Stress is a natural part of life and is our body’s response to a perceived danger or threat. This physiological stress response was used in hunter-gatherer days: The moment of “Ahh!!! It’s gunna eat me!!!” – our heart starts pounding, you get a surge of energy of instant energy – either kill it or run away from it – the fight or flight response.
Once upon a time we would only experience this maybe three times a year but in modern society, we can experience this same response 2 – 3 times a day!
Stress is meant to be an acute event – not a chronic or long-term state. Chronic stress can have long-term implications for our health including cardiovascular and mental health risks, as well as an increased risk of diabetes and cancer.
Yet, most stressors we face today aren’t going to kill us. And have you ever noticed how stress seems to steamroll? Just thinking can stress us out! You start off being late for picking the kids up from school, then you get anxious because the kids may have to wait for you, then you remember you forgot to buy milk and have nothing to cook for dinner. The kids have soccer and dancing this afternoon, maybe you can duck to the shops between? Did I pay the phone bill? Oh my god is there enough money in to pay that? Argh, I forgot to call that client back and the boss wanted that report tomorrow morning!!!
All of this is producing the same physical reaction in our bodies although we are not at risk of being eaten.
During a stress phase, our bodies release 3 hormones: adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol. The first two move the body into battle stations increasing blood flow, heart rate and blood glucose. This fires and fuels the muscles to stand and fight or flee.
Cortisol is slower to the party but then hangs around longer. He is well known for decreasing inflammation – Doesn’t matter if you twisted your ankle – it’s not going to kill you right now unless you stop running because of it – and the bear eats you!
Cortisol also enhances the brain’s use of glucose, heightening your awareness but your cognitive function declines. Have you ever been in and exam when you feel you’re very alert, you know the answer but can’t think of it? – That’s cortisol!
Another key function to cortisol is to divert the body’s attention away from non-essential functions, remember we’re trying to survive the beast so these are important right now. This is the reason that chronic stress impacts our immune system making you more susceptible to every cold and flu going around – again that cold virus you’re fighting isn’t going to kill you – right now, but that bear chasing you might!
The digestive function is highly susceptible to the impacts of stress. Have you ever heard of the runner’s trots? This is the body diverting the troops to focus on fleeing or fighting and is unable to deal with digesting foods so “evacuation” is required! Many people who suffer digestive conditions including IBS, Crohn’s and diverticulitis find conditions can be improved through modulation of stress. Prolonged stress also increases your odds of developing leaky gut – but that’s for another blog another day .
On top of all of this chronic stress could be a hidden cause of weight gain. To keep the body the fuelled for fighting or flighting the body needs a constant supply of food, so cortisol signals the body to keep pumping out glucose. Meaning we have constantly high blood glucose levels – increasing our risk of type II diabetes .
As we are not actually physically running or fighting our stress, all this glucose has to go somewhere. Cortisol signals to the body “man we’re in a pickle here, not sure how long it’s gunna last better get some supplies to see us through. I know lets store fat!”. Cortisol also makes us crave that high carb sugary treat – because it has the most bang for the cortisol buck! It has sugar we can use now, and fat we can store for later – win win right?
Managing and reducing stress is key to many health conditions. To do this try and include meditation and mindful activities into your daily routine. If you feel yourself getting wound up and the steam roller is about to come through - Stop it! Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? Often the answer is not that bad, and remind yourself that you are ok and everything will work out – I know it’s simple but try it you might be surprised.
Allison is qualified in both Naturopathy, Nutritional and Western Herbal Medicine. As the founder of Fundamental Wellbeing, she specialises in gut health and stress related conditions. She is also a co-founded the Whole Life Wellness Program. Allison possesses a strong passion for all things health and wellness, she understands that balance is essential to life, looking for real world solutions to help clients reach their health goals.