Always craving those sugary carbs or reaching for that afternoon caffeine pick me up? It is hard not to when it looks like this wonderful cup of magic (pictured below) from a lovely cafe in Amsterdam. Get. in. my. mouth! If you answered yes, your body may be telling you something about your stress!
Stress doesn’t just have to fit into big category things like: relationships, work, health, money (insert your own big category here). Stress can be anything – feeling hunger, eating certain foods that don’t agree in the body (food sensitivities), alcohol, and daily stressors like driving in traffic or misplacing your cell phone. Stressors can be negative (like an argument with a loved one), or positive (like starting a new relationship). The body doesn’t really differentiate between these stressors, and responds in the same way.
A little bit of stress isn’t the end of the world. The body responds in a way that improves performance and heightens mental functioning in certain situations. Productive – for a bit. It becomes a problem when stress occurs long term, longer than we’ve expected, and we get used to functioning with this chronic stress.
How the body feels in this dysfunction becomes the new normal, and we live with things like: anxiety and feeling overwhelmed, depression headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, insomnia, digestive disturbances, difficulty with concentration and memory, fatigue after exercise, skin issues (eczema, acne), always getting sick, changes in sex drive, PMS – I could go on, and, I think you can see that the impact on the body is far reaching.
What happens when the body is stressed is the adrenal glands (that sit like little hats on top of the kidneys), naturally produce cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in order to deal with the stressor. The adrenals have three stages of functioning, all with different associated symptoms. I’ll touch on them below:
The first stage is the “alarm” stage. This is when the “fight or flight” response is activated. Think of if you were to encounter a bear while hiking. The adrenals pump out cortisol to prepare your body to either fight the bear, or run. Did your heart rate go up just thinking of this example? That increase in heart rate is the first things that happens when this stress response takes place, so more blood can get pumped to the heart and lungs to “survive” this encounter.
This same response can happen from day to day as well, especially if you have a lot on the go – you may feel more stressed out than normal. You also may notice you are’t hungry either, and if you do eat, the food probably doesn’t feel quite digested ( even if it is healthy food). This is because the digestive system isn’t a priority when the body is preparing to run from this “bear” (the blood is busy being used by the heart and lungs).
The second stage occurs when the body is under stress for longer periods of time. In this case, the adrenals are pumping out so much cortisol that the body has to steal resources away from making other hormones to produce more cortisol. This shows up as changes in sex drive, PMS, and menstrual irregularities. You may even get a second wind of energy at night time (perfect to fit more things into the day). You may notice weight loss.
The third stage is when the adrenals have been pumping out cortisol for so long, that the body now has a hard time producing enough cortisol, and the pattern of normal functioning becomes maladapted. This also starts to change the circadian clock (the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle). This is when sleep disturbances become an big issue – trouble falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night (between 1-3am), or straight up insomnia.
Other things you may notice are: difficulties with getting up in the morning (even if you slept well and got your 8 hours of sleep), more fatigue and maybe even needing to nap after exercise, weight gain or difficulty losing weight, increased cravings for salty and sugary foods, mental fog and memory issues, and changes in psychological wellbeing –depression, anxiety, and apathy.
Most people I see in my practice are in stage 2 or 3. Certainly not an optimal way to feel!
I usually like to run some blood work to understand where your hormones are at, and get a sense of the baseline functioning of your body. I even sometimes run a salivary or urinary hormone panel to see exactly where the adrenal function is at (although a lot of the time, symptoms can tell me a lot).
From there, I create an individualized treatment plan to support your mind, body, and the spirit in managing stress (better). Going from a maladapted pattern to balanced, proper functioning takes time, and, it is possible. I like to use customized herbal formulations, nutritional supplementation, nutrient injections, personalized therapeutic diets and lifestyle modifications to start.
If you resonated with any of the symptoms above, your body may be telling you that your stress is having an impact. That’s okay – it happens to most of us! Here are three things that you can do to reduce the effects of stress on your body:
1. Nature time – research shows that just 15 minutes a day spent in nature can lower stress levels and improve mood, reducing depression and anxiety. Nature helps us feel calmer, and to have a greater sense of belonging, feeling more love and joy. So, #getoutside for that #naturecure!
2. Meditation – I know you’ve heard it 1000 times. But seriously, when I need more stillness in my body/mind, meditation is where it is at. My favourite app. for this is HeadSpace. I’m all about saving time, and HeadSpace has short 2-5 minute meditations that can easily be done every day, just long enough to calm the nervous system! If I need a boost of energy and mental clarity, alternate nostril breathing works like a charm.