The Effects of Stress on Your Health and How You Can Manage It Naturally
How can we handle the high levels of stress in this modern day and age? There are so many adverse affects of stress on our minds, bodies and souls, and knowing how to manage our stress levels can be stressful in and of itself! Learn about what the deleterious physical effects of stress can lead to and how you can manage your stress naturally!!
THE EFFECTS OF STRESS ON YOUR HEALTH AND WHAT YOU CAN DO NATUROPATHICALLY TO DEAL!
Hannah Yang (Hons BSc, N.D.)
Rhythms of Nature Clinic, London UK, Islington
What Is Stress?
According to Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, stress is “any emotional, physical, social, economic or other factor that requires a response or change.” We can therefore assume from that definition that stress can come in any shape or form that disturbs the pattern or routine in our day to day lives that we have become accustomed to – an event that creates a ripple in our pond of calm. What is more interesting here is the fact that stress is not necessarily always negative. The thing to note here is that it is the ‘change’ that is considered the stress. Divorce and death of spouse are highest on the list of stressors, but the birth of a baby, the changing of jobs, houses, financial status, responsibilities at work, sleeping habits, eating habits – those are also stresses due to change. Events that may not seem like they are ‘stressful’, such as a promotion in your current job can be interpreted by our bodies as stress – which is why we need to be mindful of what exactly stress is and how it does affect our minds, bodies and souls.
Physiological Effects of stress –
Thousands of years ago, when human beings were much more nomadic creatures, the physiological stress response was vital to survival. When exposed to a stressful situation, our adrenal glands start pumping out ‘stress hormones’ more commonly known as cortisol, cortisone and catecholamines (epinephrine and norephinephrine) which create the physical “Fight or Flight” response. Blood would be shunted away from organs that were non-vital to the ‘flight’ response, such as our digestive tract and sex organs and our blood pressure and heart rate would skyrocket, enabling an increased rush of blood to our larger muscle groups so that we could run away from death. The blood would also thicken in response to stress so that if we got wounded, we would clot much faster and not bleed to death. Our pupils would dilate in order to see further distances. There would be an increase of glucose being released into our bloodstream in order to provide energy for the muscles, and eventually our liver would start to release cholesterol into the blood to provide long-term fuel once the glucose was used up. These were all useful responses…back then. Now, however, our brain cannot differentiate between the stress of an argument with a partner, discontent at work and the impending attack of a woolly mammoth. The body needs to exert some sort of physical response in order to put these hormones into action and thus release them from the body – such as running away from the woolly mammoth. But in modern days (and with no woolly mammoths in sight) there is no immediate outlet for this hormonal response in our bodies – and most of us end up sitting and tense our muscles in front of the computer screen and try to ‘deal with it’.
The Three Stages of Stress:
1) Alarm Reaction or Fight/Flight Response
The body immediately responds to stress. Release of cortisol and catecholamines in the body, glucose is released, immune system depresses, increased heart rate, quickened shallower breaths, dilated pupils, clammy/cold skin, dry mouth
2) Resistance/Adaptation Response
With prolonged stress and sustained levels of cortisol and catecholamines, the body begins to adapt to that level of stress and interpret it as Normal. You body starts to work overtime in order to enhance immune function – but this is not sustainable. Did you ever notice that during exam times or deadlines, you’re able to work on overdrive and not get sick – but once the exams are over, or the deadline has been met, you fall ill??
Your immune system pretty much shuts down. This is known in the medical world as Adrenal Exhaustion. The body eventually loses its ability to keep up with the demands that the stress is placing on it, and when it reaches its limit, you collapse. This then results in the ‘stress-related’ diseases.
What are the Effects of Stress on Modern Day Humans?
What do these physiological responses do to us in the modern world? What happens when these high levels of cortisol, cortisone and catecholamines are constantly in our bloodstream with no proper release mechanism? This is by no means a complete list, but here are a few things to put things into perspective:
The high levels of cortisol, cortisone and catecholamines cause the immune system to weaken, making it harder to fight off a simple cold. Do you notice that when you are stressed you get sick much easier?
Increased blood pressure and heart rate, which back then, as I had mentioned earlier, was useful for the ‘flight’ response, but now it can just lead to cardiovascular disease.
The blood also thickens to carry more oxygen to the muscles but today, the result is increased risk for heart attack, stroke or embolus.
The liver releases cholesterol into the bloodstream in order to supply more long-term energy to the muscles once the glucose levels have been used up. Today, because there is no need for ‘prolonged energy’ on the muscles (unless you are an athlete in training) the cholesterol gets deposited in the blood vessels – leading to increased heart disease.
Sex and Libido
Sex hormones are reduced – leading to reduced libido and possibly infertility issues
Digestive Tract and Function
Digestive tract starts to shut down. The stress response causes blood to be shunted to your muscles of action, hence the ‘flight’ part of fight or flight response. When blood is diverted to your muscles away from the organs that are not essential for physical activity, such as your stomach and gastro-intestinal tract, they receive a lowered blood supply and thus have lowered function. Eating while under stress can cause indigestion, bloating, nausea, cramping, constipation and or diarrhea. The long-term effects are much more grim: gastric ulcers, gastritis (inflammation of the lining of the stomach), which then increases the risk of stomach cancer.
The release of glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream to provide energy to the muscles for flight causes hypoglycemia (lowered blood sugar) or an increased insulin demand on the pancreas, potentially aggravating diabetes.
Things we can DO NATURALLY to manage stress:
This one is obvious. You need a physical outlet in order to release the stress hormones that are being released into your bloodstream. Much like pre-historic man would run away from danger, thus utilizing the jump in blood levels of catecholamines and cortisol, modern day man needs a similar outlet. Regular exercise (about 2-3 times a week, for at least 30 minutes) will reduce the effects of stress on your body. If you can, do your exercising outdoors – 20 minutes of direct sunlight on your skin (and thus elevating your vitamin D levels) will do wonders to lift your mood!
The body seems to require increased levels of Vitamin C and the B vitamins for tissue repair during times of stress. Research has also shown that stress leads to overeating in those who are normally above average weight or underrating for those who are naturally thin. This wreaks havoc on the metabolism and weight management, which when unmonitored, can lead to Type 2 Diabetes, malnutrition, fatigue and bone density loss. Make sure that you eat a properly balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, protein in the form of lean meats and legumes and your 8 glasses of water a day.
Do something you enjoy – treat yourself to something nice, whether it’s a cup of tea, a hot bath infused with essential oils, a new cd, a trashy novel, a movie…make sure you schedule in time for YOU. In this day and age where people often put themselves last on the list of things ‘to do’ if at all, taking some ‘me’ time is essential for stress management.
Even with a healthy balanced diet, regular exercise and the occasional spa treatment, managing stress in this day and age can still be a challenge. There are many supplements that can be used in order to combat the effects of stress on your organs, your hormones and your emotional ability to handle the stress – but it is best to consult with your local Naturopathic Doctor to find the supplements that are best suited to you and your needs.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hannah Yang is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor from Toronto Canada. She is currently residing and practising in London England. She is a compassionate practitioner, providing top-quality naturopathic care to her patients. She strives to provide individualized care using gentle and effective methods. She specializes in Acupuncture, Homepathy, Nutritional Counselling, Chinese Medicine and Lifestyle Counselling.