Busting StressIt's a question I ask during every initial visit, "Tell me about your stress." Often times, people don't even recognize their stress, as stress. We are so conditioned to think being "go-go-go" all the time is 'normal,' that we don't even realize it's not. More and more, I am convinced that stress is the epidemic of our time.
Back to the BasicsDuring hunter-gatherer days, we would see a wild animal, our stress would peak, our adrenals would put out adrenaline and cortisol, our bodies would shunt blood from our inner organs to our limbs and muscles and we would run away. This is fight-or-flight, also known as Sympathetic Mode. The sympathetic nervous system increases heart rate, increases blood flow to extremities, diverts sugar to the blood (increases blood sugar levels), increases blood clotting, increases inflammation.
We would get back to the fire and safety, our stress would decrease, our adrenals would relax, our bodies would deliver blood back to our inner organs and we rest. This is rest-and-digest, also known as Parasympathetic Mode. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates digestion (enzyme production, stomach acid production, peristalsis (the movement that moves food the intestines), absorption), regulates deep sleep (stage 4), stimulates sex organs (libido and fertility).
Cortisol is known as our stress hormone and we should have a regular rise and fall in cortisol throughout the day, which is countered with melatonin. In the morning, cortisol peaks while melatonin hits it's lowest. Then throughout the day cortisol slowly decreases and hits it's lowest before bed, while melatonin starts to spike which signals sleep. This constant interplay between cortisol and melatonin creates our circadian rhythm. Our ideal cortisol graph would look something like this:
Stress and the Body
- 79-90% of all visits to primary health care practitioners in North America are due to stress-related illnesses. (Perkins 1994, Saving Money by Reducing Stress. Harvard Business Review 72(6):12)
- 68% of women say they are chronically stressed, yet only 25% say they are doing anything about it. (Statistics Canada)
- 11% of Americans age 12 or older report taking antidepressants. (CDC data)
- Both effects (acute and chronic stress) increase HPA stimulation and result in greater hippocampal and amygdala atrophy, biphasic alterations in structure increasing swings from depression to anxiety in women as compared to men. (Without clinical diagnosis of bipolar). (Bruce McEwen, Glucocorticoids, depression and mood disorders: Structural remodelling in the brain. Metabolism, May 2005, Vol 54, Issue 5, page 20-23).
So, what should you do?
|Photo Courtesy of Fearless Heart Yoga Waterloo|
- Yoga: In yoga, physical postures and breathing exercises improve muscle strength, flexibility, blood circulation and oxygen uptake as well as hormone function. In addition, the relaxation induced by meditation helps to stabilize the autonomic nervous system with a tendency towards parasympathetic dominance. (Europe PMC) In one study, researchers evaluated the effects of yoga in females subjects who participated in a 3-month yoga program compared to those on a waitlist and found that those who participated in the yoga program demonstrated pronounced and significant improvements in perceived stress, anxiety, well-being, vigor, fatigue and depression. Physical well-being increased, headaches and back pain decreased and even salivary cortisol decreased significantly after participation in a yoga class (compared to before the class). (MedSciMonit.com)
- Guided Meditation/Breathing: This is an easy one to incorporate throughout the day. I will often recommend a quick 2 minute breathing exercise before each meal to help move towards parasympathetic mode and improve digestion. I also love guided imagery. A subscription to Apple Music or Spotify will provide you with a HUGE selection of various guided imageries that can be downloaded and listened to. This type of mindfulness has been shown to improve mood, decrease stress, improve, boost the immune system, even improve fertility. Studies are also showing there is huge benefits in children as well. My own daughter has a full playlist on Apple Music of children's guided imagery that we will use after school, before bed or any time we need a bit of calm.
- Adult Colouring: I know it's all the rage right now, but for good reason. In a recent
- Sleep Hygiene: We can't look at stress and cortisol without also looking at sleep and melatonin. If cortisol becomes unbalanced/spiking improperly then the interplay between melatonin and cortisol will also become unbalanced and sleep often times gets affected. Making sure you have a good sleep routine helps to keep those circadian rhythms in check and allows your body to know when it should be producing more cortisol and when it should be producing more melatonin. Make sure you are following these basic sleep hygiene practices:
- Keep a regular sleep and wake time (as much as possible) to keep your circadian rhythm regular.
- Keep your room completely dark- remove clocks, use black out blinds etc. this helps signal your body that it's time for sleep and to produce melatonin.
- Avoid electronics before bed- this plays into the dark point above but even more, electronic screens (tvs, phones, e-readers, etc) emit blue light which further disrupts melatonin production so make sure you are avoiding it before bed. You can also download blue light blocking apps or on iPhones you can change set your screen to "night mode" which removes the blue light.
- Find a counsellor or therapist that you click with. I know often times there is still some lingering stigma around seeing a therapist when there really shouldn't be. These are skilled practitioners who are well trained to provide an outlet to work through stress and an array of coping mechanisms and tools to help manage or reframe stresses.
- Get a massage. Multiple studies show the benefits of massage. It has actually been shown that massage can decrease cortisol levels and actually increase dopamine and seratonin levels!
- Participate in mindfulness. Whether through a yoga class/instructor or finding a mindfulness or meditation coach, working on retraining your body to get into parasympathic mode is a huge step in reducing stress and cortisol. There are even group meditation classes in Uptown Waterloo!
- Talk to your Naturopathic Doctor. Optimizing diet, nutrients and lifestyle goes a long way in dealing with stress and coping. Herbs and supplements can also help support those adrenal glands and give them the nourishment they need after chronic stress.
Dr Jessica, Naturopathic Doctor