contribute to a number of health conditions and diseases. Just think about it for a moment - can you relate to any of these:
working too much,
busy & tired mum,
All have the potential to build up, become overwhelming, difficult to manage and take a toll on your health. In this post, I aim to explain further how this happens within your body and how smilingly unrelated health problems may be caused or exacerbated by stress.
Firstly, to make sure we’re all on the same page to start, I just wanted to clarify what stress is. Stress can be defined as “the physiological threat or challenge to an individual’s state of balance…..It is experienced as physical, psychological or emotional signs and symptoms”. This means that stress is a demand on your body to adjust; it can be negative, such as fear or injury, or positive, such as falling in love. The general association of ‘stress’ more often stems from ‘distress’, which is usually likened to a situation or event that goes beyond your ability to cope with it or to adjust. So, I’m going to focus more on this association of the word.
During stress, a series of events take place within your body - the ‘stress response’ or the ‘HPA axis’. The ‘events’ begin in the hypothalamus in the brain, migrating through the pituitary gland and finally reaching the adrenal glands (sometimes, the thyroid glands and ovaries join in too!). This is normal! But, the way each person handles stress is related to the health of their body, particularly their adrenal glands. Many of you won’t realise that your body is dealing with a stressor as your body quickly returns to normality, following the event; however, with ongoing stress or multiple stress events, your body is unable to return to normal and your body’s equilibrium becomes unbalanced. Sometimes, a new normal is set. With repeated stress events, your body may become overwhelmed taking its toll on your health. This is rather like blowing up a balloon. If every breath of air into the balloon is like a stressful event on your body, eventually, you would add so much air that the balloon would burst, rather like when we eventually suffer burn out or a breakdown.
Our initial response to stress is like an alarm going off. We have an innate response to flee a situation or fight it - ‘fight or flight’. Think about a fear, for example; this is actually the strongest activator of the stress response. If you were out bush walking and a snake slithered out from the undergrowth immediately in front of you, how would you feel? How do you react? For most, I’m sure we would either be rooted to the spot praying hard that it would slither on by, or alternatively looking for a safe path to backtrack and run. I bet you’d feel immediate changes in your body as it prepared to ‘fight or flight’. Adrenaline and noradrenaline is released as your sympathetic nervous system dominates. These hormones prepare your body for immediate physical activity (the run or the fight) - your heart rate increases, blood is pumped to the areas of the body where it is needed and away from the skin and internal organs. The brain and muscles need more oxygen and glucose. Your rate of breathing increases as the need for oxygen increases and your liver is quickly converting stored glycogen into glucose. Adrenaline also activates pro-inflammatory cytokines, leading to oxidative stress and the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls activities like digestion, relaxation and reproduction, takes a back seat. At the same time, the release of another hormone, cortisol is activated, although it is slower to respond its effects are more prolonged than adrenaline. It is needed to breakdown fat and protein into glucose, reduce the inflammatory response and elevate the pain threshold. These early reactions to stress are normal to enable your body to meet emotional crises, perform strenuous tasks and fight infection.
However, it is what happens next that has the potential to affect your long term health as following this ‘alarm phase’ the body enters the ‘resistance phase’. This is where the body either returns to normal or readjusts to the new normal. We are meant to go through these two phases repeatedly; however, if stress is prolonged or intense, this is where your body becomes overwhelmed and cannot resist the stressor any more. Exhaustion sets in; hence, the ‘exhaustion phase'. Consequently, with the dominance of the sympathetic nervous system suppressing the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system, your body’s organs and systems begin to take the toll. Hormones are imbalanced. Your body becomes less able to handle the stress .
Going back to our bushwalk, imagine this. What would happen if you’d avoided the first snake, and rounded the corner to find another snake. Would you react in a similar way? Probably, the first time but what if this keeps happening. You’ll probably find negative thoughts creeping in - ‘why did I come on this bushwalk?’ ‘I’m not going to carry on, there’s probably another one round the corner.’ You’ll find your muscles remain tensed and you tire more quickly. Your enjoyment of the walk is quickly sabotaged. What’s the point!
And so, resuming the bigger picture, during times of the stress response ‘exhaustion phase’ , you may experience negative thoughts, hypertension, tiredness, sleep problems, irritability, depression. Digestion, metabolism, reproduction, immunity and muscle tension may be affected. Poor nutrition and lack of exercise may exacerbate these. Incredibly, the following conditions can all be strongly linked to stress:
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Diabetes Type 2
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Premenstrual tension syndrome
This is a pretty scary list!
And so whilst stress is common, it is important to ensure that you are helping your body to deal with stress, particularly if it is ongoing or from multiple sources. Gentle, regular exercise (but too much can be a stress in itself), relaxation practices, sleep and a nourishing diet are key to optimising your management of stress. But, often, these are the very things that are hard to do when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed and sometimes you need more support.
Pause. Examine. Restore
If you or your teen, needs help to break the cycle or needs advice on how to optimise a healthy stress response, don’t be afraid to contact me or your health professional.
For appointment bookings, please click the link here.
Hecthman, L, 2012, Clinical Naturopathic Medicine, Elsevier
Selhub, E, The Adrenal/Stress/Sleep masterclass, Health Masters Live - accessed 2019