In my first article for CarbSmart, I introduced myself and shared with you my experience and recovery from adrenal fatigue. I concluded with the promise to tackle this topic head on, which is what my next two articles will do. Because adrenal fatigue is the result of an overactive stress response, in today’s article, I lay the groundwork by discussing stress, what it is, how the body responds to it and how to identify if it’s impacting your health. In the subsequent article, I will discuss what happens when the stress process goes awry and the adrenals become fatigued, how to determine if your own adrenals are functioning optimally, and what to do if you are experiencing adrenal fatigue. Judging by the number of e-mails I get from Healthy Living How To readers, this is a health issue that is in dire need of discussion.
Stress: In America
Researchers have long been aware of the link between stress and health. One of the most deceptive factors in ill-health and a common underlying contributor of almost all disease is chronic stress. A recent report published by The American Psychological Association titled Stress in America: Our Health at Risk (download the PDF), revealed, we are a nation on the verge of a stress-induced public health crisis. According to this report:
- More adults report their stress is increasing not decreasing
- 53% report stress having an adverse impact on their personal health
- A whopping 94% believe stress contributes to major illnesses such as heart disease, depression and obesity
- Money, work, economy, relationships and family are the most frequently cited cause of stress
- Anger, anxiety, fatigue, lack of interest and depression top the list of stress-related physical symptoms
Stress is a part of everyday life, no one escapes. If our bodies were designed to handle stress and the ability to do so is fundamental to our survival, what’s the problem?
Stress: What’s the Problem
The body’s reaction to stress is called the “stress response”. Without this finely-tuned process, we would not be able to get through a day. However, our modern day high-tech, fast-paced lifestyles have elevated stress to epidemic levels. Our lives have become littered with psychological, physical, nutritional and environmental stressors, which in turn assault our body with chronic levels of stress hormones. Initially, there is some ebb and flow, but eventually, when stress becomes chronic, stress hormones are continually produced and released into the bloodstream.
Herein lies the problem. Not only are the stressors we are exposed to increasing on a daily basis, we have become accustomed to the ongoing stress, so accustomed that we fail to recognize stress and the toll it takes on our health. It becomes our way of life. Instead of implementing an action plan to combat and manage stress we continue to heap it on.
In order to minimize the impact stress has on our health, we first need to become aware of the common stressors. There are many different ways stress can be categorized, but the important thing is to recognize how stress impacts the different areas of our life.
- Psychological: feelings of anxiety, tension, frustration, anger, sadness, nervousness, perfectionism, excitement, worry, grief, depression, negativity, career/job, over-work, over-scheduling, relationship and marriage issues, divorce, death, financial pressures, emotional abuse
- Physical: exercise or lack of it, lack of sleep, illness, surgeries, accidents, overweight/obesity, noise, media, technology, heat, cold, humidity, light/dark exposure
- Nutritional: calorie restriction, nutritional deficiencies, food allergies, trans fats, sugar, gluten, caffeine, dehydration, alcohol, additives & preservatives, excitotoxins, prescription/over-the-counter medications
- Environmental: pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, chemicals, viruses, bacteria, pollens, mold, plastics, pollution
Stress: Cascades into Health Problems
When the body is under stress, cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine are produced by the adrenal glands. We need proper amounts of these hormones for a healthy stress response. It is when stress is excessive that these hormones have a negative impact on our health. Chronically elevated levels of these hormones create a cascade of health problems including hypertension, hypothyroidism, osteoporosis, autoimmune disease, diabetes, depression and cancer.
Take a look at what chronically elevated levels of cortisol do to the various systems in the body:
- Cardiovascular: constricts blood vessel, decreases capillary permeability, leads to hypertension
- Thyroid: decreases conversion of T4 to T3, increases conversion of T4 to RT3, leads to hypothyroidism
- Catabolic: increases muscle breakdown, inhibits protein synthesis, decreases bone density, resulting in osteoporosis
- Gut: increases gut permeability, decreases immune function, leads to food allergies and autoimmune disease
- Blood Sugar: reduces insulin receptor sensitivity, increases insulin secretion, increases blood sugar, results in diabetes
- Brain: decreases serotonin (anxiety & depression), decreases melatonin (poor sleep), decreases dopamine (lack of motivation & focus), hypothalamus shrinks, (poor memory), results in neurological issues
- Cancer & Infections: atrophy of the thymus gland, decreases white blood cell activity, decreases killer cell activity, increases cytokines, increases autoimmunity, increases oxidative stress, leads to impaired immune function
Stress: Is it Affecting You
Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. If we don’t know how to recognize stress in ourselves, all the information in the world is meaningless. Here is a simple quiz, created by metabolic medicine expert, Jim LaValle, to help identify the early stages of excessive stress:
For each statement, simply answer yes or no.
- I have food cravings for sweets or starches, especially in the afternoon or evening.
- I have food cravings for salty snacks.
- I have trouble concentrating on my work during the day.
- I have short term memory loss.
- I am experiencing a reduced sex drive.
- I am feeling increasingly irritable and becoming shorter tempered with co-workers and family members.
- I feel increasingly anxious and worried.
- My waistline is getting bigger.
- I don’t laugh as much as I did, or don’t seem to have my same sense of humor.
- I have a noticeable drop in my energy at midday.
- I need to use caffeine to stay energized throughout the day.
- I have trouble falling asleep at night because I can’t stop the constant thoughts in my mind.
- I fall asleep, but wake up throughout the night and have trouble getting back to sleep
- I wake up and raid the refrigerator at night.
- My food doesn’t seem to be digesting well.
- I catch colds and flu easily.
- I notice my heart racing or beating irregularly.
- I am always rushing from one event to another.
- I feel overcommitted, or find it hard to meet my commitments.
- I have a strong drive followed by exhaustion.
If you answered yes to any of these questions, stress is affecting you. If you answered yes to many of them, consider it a wake-up call. Being proactive requires more than going for a walk or practicing meditation. You have to evaluate your stress hormones and take action to balance them.
In conclusion, while stress is a part of everyday life, both research and Americans’ ill-health suggests we aren’t doing enough to effectively identify, manage and eliminate stress. Identifying stressors and understanding how stress impacts our health is the first step in creating an action plan to minimize the effect. In the next article, we are going to dig deeper into understanding how the function of the adrenal glands is paramount in our defense against stress, discuss how to know if our adrenal glands are functioning optimally and what to do if they are not.
Do you have stress in your life? How do you deal with it? Please comment below.