Everyone experiences stress, and stress is impossible to avoid. There are numerous types of stress, such as physical stress from contact sports, vigorous exercise, or accidents. There is also chemical stress that we have no immediate control over from things like noise, water, and air pollution or chemical stress that we choose to inflict on ourselves from cigarettes, alcohol, or other recreational drugs. We also face stress on a daily basis from our jobs, relationships, family dynamics, and conflicts.
This list of items is only the tip of the iceberg. Stress is actually a normal part of our lives and our physiology, but it should not be as chronic and constant as it has come to be in our daily lives. Humans, especially Americans, have come to accept constant stress as a typical aspect of their lives and just keep trudging through it all.
The Physiology of Stress
There are two primary stress hormones: adrenaline (or epinephrine) and cortisol. Both are produced and secreted by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys; however, adrenaline is secreted very quickly as an immediate reaction to a stressful situation and cortisol is secreted to maintain the physiologic reaction to stress.
Adrenaline is a hormone produced in the medulla of the adrenal glands and in some neurons of the central nervous system. It is released into the bloodstream and serves as chemical mediator and sends nerve impulses to various organs.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, in the glucocorticoid class of hormones, and is produced in humans by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex within the adrenal gland. It is released in response to stress and low blood sugar.
When you are driving down the road and an animal runs out in front of you, your eyes immediately send a message to the amygdala in your brain, the emotion center of the brain. The amygdala then sends a message to the hypothalamus to trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight or flight autonomic portion of the nervous system. The brain then sends a message through the sympathetic nervous system and the bloodstream with hormones to the adrenal gland. It is the adrenal gland that secretes adrenaline and then cortisol. The adrenaline increases your pulse rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and blood sugar so that you can immediately enhance your attention and physical reaction to the immediate danger. Cortisol takes a little longer to be secreted as a hormone and it will help to maintain the alertness for ongoing danger or conflict.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the counter force to this fight or flight system and is nicknamed the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system. Its primary neurotransmitter is acetylcholine that is sent through different nerves to help calm us or put the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system. When our parasympathetic nervous system is up and running optimally, we can digest our food well and our sexual arousal is more likely to be present when we want it to be.
Balance is the name of the game with these two nervous systems and all of our hormones. Basically, in the present world fight or flight predominates. We need to take action to make sure we exercise our parasympathetic nervous system and quiet our fight or flight so we can rest and digest or feed and breed!
Put a DENT in Your Stress
It can get to the point that stress controls our lives. Having a family and maintaining supportive friendships, raising children, developing, maintaining or expanding a career, and finding time to exercise and take care of ourselves can be overwhelming. Then add deadlines, sick children or other family members, a difficult boss or teacher, and the stress of it all can multiply pretty quickly! Without understanding the strategies one can use to balance your life and put a DENT in your stress, things can feel far too overwhelming and hopeless. But there is hope and there are ways to put a DENT in your stress.
Like anything that is built to last or truly change your life it will take action and effort, but if you take things one step at a time and slowly make changes one at a time or step by step things will improve. What most people do not understand is there are fundamental aspects of your health and your life that if attended to, you will be able to take more control of things, adapt better to the bumps, and have tools to establish balance in your life.
You see, there is no quick fix or pill that is going to change things over night. Any change that will have effect for the long term takes time and effort. This is called behavior modification and once someone is ready to step onto a path of change to improve the fundamental pillars of their health and their life one goal or change leads to the next goal and change. Before you know it, you have put a DENT in your stress and are able to obtain and feel balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. You are able to rest and rejuvenate better during your down time. You will feel more energy and are able to enjoy life more fully and have time and energy to exercise and get your mojo back!
As I have said, the steps involve the fundamental pillars of health and you work on them one at a time. The fundamental pillars of health and vitality start with your diet. You see, food is information to your brain, your organs, and every cell in your body. If you eat processed foods, sugar and chemical laden foods that contain a long list of ingredients you can’t pronounce, then those foods are going to appear just as foreign to your brain, organs, and cells. These foods are going to be toxic and irritating to your body, physiology, and biochemistry and therefore your sympathetic nervous system and your immune system are going to be in a fight or flight mode against this toxic information.
On the other hand, if you feed your brain, organs, and cells real whole foods full of natural color with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, berries, and meat then your cells will recognize these natural whole foods, be able to utilize the nutrients and positive information from them, and fill you with energy, hope, and vitality.
The next fundamental pillar of health is detox. As I stated earlier, we live in a toxic world and physical, chemical, and emotional stress is a large part of our lives. Our bodies are amazing in that they are equipped to break down toxins and eliminate them, but if you overwhelm your body with toxins and do not take care of it, like any machine or filter, it will break down.
In order to optimize your ability to detoxify chemicals or irritants that you are exposed to, first go back to the fundamental pillar of diet. Make smart food choices that do not overwhelm or clog up your liver and kidneys with an overwhelming amount of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or alcohol. Make food choices that break down easily and provide the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that aide your liver and kidneys to detoxify the toxins you do not have a choice about. Once you have taken action to change your overall diet, then it will be time to make changes and choices to support your detox system more and more. This can be through foods, supplements, exercise, sweating, and mindfulness practices that help quiet and balance your thoughts.
Once you have taken steps to improve your diet and your ability to detox and are feeling more energized, then you will be able to work on the third fundamental pillar of health – exercise. Exercise and movement are imperative for all of us. Exercise is not just for those who can, but for those who think they can’t. Our connective tissue or fascia surrounds everything in our bodies and “connects” everything in our bodies. It is imperative that we move our connective tissue and keep it healthy.
The problem is that we have been taught to think that it takes long hours of tedious exercise to be healthy. We think it takes at least an hour per day of the treadmill, bike, or rowing machine to reach optimal health and this cannot be further from the truth. The truth is high intensity exercise like weightlifting for only twenty to thirty minutes two to three times per week will improve your hormonal balance, build muscle which will burn more fat, and give you more energy than long periods of aerobic or endurance exercise that actually increases stress and depletes you.
The fourth fundamental pillar of optimal health is nutrition. As much as we want to get the majority of our vitamins and minerals from our food by eating whole foods of all colors of the rainbow, it is typically not possible to get all that we need to be optimally healthy from our food alone. There are a number of reasons for this. The first reason is due to the focus of this blog – stress. The physical, chemical, and emotional stress we are under on a daily basis requires an enormous amount to vitamins and minerals to counter. Many of the biochemical reactions of our detoxification system require vitamins and minerals as co-factors. Toxins can act as negative co-factors to chemical reactions and disrupt detoxification. Vitamins and minerals act as positive co-factors and counter the negative co-factors. So, you can see that the more toxins we are exposed to, the more vitamins and minerals we need.
Other reasons we cannot get all of the vitamins and minerals we need from our diet alone are due to soil depletion and travel depletion. The soils that our fruits and vegetables grow in have been depleted by the same chemicals that are in our environment and depleting our health. If the soil is depleted, then the plants that grow in it are going to be depleted. This is why buying organic can be so important.
The other issue is that most of our fruits and vegetables have to travel hundreds to thousands of miles to get to us. Once the fruit or vegetable is picked from the plant its enzymes, vitamins, and minerals start to deplete. The further the journey from plant to table, the fewer vitamins and minerals and positive enzymes they will provide us.
The final fundamental pillar of health is treatment. I do not mean treatment from a doctor or other practitioner. I mean self-treatment. There is a plethora of stress management self-help modalities out there to learn about. See what resonates for you. Meditation is one awesome example, but it is not for everyone. The main point is to find some activity that helps you clear your mind and lose track of time so that your ego, brain, and sympathetic nervous system are quiet, and your heart, soul, and parasympathetic nervous system can have time to rejuvenate. This can be as simple as a walk in the woods or doing a craft or hobby. There are also simple breathing techniques that can provide balance. As I have been emphasizing, it takes action to try different modalities to see what works for you and then to make a habit of practicing your chosen modality of self-treatment to balance your stress most days of your life.
Over the coming weeks I will elaborate further on each aspect of how to put a DENT in your stress through diet, detox, exercise, nutrition, and self-treatment.
Get your FREE copy of my first book Make a D.E.N.T. in Chronic Disease
Discover Health Podcast Episodes to Explore More About Stress
- Stress and the Adrenal Glands
- Stress and Hormones with Reed Davis
- Managing Stress Due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Dr. Trish Murray is a highly accomplished physician certified in internal medicine, osteopathic manipulative medicine, energy medicine, and functional medicine. In addition, she is a best-selling author and the Health Catalyst Speaker. She is the founder of Discover Health Functional Medicine Center in Conway, New Hampshire and has collaborated with four other wellness professionals to create Discover Health Movement Membership.
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