Stress. I have yet to meet someone who is not dealing with it. Who of us is not worried about money, our health, or how to juggle all of our time? We all experience stress on a regular basis, and it is unfortunately difficult to avoid in our fast-paced, money-driven Western society. Stress can come in a variety of ways and in different levels of intensity. Although stress can be beneficial in the short term—as it drives us to cope with our current predicament—in the long run it can be detrimental to our balanced systems.
Due to my current family situation, the damaging effects of stress are constantly on my mind. Much of my year has been devoted to coping with a recent family emergency. I had to immediately fly abroad and later travel back and forth to Chicago. I then created more stress by quitting my nine-to-five job and then simultaneously enrolling in an herbal medicine program. Some of the stress has been really good and exciting, while some of it has induced quite a bit of emotional trauma. I am now exhausted, in need of rest, and sometimes emotionally unstable. I am living proof that although stress initially helped me cope through my situation, chronically it has become detrimental.
What Stress Does To Your Body
Initially, our bodies’ physiological reaction to stress is very necessary and beneficial. During a stressor, your sympathetic nervous system secretes adrenalin to cope with the stress and send signals to your body of what it needs to do to survive, such as increasing blood flow to your muscles, dilating pupils, increasing respiration and elevating heart rate. These are symptoms you recognize when you are scared, if you are publically presenting, or if you are about to run a race. They help you function and compete at full capacity. As the stressor continues, your brain (the hypothalamus) will send a signal to the anterior pituitary gland, which will then signal the adrenal glands (which rest just above your kidneys) to secrete the hormone cortisol. Ideally, once cortisol has been released, it will send a signal back to the hypothalamus that no more cortisol needs to be discharged. Yet, during chronic stress the stressor will keep signaling to the hypothalamus that it needs more cortisol, and the feedback loop that tells the brain to stop secreting will no longer adequately respond. Over time, your adrenal glands become unable to keep up with the stressor.
Cortisol is necessary for human survival. Yet over time, too much can be damaging, inhibiting a normal stress response. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone, meaning it stimulates gluconeogenesis, which is a biological process of converting stored liver glycogen (stored sugar) into blood glucose (sugar) to help provide your body with immediate energy to deal with the present stressor. If your adrenal glands are functioning properly, your cortisol levels should be the highest in the morning, around eight a.m., to help wake you up and jump start your day, and lowest in the evening, around nine/ten p.m., so that you can fall asleep. When you are dealing with chronic stress, your cortisol levels will be consistently elevated, ensuring elevated blood sugar levels throughout the day. This can lead to insomnia, anxiety, and even insulin insufficiency. If blood sugar is continually being produced via gluconeogenesis, your pancreas still needs to secrete insulin to store it. If insulin is continually being secreted, whilst dealing with a stressor, this can also create insulin resistance and blood sugar problems. As time carries on, your adrenals will not be able to produce enough cortisol levels to keep up with the stressor. As a result, you will struggle with waking in the morning and you may secrete too much at night, preventing you from falling asleep. Evidently, chronic secretion of cortisol can create hormonal and blood sugar imbalance.
Using myself as a metaphor gives credence to the long-term damaging effects of stress. Earlier this year I felt constantly energized. I would wake up early and then go to bed late, surviving off of caffeine and croissants. I would then repeat the day. I was constantly anxious and stimulated. I was living off of adrenaline. As time has gone on, I find waking up in the morning is very challenging, but by 11 p.m. I am wide awake and energized.
Chronic stress or adrenal fatigue disrupts normal adrenal function and wreaks havoc on cortisol secretion. In a society where individuals are chronically stressed, this is a massive problem. Most clients I work with—myself included—have adrenal fatigue to some degree and are relying on stimulants to wake them up and depressants to help them fall asleep. This creates further havoc on our adrenals as caffeine and alcohol also stimulate cortisol production, thus elevating your blood sugar and helping you feel energized and happy. We have placed ourselves in an unrelenting cycle that makes our bodies unable to deal with stress.
How To Deal With Stress
Obviously, it is impossible to rid our lives of all of our stress. So, what can we do instead to keep our bodies healthy and not disrupt our hormonal balance or our sleep cycle?
There are several supplements and pieces of lifestyle advice I consistently give my clients who are dealing with adrenal fatigue.
- First off, let your body actually rest. That is the most important and beneficial thing you can do in order to get better. You are exhausted because your adrenals need to rest and not be in a constant state of stimulation. Allow yourself to get at least eight to nine hours of sleep a night and do not feel guilty or lazy for letting yourself rest.
- Secondly, begin to limit your caffeine and alcohol intake. Avoid caffeine after noon and if possible, avoid alcohol until your body is beginning to reach normalcy.
- Next, get on a beneficial supplement and diet routine. During adrenal fatigue your adrenals will require much higher levels of vitamin C and fats. Thus, avoid a high-carbohydrate diet (this will make things worse) and begin consuming some beneficial fats, like grass-fed butter, fish, nuts, coconut oil, and avocados. Other beneficial supplements include a methylated B-complex, fish oil, ashwagandha, and adding a dash of sea salt to your water.