We all experience stress to varying degrees throughout our life – it is normal! Managing a healthy level of stress is what is most important.
Stress is a natural feeling that occurs when your body is preparing you for a situation in which alertness, focus and organisation are required. In this sense, we experience stress every day when we wake up to an alarm, complete busy morning routines, meet deadlines, pay bills, etc. Thankfully our bodies were designed to help us cope with stress. In the lead up to or during a stressful event, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, and specific hormones are released, including cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These hormones produce a cascade of events in the body, leading to increased heart rate, dilated pupils, alertness, tension, reduced appetite and digestive function, and high blood pressure. This response is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. This was extremely important during caveman times, as the stress response enabled our ancestors to run away when they were faced with the threat of a vicious animal.
It is often not as simple as saying, “just stress less”.
Unfortunately, in the current world, this stress response is being activated every day as we deal with the demands of modern life, including work, family and financial pressures. Stress is often intense or becomes chronic, to the point where it can exceed our mental and physical resources. Symptoms of ongoing stress include changes to sleep, worrying, irritability, poor concentration, weight loss/gain, low immune function, and adrenal fatigue.
As well as this, the effects of stress can have widespread negative effects on other body systems and therefore stress can often be an underlying cause for seemingly unrelated health problems. Common examples include:
- Poor digestion – the release of cortisol causes blood to shunt away from the digestive system, and therefore important digestive functions are impaired.
- Hormonal imbalances – high production of stress hormones leads to reduced production of sex hormones, which can cause menstrual irregularity, male and female infertility, and a range of reproductive conditions.
- Weight gain – cortisol causes the release of glucose into the bloodstream to provide energy for the fight or flight response (i.e. to run away from the perceived threat). If we do not use this glucose as fuel (for example, we are still sitting at our desk), the sugar is converted to fat, leading to weight gain.
- Nutrient deficiencies – stress causes a higher demand for certain vitamins and minerals that are required to produce important hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that help us to adapt to stress and bring the body back into balance.
- Immune dysfunction – high levels of cortisol decrease production of immune cells, effectively reducing the immune response. This may manifest as recurrent colds and flus and infections (fungal, bacterial, etc.).
An integrated approach to stress includes the following treatment strategies:
- Addressing underlying causes of stress – e.g. any external factors that contribute to or exacerbate stress and implementing effective stress management techniques
- Assessing biochemical contributing factors of stress- such as hormone imbalance, neurotransmitter imbalance and nutrient deficiencies. All of these may alter our perception of a stressful situation and make us feel more stressed, unnecessarily.
- Enhancing the body’s ability to respond to and adapt to stress – this may involve nutritional medicine, herbal supplements, psychological techniques, relaxation therapies, and specific lifestyle changes.
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