Is stress affecting your health?
Stress is linked to a dizzying array of conditions, ranging from infertility to psoriasis and eczema, to IBS and IBD, to depression and anxiety to virtually all autoimmune diseases. Or you may not have any of these but you’ve started waking up like a shot in the middle of the night with a pounding heart and wondering how this is affecting your health?
Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis dysfunction (HPA-D) is the scientific term for the popular syndrome known as “adrenal fatigue.” It refers to a constellation of signs and symptoms including fatigue, sleep disruption, poor exercise tolerance and recovery, low libido, brain fog, weakened immune function and reduced stress tolerance.
Whether we call this problem HPA axis dysfunction, adrenal fatigue, or adrenal fatigue syndrome, the modern world almost guarantees some level of HPA axis dysfunction!
There are four primary triggers of HPA axis dysfunction
1. Perceived stress N.U.T.S is an often used mnemonic for this.
- novelty of the event
- unpredictable nature of the event
- perceived threat to body or ego
- sense of loss of control with things like finances, relationships, work, public speaking, and internal stress perception. Generally, psychological stress can be more harmful because there is less sense of control and it lasts much longer.
2. Circadian disruption via sleep deprivation, artificial light exposure, nighttime light exposure, getting too little exposure to natural light during the day, jet lag, shift work, and caffeine.
3. Blood sugar imbalance due to poor diet, lack of sleep and lack of exercise.
4. Inflammation, any source of inflammation is a chronic stressor on the body. Even if someone is sitting on a beach chair in a tropical location and the person has no care in the world, if they have an inflammatory condition, they are under stress. This can include Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) or other gut issues or any inflammatory condition.
When we normally think of stress, we think of psychosocial and emotional stress but as you can see there’s much more to it! Dr. Gabor Mate, author of 'When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress–Disease Connection' has written extensively about the connection between stress and chronic disease. In particular, he writes about how we’ve become habitually numb to the stress response and warning system. He says;
“The fight or flight alarm reaction exists today for the same purpose evolution originally assigned to it, to enable us to survive. What has happened is that we’ve lost touch with the gut feelings designed to be our warning system. The body mounts a stress response, but the mind is unaware of the threat. We keep ourselves in physiologically stressful situations with only a dim awareness of distress, or no awareness at all. Just like laboratory animals unable to escape, people find themselves trapped in lifestyles and emotional patterns inimical to our health. We no longer sense what is happening in our bodies and cannot therefore act in self-preserving ways. From this perspective, there’s nothing wrong with the stress response, it’s functioning exactly as it was intended, to protect us from harm. Instead, the problem lies with our reaction, or more accurately, our lack of reaction to stress. Our bodies are sending us signals, but we’ve lost the capacity to recognise them and respond appropriately”
So what can we do to reduce the impact of stress on our bodies?
Healing often involves making significant lifestyle changes and even shifting the way that we relate to ourselves and the world around us. Areas to focus on include:
Reducing the amount of stress experienced
- learn to say “no”
- spending time outdoors to both connect with nature and for natural light exposure
- go on a news fast
- avoid people who stress you out
- stop internet debating
Stress management practices
- mindfulness practices (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, MBSR)
- Tai chi
- Qi gong
Balance light exposure
- Minimise computer, tablet and phone use two to three hours before bedtime and use blackout shades or an eye mask to sleep.
- Increase light exposure during the day: get 15 to 30 minutes of bright light exposure daily. Consider a walk outdoors earlier in the day or using a bright light therapy machine.
- most people should aim for at least eight hours a night
General guidelines include higher overall protein intake (especially in the morning to help stabilize blood glucose throughout the day), moderate carbohydrates eaten mostly later in the day and avoid, or at least cut down on, caffeine (but these guidelines may need to be modified based on your specific needs).
Other nutrients and foods that may be helpful:
- Vitamin C: the adrenals have very high tissue concentrations and uptake. Best sources: papaya, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, kiwi, cantaloupe, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and bok choy.
- Potassium: high levels are associated with lower blood pressure, and low levels or a deficiency is associated with hypertension, high blood sugar, and being overweight. Top sources: potato, halibut, plantains, rockfish, sweet potato, beet greens, bananas, sockeye salmon, acorn squash, avocado, parsnips, pumpkins, kohlrabi, duck, and mushrooms.
- Magnesium rich foods: oysters, liver, crab, lobster, beef, lamb, endive, pork, nuts, dark chocolate, and crimini mushrooms
So start with these changes and see if it helps!
If you have already made many of these changes and still feel that stress is a significant issue in your life, or is contributing to your health conditions then look for some dedicated personalised support to help or get in touch with a nutritional therapist to discuss further.
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