What is stress
Stress is a disturbance which taxes our natural responses. In small amounts it is good as it conditions us to cope with the natural environment. If we exceed our capacity to cope then stress causes us harm.
Our physiological response
Stress activates what is called Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. The hypothalamus and pituitary are both situated in the middle of our head. Many stressors can affect the hypothalamus via our nervous system. The hypothalamus then stimulates the pituitary to cause the adrenal glands, which sit above our kidneys, to release 3 key hormones.
These 3 key hormones are cortisol (made from cholesterol), adrenaline and nor-adrenaline (both made from the amino acid tyrosine). Nor-adrenaline is also produced by many nerve fibres throughout our body.
Cortisol lasts up to 60 times longer in the circulation than adrenaline, and so chronic stress affects cortisol more than adrenaline. Continual stress raises cortisol levels, which over time desensitizes cells to cortisol. One result of this can be that more cortisol is released from the adrenals in an attempt to influence the now insensitive cells. If these raised cortisol levels persist, the adrenal glands may become exhausted as their capacity to continually produce cortisol is tested to the limit. Cortisol levels then drop below what is needed for normal function. This is known as adrenal exhaustion.
What stress does to our body
The three stress hormones mentioned above have a multitude of effects on the body including the following:
Blood sugar levels are increased by both cortisol and adrenaline. In many people an over reaction to the high blood sugar leads to lowered levels of blood sugar. Low blood sugar can cause fatigue, hunger, irritability and dizziness. Conversely extended periods of high blood sugar ultimately lead to diabetes.
Sex hormones are depleted as they are made from the same precursors as cortisol. The excessive production of cortisol depletes the precursors for all other steroid hormones. As a result you may experience reduced sex drive and lack of motivation.
Raised cortisol has been linked in the past to reduced serotonin and dopamine, two of the feel good factors in the brain. More recent studies have questioned this hypothesis. However, whatever the mechanism is, the link between stress and depression is strong.
Reduced cortisol that may follow on from adrenal burn out can lead to weight gain as cortisol functions as a fat burning hormone. Less fat burning equates to weight gain and difficulty losing weight. Equally a raised cortisol level will raise blood glucose which if not burnt off will be redeposited as fat.
One of the functions of cortisol is to depress the immune system. When cortisol levels are too high there is an increased risk of infection. Equally if cortisol levels have bottomed out then the immune system may be over-reactive and a whole host of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and diabetes become more likely.
Digestive problems are experienced by many people experiencing continual stress. The effect of stress hormones is to slow digestion down by reducing peristaltic movements and secreting fewer digestive juices.
Stress also makes the gut walls more permeable, leading to leaky gut and consequent immune challenges. It also can alter the types of flora we have in our guts in unfavourable ways, reducing their diversity and leading to overgrowth of unfavourable types of bacteria and fungi. Basically stress affects digestion in a large number of ways varying from IBS to full blown autoimmune diseases.
The italicized words above represent just some of the symptoms of stress. They are:
- reduced sex drive
- lack of motivation
- weight gain
- difficulty losing weight
- increased risk of infection
- rheumatoid arthritis
- slow digestion
- leaky gut
- overgrowth of unfavourable types of bacteria and fungi
How to reduce stress
- Reduced sleep raises cortisol levels. Get 7-9 hours sleep per night and get to bed early enough to ensure this. Wake up slowly. Use jawbone watches or light devices.
- Don’t rush breakfast to get in some exercise. Too much exercise without adequate fuelling will activate the HPA axis to produce the glucose you need, this raises cortisol with all its attendant effects, when taking in sufficient fuel for your exercise would have been far better.
- Have a Healthy Breakfast. For most people this is a low glycaemic index meal with soluble fibre containing carbohydrates such as porridge or lentils with added berries and banana. Traditional English/Scottish breakfasts and scrambled eggs are other good choices.
- Don’t rush the commute to work. The adrenaline rush of competing for space with other road users and getting to work on time activates the stress reponse, initially adrenaline and nor-adrenaline, but when the stress continues cortisol secretion predominates.
- Pressured to finish work, worrying about appraisals, angry at the way you’re treated/valued at work or in the home? All will activate the stress response. Reduce stress with meditation or time outs.
- Reduce TV, PC and e-device time in the evening. Blue light close to bedtime releases stress hormones and decreases the quality of sleep. Use f.lux on PCs and mobile devices.
- Adaptogenic herbs such as Siberian Ginseng have a lot of evidence showing they can counter stress. They do this by stimulating the production of adrenal hormones such as cortisol. However, some people may be sensitive to the effects of Siberian Ginseng.
Other stress busting techniques
- Learn to say no – ask who it is who is asking for something, what happens if you say no to them?
- Avoid stressors including stressful people – do you really need this meeting? Can you take another route to avoid stressful situations?
- Turn off the news – is it wasting your time? Do you find it stressful, if so turn it off.
- Give up pointless arguments – are they helping you achieve what you want to get done?
- Manage your to do list – prioritise the important, time critical tasks.
- Reduce online stress – online debate is virtually always futile. You will rarely meet the person you are debating with and often misunderstand them.
- Reframe the situation – it could be a lot worse in many cases.
- Lower your standards – expectations can create stress unless you can work consistently towards achieving them.
- Manage your time – work out what you realistically can achieve in a day.