We all have at least some stress in our lives, which can be beneficial when it comes to things like our alertness and cognitive function. However, when our daily lives or other circumstances result in chronic stress or in stress levels which are too high, negative health repercussions such as endocrine imbalance, weight gain, and high blood pressure can occur. (1)
And, this is in addition to the mental and emotional changes which excess stress can cause, which can be every bit as detrimental to your well-being as the physical symptoms.
However, with careful stress management and nutrition, you can relieve these symptoms to help you lead a healthier, happier, and more productive life.
Here is what you need to know to know about stress, what it does to you, and the best methods of managing it naturally.
What is Stress?
Stress is defined as a “constraining force or influence” of which work pressure, commuting, raising children and paying bills can all be examples of. And, while you may not notice the effects of these factors while going about your daily life, they are there—though perhaps more noticeable in their absence than in your day-to-day routine. (2)
For instance, have you ever noticed that when you take a vacation or are otherwise away from your daily obligations that your sense of well-being improves dramatically? This is because stress causes chemical changes in your body which can affect everything from your metabolism to your energy levels, mental outlook and even digestion.
But why does this happen, and why do we become stressed?
To explain, your body’s stress response is an instinctive “fight or flight” survival mechanism which floods your system with energy-providing fat and glucose along with hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine to spur a speedy getaway from danger. (3, 4)
However, whereas in past human history this danger occurred primarily in in the form of things like carnivores trying to eat us or enemies attacking us, today’s stress happens in a less random, more constant fashion, which means your adrenal glands never get a break.
What Stress Does to Your Body
When your system continuously responds to stress, your adrenaline system becomes overtaxed to the point that hormone supplies become depleted. This is known of as “adrenal fatigue.” (5)
Daily stress causing an insufficiency of adrenal hormones is a real thing, and so are the symptoms:
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
- Low energy
- Brain fog
- Insomnia followed by an inability to wake easily
- Hair loss
- Chronic or worsening allergies or illness
- High blood pressure
- Increased blood sugar and lipids
- Weight gain
No matter the cause, your body’s stress response involves many factors such as neuroendocrine mediators, neurotransmitters and peptides, which can all lead to negative disorders. (6)
Even worse is the fact that heavy stress–such as that of a loved one dying or a near-death experience—can physically alter the hippocampus and cause atrophy and neurogenesis disorders. (7)
Since stress also contributes to high blood pressure, there is an increased risk of heart attack and stroke due to it. This is compounded by an increase in cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods, which often goes along with high stress, and there is also the higher risk of diabetes which continuously elevated blood glucose levels can lead to. (8)
What Causes Stress?
We all have things that cause stress in our lives, so we could each could probably make a really long list! However, let’s discuss what happens to your body when you experience stress. A stress response can be caused by anything which alerts you, frightens you, or makes you uncomfortable. Unfortunately, your body doesn’t differentiate between things like a tiger chasing you and being startled when the phone rings, so your body’s chemical response is the same no matter what.
However, even though the “threat” of a ringing phone may go away instantly once you realize it is only the phone, a constantly ringing phone can be a different story. In fact, nagging “little” things throughout your day can add up to the point that your adrenals are being taxed. This is in addition to the larger things such as financial difficulties, child rearing, or overbearing coworkers, which can deplete your levels of cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Since cortisol, in particular, is a hormone necessary in producing immediate mental clarity and stimulation, underproductivity of it can leave you feeling tired, irritable, unfocused and depressed.
Cortisol: An Essential Hormone
While cortisol may be known of as the “stress hormone,” it is also a vital hormone which you can’t live without.
In fact, cortisol is responsible for:
- Helping control blood sugar
- Regulating the metabolism
- Reducing inflammation
- Helping with memory formulation
- Control of the body’s electrolyte balance
However, when chronic stress causes cortisol imbalance, your risk of diabetes, weight gain, and problems stemming from inflammation become elevated, along with other potential health problems. (9)
Natural Stress Management
When it comes to stress relief, there are some things you can do which will help. This can mean using relaxation techniques, nutrition, or changes to your perception to reduce your body’s constant fight or flight response.
For instance, your body’s stress response is the same whether the threat is imagined or real. This means that by eliminating your perception of a threat, you can also eliminate the stress which goes along with it. (10 )
This can mean changing your perception of things like being startled by a stranger walking past you when you aren’t expecting it. Often when this happens, we react startled, which brief as it may be, is still triggers your body’s stress response.
Now, try thinking of how often this happens and there is an actual threat—virtually never, correct?
With that in mind, try approaching other perceived threats with a sense of calm and rationale, so that a non-threat is treated as what it is—nothing to worry about.
5 Tips to Manage Stress
Other natural methods of stress management can include:
1. Exercise—Not only can exercise flood your system with natural stress-relieving hormones such as endorphins and endocannabinoids, it can also help reduce high blood glucose and lipid levels and can counter the negative effects stress has on your heart health. Whether you merely enjoy a lunchtime walk or go all in and join a gym or take up a sport, the important thing is that you are active and moving. Keep in mind that ANY exercise is better than none, so even small things, like taking the stairs rather than the elevator, can add up to a healthier you. (11)
2. Nature—Increasingly, studies show us that exposure to natural environments can have a positive effect on stress management. Even so much as keeping a plant on your desk can help reduce stress, and exercising in nature has also been proven to be more effective than exercise alone when it comes to stress relief. (12 )
3. Meditation—Mindful meditation has been shown to successfully reduce anxiety and depression scores in test participants and can “help maintain these reductions in patients with generalized anxiety disorders.” (13) Plus, meditation can be as simple as breathing exercises at your desk, spending time in nature, or steady-state aerobic exercise.
4. Adaptogens—Studies show us that a group of herbs known as “adaptogens,” such as Amla, Ashwagandha, or Eleuthero, can help lower the effects of stress. This is likely due to the regulation of elements related to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and other key mediators of stress response to help balance adrenals naturally. (14 )
5. Diet—By avoiding the consumption of processed foods, particularly those containing high amounts of sugars, hydrogenated fats and sodium, you can help lower the effects of stress. Even though these are often the kinds of “comfort foods” you crave (and overeat) when under pressure, these foods are making things worse by causing you to become lethargic and less clear-headed. Plus, they add to the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and other dangerous diseases.
Instead, a balanced diet of whole foods, including multi-colored fruits and vegetables, lean meats, poultry and fish, is an essential part of maintaining your adrenal health.
Adding foods high in B-complex vitamins, magnesium, and other nutrients which help calm nerves and promote relaxation is also recommended. These can include such foods as leafy greens, legumes, grass-fed beef and nuts, all of which can help keep you relaxed and less likely to respond to nervous stimuli. (15)
Yes, having a little stress in your life can be good for you to the point that it is an essential part of healthy Living. However, when stress levels remain high for long periods, the effects can not only be unpleasant, but dangerous.
So be kind to yourself, take walks, eat right and enjoy nature whenever possible, and remember, too, that not all perceived threats are real!
Do you need help getting a hold of your stress and anxiety?
Take our symptom checker quiz to discover if you have adrenal fatigue, or a cortisol deficiency. By replenishing your natural cortisol, you can give your body what it needs to handle stress.