What is the stress response?
When we perceive a stressor, whether it is running from a lion, being late for work, or even experiencing illness or a trauma, our sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response to help us cope with said stressor. Working counter to our parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the “rest and digest” system), the sympathetic nervous system cues an intricate hormonal cascade to help us survive. It turns out that from an evolutionary standpoint, we are very good at dealing with short stressors (running from a lion) or sustained stressors (surviving a plague or famine), but not very good at dealing with short intermittent stressors all day long (our modern day dilemma).
The science goes something like this: a stressor occurs, causing the hypothalamus to secrete a hormone called CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone) which travels to the pituitary and causes release of another hormone called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). ACTH tells the adrenal glands to produce a glucocorticoid called cortisol and and a neurotransmitter called epinephrine. Epinephrine and norephinephrine are responsible for the sweating palms and racing heart that we experience during a stress inducing event. They act in seconds and clear quickly from the blood. While cortisol takes longer to peak, it backs up epinephrine’s actions by raising blood sugar and blood pressure and (you guessed it) takes longer to clear from the bloodstream when the stressor has passed. You can think of epinephrine and norepinephrine as helping us respond to the stress at hand, while cortisol helps us recover from the stressor.
How does stress make us sick?
So, this all sounds well and good, right? Our body has a mechanism in place to get extra nutrients to our brain and muscles when a perceived stressor occurs. In fact, our body is well equipped for acute stress. The problem occurs when we experience intermittent stress, long-term or the inability to shut off the stress response. Additionally, the days when stressors were mostly physical are long gone. Now, we activate the stress response sitting in traffic, staring at the ceiling worrying about that unpaid bill, a presentation at work or when we sleep through our alarm. These intermittent stressors are the modern day plague, and they mean that cortisol might remain elevated all day long instead of following the natural high to low curve it’s supposed to (normal process is cortisol rises in the morning and gradually declines over the course of the day to its lowest point before bedtime, when melatonin begins to elevate and helps us sleep.) High cortisol long term has negative consequences, mainly because it keeps us in “fight or flight” mode by activating our sympathetic nervous system. This means that our “rest and digest”, system or parasympathetic nervous system, gets down regulated. When a stressor is perceived, physiological processes like digestion, tissue repair, immune health, reproduction and sleep are deemed “unnecessary” in the face of the immediate threat. Again, we can trace this back to our ancestors. Why bother shunting energy towards these systems when you might not survive the famine or running from a predator?
What are the consequences of chronic stress?
As noted above, high amounts of cortisol in the bloodstream all day long can have negative consequences. Chronic stress from frequent intermittent stressors means that cortisol may not clear from the bloodstream before the next stressor hits, creating high cortisol levels throughout the day and into the evening, especially when we are supposed to be winding down for bed. Some consequences of this include:
- High blood pressure
- Increased fat storage, especially in the abdomen
- High blood sugar
- Increased appetite and cravings
- Fatigue or feeling wired and tired
- Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
- Disturbed sleep, depression and anxiety (a consequence of deplete serotonin and dopamine)
- GI issues – Irritable Bowel Syndrome, constipation and/or diarrhea, microbiome imbalance, or leaky gut
- Sexual hormone imbalance – low progesterone, estrogen dominance, low testosterone and low DHEA
- Underactive thyroid – cortisol impedes T4 to T3 conversion, and makes our tissues less sensitive to thyroid hormone
- Adrenal dysregulation – symptoms of high and low cortisol in the same day
- Decreased memory consolidation and poor memory/recall
Help! Am I doomed??
If you activated your stress response just by reading through all the health issues that stress has a hand in, take a deep breathe (it helps lower cortisol)! Our modern lifestyle is not a death toll for living a stress-free life! Adopt some of these lifestyle, dietary and supplement recommendations outlined below.
- Avoid blue light at bedtime and get exposed to light as soon as you can when waking. This will help to restore your diurnal rhythm
- Make sure you have solid familial or social support. Having a network of support can be crucial in reducing stress.
- Exercise and be in nature. Try yoga, swimming, biking, walking or hiking
- Practice deep breathing or meditation. The app Insight Timer is free and can help you build a meditation practice.
- Limit caffeine/alcohol. Drink decaf green tea instead! It contains L-theanine, an amino acid that can produce calming effects
- Follow a higher fat (mostly plants), low carb diet to decrease inflammation
- Eat dark chocolate (At least 70% dark chocolate)
- Eat foods rich in tyrosine, B6 and B12 (organ meats, chicken, almonds, fish and eggs)
- Eat Vitamin C rich foods (strawberries, kale, berries, broccoli or oranges) or take 1,000 mg/3x daily
- Eat fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines or halibut) or take in supplement form. I like the brands Nordic Naturals and Metagenics.
- Take Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid) – 500 mg/daily
- Eat fermented foods (kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, homemade yogurt) or take a probiotic containing bifidobacterium infantis
- Try an adaptogen blend that includes compounds that help the adrenals cope with stress like ashwagandha, rhodiola, mushroom extracts, eleuthero or schisandra. I like Integrative Therapeutics Adren-Plus.
We highly recommend checking with your doctor or speaking with a health professional before starting any supplement regiment. Give us a call and we can help you find a balance between what you eat and how to determine nutritional imbalances that may be leading to stress or nutritional deficiencies.
Post written and contributed by Elizabeth McKinney, MS, CNS, LDN