Our bodies respond to stress by secreting adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine for short-term responses and cortisol for sustained stressors. However, our bodies were not meant to stay in a stressed state and too much stress for too long can be harmful to our bodies. Even good stress can cause damage to our bodies.
Stress can come from various sources including:
- Physical: illness, infections, surgery, poor nutrition, high sugar/carbohydrate intake, lack of sleep, excessive high intensity exercise, etc.
- Emotional: depression, anxiety, thoughts, negative emotions related to work, finances, and relationships, etc.
- Environmental: work environment, weather, toxins, pollens, traffic, pollution, pesticides, cleaning agents, fumes, etc.
Effects of Stress
- 90% of all illness and disease is stress-related according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
- Stress increases cortisol levels which can lead to increased blood sugar levels and increased body fat.
- Corticoids secreted by the adrenal glands inhibit digestion, reproduction, growth, tissue repair, and decreases immunity. Stress also suspends tissue repair and remodeling which causes decalcification of bones, osteoporosis, and susceptibility to fractures.
- The stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol block the normal function of testosterone, progesterone, estrogen, and thyroid. Elevated stress hormones cause fatigue, insomnia, foggy thinking, anxiety, and depression.
- Stress makes the hippocampus smaller (responsible for short-term memory, spatial recognition) which is why stress makes you dumb. Anti-depressant therapy and exercise will regulate the hippocampus and return it to normal.
- Increased cortisol output from stress can burn out the adrenal glands (they produce 50 different hormones and help regulate sugar levels). Prolonged stress not alleviated with proper nutrition, exercise, and rest will result in adrenal fatigue and many illnesses.
Prolonged stress can lead to Adrenal Fatigue
The adrenals glands rest on top of the kidneys. They release stress managing hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. They also help convert protein, fats, and carbohydrates into available energy, help the thyroid with metabolism, and help regulate sex hormones. The affected thyroid and unstable production of other hormones (estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, cortisol…) often lead to weight problems, illness, and disease.
- Healing the adrenal glands can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the severity of depleted nutrients and continuous, unrelieved stressors.
- Symptoms of adrenal fatigue: light-headed when stand up quickly, crave salty or sweet foods, difficulty falling or staying asleep, depression/anxiety, stomach complaints , memory loss/fuzzy thinking, sensitivity to strong odors/loud sounds, migraines/headache, low and/or high blood sugar, energy loss at 2-5 PM, more energy late at night, irritability, constant fatigue/lack of energy, dark circles under eyes, muscular weakness, fibromyalgia, food or environmental allergies, edema (water retention), feel worse after exercise, easily upset, hormone imbalances, thyroid symptoms, etc.
Healing Strategies for Stress
Often times a hormone or nutrition specialist are the ones who pick up on these symptoms. They will diagnose and treat with nutrition, exercise, stress management, and hormone therapies.
Eliminate or decrease sources of stress
- Much easier said than done, but our bodies were not meant to stay in a stressed state. Too much stress for too long can be harmful to our bodies
- Learn to prioritize, eliminate, and change perception if necessary.
- Practice relaxation techniques: deep breathing, progressive relaxation, autogenics, meditation, etc. 15 minutes daily.
- Do things that you enjoy for at least 10 minutes per day (read a book, be alone, listen to music, be outside, take a bath, take a walk).
- Nutrition is the most important factor in dealing with stress. The body uses more protein, vitamin C, B vitamins, and magnesium during times of stress.
- Medicine is only 60-70% effective because neurotransmitters get disrupted by the diet.
- Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. They can also affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight, and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance.
- Neurotransmitters need good nutrition (protein, fat, vitamins) in order to be made and function properly.
- Weight loss is 65% diet, 20% resistance training, and 15% aerobic exercise.
Good Carbohydrates: 45-65% of diet
- Lower-glycemic diets will help with mood, sleep, and cognitive function. These usually include fiber rich, not processed foods. The main source of carbohydrates should be vegetables, whole grains, and fruits in moderation. Lower glycemic foods have a slower insulin response or spike and can help with hormones, adrenals, and appetite control.
- If blood glucose falls too low, mood can become impatient, irritable, and aggressive.
Protein: 12-20% of diet.
- Protein In the diet is the only source of amino acids which are converted to neurotransmitters (communicate info throughout the brain and body).
- Protein is essential in forming enzymes, many hormones, and immune function.
- During times of healing, stress, and muscle building the body needs more protein
- The average person needs a minimum of 60 grams of protein a day. Animal sources are the best (especially for adrenal, hormone, and brain chemistry) but combined plant and animal proteins work okay (rice and beans, cheese and bread or pasta; there is a small amount in vegetables).
- Be careful with soy. Soy increases estrogen levels which can have a negative effect on the male thyroid and can lead to hormone imbalances in women that can lead to weight gain, irritability, etc. Texturized vegetable protein (TVP), also known as textured soy protein (TSP), or soy meat also falls under this category.
- If you can’t sleep at night increase protein intake and decrease high-glycemic carbohydrates.
- There is also an increased need in protein for those with learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, ADD, etc.
Fat: 20-25% of diet.
- Fat is needed for hormone production and proper function of the adrenals and thyroid.
- Fat should come from healthy sources: avocados, flax seed oil, nuts, coconut oil, olive oil, and butter. Canola and vegetable oils, margarines, and other processed oils or fats should be avoided for maximum brain function and health.
- Fish oils (EPA and DHA) are very effective for helping with low energy levels, depression, arthritis, diabetes, etc.
- Drink a minimum of 64 ounces/day or half your body weight in ounces for optimal functioning.
Foods to Avoid
- Aspartame – inhibits serotonin (for depression and anxiety) and melatonin (for sleep) in the brain. It causes sugar and food cravings, blood sugar instability, weight gain, and is responsible for aches and pains, memory loss and foggy thinking, blurry vision, etc. It is highly addictive due to its chemical nature.
- Soy – decreases thyroid function and disrupts hormones. In a typical American diet, soy can be very difficult to avoid. Become more aware of its many different forms from this posting on foodallergies.about.com.
- Caffeine – excessive amounts stress the adrenal glands.
- Excessive amounts of sugar or carbohydrates – decreases production of adequate amounts of hormones (progesterone in women and testosterone in men), decreases the availability of neurotransmitters to the brain for depression, anxiety, energy, endorphins.
- Foods you are allergic to: may include dairy, gluten, sugar, etc. because they damage the lining of the stomach and impede the absorption of vitamins needed for energy, hormone production, and neurotransmitter production (serotonin, dopamine, etc.).
- Endocrine disrupters: non-organic fruits and vegetables, heavy household cleaners, etc. These disrupt hormone functions.
- Exercise helps to undo damage to the hippocampus (memory, spatial recognition).
- Increases life-span (this does not include long-endurance running or sports).
- Controls cortisol levels.
- American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise 5 days/week.
- Multiple shorter sessions of at least 10 minutes and just as beneficial.
- Long leisurely walks in nature or lower intensity exercise mitigate cortisol levels. You may not break a sweat.
Exercise (Base training)
- lower intensity cardio for 20-30 minutes, 3 -5 times a week. (Do this for 2 -4 weeks before doing Interval/High Intensity training to increase you ability to burn fat more efficiently).
Exercise (Interval/High Intensity training)
- 2 days/week: 20 second bursts for a total of 20 minutes after you have built a good base.
Exercise (Resistance training)
- Resistance training increases metabolism for 14-36 hours after exercise vs. 2-3 hours of increased metabolism after cardio. High Intensity Training (HIT) increases it for a little more than 2-3 hours.
- Train each major muscle group two or three days a week.
- For general fitness do 1-3 sets, 12-20 reps to fatigue, rest 20 seconds to 1 minute between moves and perform 1-3 different moves per muscle group.
- 80% of benefits come from 1 day a week of strength training and doing 1 set of each muscle group to fatigue (body weight exercises are fine). However, more gains of strength and increased metabolism are seen if increase to 2-3 days.
- Never perform exercises for the same muscle groups two days in a row. The body needs 48 hours between sessions.
- For optimal functioning we need 7.5-8.5 hours of good quality sleep. Try to be in bed by 10-10:30 PM.
- Chronic insomnia increases the risk of depression by 5x and the risk for panic disorders is increased by 20X.
- It is very important for you to be in bed before 11 pm, before you get your second wind if your adrenals are burned out, and sleep in until 8:30 or 9. This is the best healing time for the adrenal glands (hormone production, energy, blood sugar regulation).
- Those deprived in sleep have increased appetite (hormones regulating sleep are off balance) specifically for carbohydrates and sugar because they need quick energy.
- If you have trouble sleeping, exercise helps to restore sleep – all forms of exercise help to regulate cortisol levels from stress. However, don’t do high intensity training after 4 p.m. because it interferes with sleep. Lower intensity exercise will help to decrease high cortisol levels from stress.
To decrease the negative effects of stress:
- Eliminate or reduce sources of stress if possible
- Improve your diet with adequate protein and better quality carbohydrates.
- Improve your diet (avoid blood sugar spikes).
- Exercise to manage cortisol levels with aerobic and resistance training.
a. Lower intensity for 30-60 minutes a day to decrease cortisol levels. (Walk, swim, bike, etc.)
b. Interval training 2 times a week, 20 minutes total with 20 second bursts, increases metabolism and helps moderate cortisol levels.
c. Resistance training 1-3 times a week, 1-3 sets, 12-20 reps to fatigue for each muscle group.
- Get adequate and quality sleep.
a. Change your sleeping habits (get 7.5 – 8.5 hours of sleep per night).
b. Low-intensity exercise for decreasing cortisol levels and regulating sleep.
- Relaxation training.
- Practice relaxation techniques and changing perception.