7 natural ways to fight chronic stress

The stress and strain and ‘always on’ nature of our modern-day lifestyles mean that many of us are now living in a constant state of high alert, and are suffering from chronic stress.

Woman lying on bed with lavender

Why is this a problem? In a healthy body, once the stress has passed and cortisol levels decrease, the hypothalamus signals to the pituitary and adrenals to stop stress hormone production. But this doesn’t happen when chronic stress is involved. It becomes a loop of continual release of all of the stress hormones and the extended-release of stress hormones has adverse effects on your body, lowering your immunity defences and making you more susceptible to illness and also disturbing your digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems.

In today’s society, it feels like it is a badge of honour to be really busy and so chronic stress is a real problem. You are particularly at risk of suffering from chronic stress if you are prone to over-scheduling, people-pleasing, generally trying to be all things to all people or giving all your energy to taking care of others. 

Are you suffering from chronic stress?

The most common symptoms of chronic stress include: 

  • tired but wired feeling, poor sleep
  • dark circles under the eyes 
  • muscle twitches 
  • cystic breasts 
  • low blood pressure 
  • dry, unhealthy skin with excess pigmentation 
  • cravings for salt, sweets, and carbs
  • excessive sweating or perspiration from little activity 
  • light-headedness upon standing up 
  • low stamina for stress, and easily irritated
  • sensitivity to light, or difficulty seeing at night 
  • lack of libido 
  • dizziness 
  • a tendency to startle easily 
  • heart palpitations 
  • excessive mood responses after eating carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, and sugar
  • chronic infections (bacterial, viral, fungal, yeast)

Natural ways to help fight chronic stress

Just as the sympathetic nervous system turns on the ‘fight or flight’ response, the parasympathetic nervous system turns it off. The parasympathetic nervous system helps the body conserve energy and rest.

The ability to go from fight or flight to ‘rest and digest’ is critical for your well-being so concentrate on making healthy choices for yourself, and getting into the routine of practising your unique definition of self-care.

1. Prioritise sleep 

Sleep is crucial to regulating cortisol levels so get yourself into a healthy sleep pattern:

  • Sleep for at least seven hours each night.
  • Wear blue-blocking glasses two hours before bed to raise melatonin naturally.
  • Avoid checking your phone or your emails in the evening.
  • Sleep in a completely dark room with no light.
  • Expose yourself to natural light when you wake. If you can, go for a walk in the morning and don’t use sunglasses.
  • Reduce your consumption of caffeine and try to eat at least two hours before going to bed.

2. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet 

Inflammation causes a disruption in the HPA axis, which can lead to more stress. Reducing inflammation will improve your HPA axis function, enhance your immune system, and improve your sleep quality—which all helps to minimise stress. 

  • Eat an anti-inflammatory diet by consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables, foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, whole gluten-free grains, good quality protein and healthy fats. Avoid the consumption of processed foods and limit your consumption of alcohol. 
  • Eat regular meals and avoid intermittent fasting. When you skip meals your blood sugar drops. A drop in blood sugar puts added stress on your adrenal glands. When you fast, the adrenals have to release more cortisol to maintain your blood sugar levels balanced.

    A diet rich in vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium can also help promote a healthy stress response, so consider supplementing if necessary.

3. Try adaptogenic herbs 

Adaptogens are a group of herbs that are known for their ability to reduce stress and enhance adrenal function. They’re one of the most natural and effective ways to restore your body’s HPA axis. My favourite are: 

  • Rhodiola
  • Ashwagandha
  • Licorice Root
  • Eleutherococcus
  • Reishi Mushroom
  • Cordycep

4. Meditate

Meditation brings short-term stress relief as well as lasting stress management benefits. With meditation, you’re giving your body deep rest that can heal things on a cellular level. This means the benefits last long after your session.

Starting at five minutes per day is all it takes. You can build up from there. I recommend a guided meditation if you are new to the practice, I like the Calm app or Insight Timer.

Rhodiola herb

5. Practice breathing exercises 

Breathwork is another incredibly powerful tool to help you instantly switch from a sympathetic stress state into a parasympathetic rest and digest state. I love the 4, 7, 8 breathwork exercise. With this exercise, we’re focusing on deep, diaphragmatic breathing. This means we’re not using our chest or upper body to breathe but we are engaging our lower belly as we inhale and exhale and this helps to stimulate the vagus nerve (to trigger your rest and digest system).

Do this simple breathing exercise twice a day, or whenever you feel stress levels rising:

  • Deeply exhale with a whoosh sound.
  • Deeply inhale through the nose for 4, hold for 7, exhale through the mouth for 8.
  • Repeat for 4 breaths.

6. Spend time outdoors

Spending time outdoors is incredibly important for our emotional health, just as it is for our physical health. It increases serotonin levels, leading to improved mood and energy and reduced stress.

7. Exercise regularly 

Physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety, balance hormones, and improve sleep patterns. However, be mindful of high-intensity exercise as it may do more harm than good.

I recommend 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, five times per week (walking, swimming, yoga, pilates, weights). Exercise can promote relaxation, increasing oxygen to the brain and reducing levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

Louise Murray is a holistic health coach with a qualification from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and a mindfulness teacher. She takes a holistic approach to health and wellness by nourishing people on and off the plate, coaching them with nutrition advice combined with lifestyle and behaviour change, healthy habit formation, mindset tools, mindfulness and self-care practices. Follow Louise at @live_well_with_lou

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Written by Louise Murray
Louise Murray is a holistic health coach and mindfulness coach.
Written by Louise Murray
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