Stress is pretty unavoidable these days. It’s how the brain and body respond to any demand. Every type of demand, or stressor, such as exercise, work, school, significant life changes, or traumatic events—can be stressful. Simply turn on the TV, check your email or voicemail, or scroll through your Instagram feed – it’s all rife with stressful news.
Not all stress is bad, and some stress is necessary to get through life. It motivates people to prepare and perform, such as for a speech, exam, or job interview. Stress can also be life-saving, preparing the body to face a threat or flee – referred to as ‘flight or flight.’ In times of stress, the body responds by releasing a cascade of hormones into the bloodstream, chiefly cortisol. This action increases our heart rate and respiration, tenses our muscles, and diverts blood flow and oxygen to survival-based muscles and organs. It’s an impressive mechanism.
“I see so many patients I describe as ‘wired but tired,'” shares Dr. Katherine Walker, Naturopathic physician at Root Whole Body. “While we need cortisol to have an active metabolism when the body is under constant stress, cortisol goes into overproduction.”
Routine stress, such as that experienced at school or work, may be the hardest type of stress to notice and address because the source tends to be more constant than acute or traumatic stress, such as severe financial distress, injury or loss. With chronic, routine stress, the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. According to Dr. Walker, “over time, high levels of cortisol, as well as the inevitable drop off in production, can lead to serious health consequences, including high blood pressure and heart disease, inflammatory issues, autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, chronic pain, fertility issues, compromised immune function, and more.”
While we are designed to experience and deal with stress, unrelenting stress can overwhelm the body’s ability to cope. When the body can’t manage the amount of stress it’s under, it results in physical, emotional, and cognitive issues. Wondering if you’re under too much stress? Here are 12 signs you may be experiencing more than your body can handle:
- You get headaches. From tension headaches to migraines, when the body is stressed, muscle tension and constricted blood vessels from the release cortisol are common headache culprits. You may also be grinding your teeth at night or clenching your jaw, both of which can cause chronic headaches, not to mention dental issues.
- You’re thirsty all the time. Finding that thirst hard to quench? High cortisol levels can also lead to a reduction in aldosterone, a compound that regulates electrolyte and fluid levels leading to dehydration, another contributor to headaches.
- You get sick, often. It happens almost every time. You’re on vacation, you finally relax and bam, you get sick. This phenomenon, known as “the let-down effect,” occurs once the body finally relaxes after a prolonged period of stress. Research shows that stress can make you more susceptible to bacterial and viral infection. If you feel like you’re constantly battling a cold or secondary infection, stress may be to blame.
- You suffer from chronic back or neck pain. Chronic stress and chronic pain often go hand in hand. Muscle tension from stress can result in a stiff neck, tight shoulders, and back pain. The repeated release of adrenaline and cortisol to support response time and protect your body from pain are also associated with chronic, ongoing pain.
- Your skin is breaking out. Acne is one of the more visible signs of too much stress. Cortisol increases oil production in the skin and lowers thyroid, which in turn increases inflammation. Increased oil production, paired with a compromised immune system and a reduction in the skin’s ability to protect itself is the perfect recipe for acne to take hold.
- You’re sleeping too much, or not at all. Whether you can’t sleep, or can’t get out of bed, both ends of the sleep issue spectrum point to too much stress. Studies have shown poor sleepers to have higher levels of stress hormones in their bloodstream. These chemicals not only decrease the total amount of sleep we get, but can compromise the quality of the sleep we do get. Feeling like all you want to do is sleep is also a sign of elevated stress that may be leading to depression.
- You’re exhausted most days. Stress keeps your brain’s stress response system turned on nearly nonstop. This constant release of stress hormones into your system accelerates your heart rate, increases respiration, and activates your sympathetic nervous system. Mobilizing your fight or flight response like this takes a lot of energy, often leading to feeling exhausted by the end of every day.
- Your appetite and weight are changing. Minor weight changes of 5 lbs or so are one thing, but if you see a significant rise or dip, stress may be to blame. Changes in appetite & weight are two of the more common signs of stress. The majority of people eat more under stress, while the rest eat less. Another stress hormone called glucocorticoid stimulates the appetite. This hormone stays in the bloodstream for hours, prompting emotional overeating, especially of high sugar, high fat, high carb “feel good” foods, which can easily lead to weight gain. Others lose their appetite when stressed, leading to unhealthy weight loss and nutrient deficiencies.
- You’re having digestive issues. Finding yourself running to the bathroom or perhaps not using it enough? Maybe something just feels “off” with your stomach. When stress activates the ‘flight or fight’ response, the central nervous system decreases blood flow to digestive organs and reduces the production of enzymes and acids needed for proper digestion. Stress can also increase digestive acids. These responses lead to digestive problems, such as heartburn, bloating, diarrhea, cramping & constipation.
- Your hair is falling out. Does your shower drain or hairbrush seem to have more hair in it than usual? Is your ponytail thinner or does your scalp seem more visible of late? It could be hair loss due to stress. When stressed, the body enters “survival mode,” diverting resources like blood and nutrients away from “non-essential” functions, such as skin and hair maintenance, to systems needed for survival. Over time, hair follicles can prematurely enter what’s called the telogen phase, where growth stops and the hair sheds. With telogen effluvium (temporary hair loss or thinning), hair falls out through simply brushing or washing it.
- You’re having a hard time with memory and concentration. The struggle is real, and not without irony. You’re under the gun at work to deliver, yet you can’t seem to get it together. You’re misplacing things a little too often (hello keys and phone) or forgetting to complete tasks regularly. Chronic stress can reduce spatial memory, the part of the brain that helps you remember locations, objects, and other more mundane items. As we mentioned above, when the body is stressed, and in survival mode, it takes resources away from non-survival related functions, such as short term memory and executive functioning. The result is an increase in memory lapses and difficulty paying attention, makes planning and execution difficult.
- You’re experiencing mood swings, depression, or anxiety. Are you feeling short-tempered of late? Having a hard time enjoying activities you usually enjoy? Are you disproportionately anxious about things? Research has shown that stress can cause, or exacerbate, a host of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
Now that we’ve identified the signs of too much stress, here are 14 ways to naturally support your ability to cope and protect your health.
- Change your relationship with stress. While the goal is to reduce unnecessary stress, learning how to change our emotional response to “stressful” situations is one way to minimize the adverse effects of stress dramatically. Consider therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, or talk therapy with a qualified professional.
- Pause. Prioritize downtime and relaxation. Consider meditation. If meditation does not appeal, take time for observation, gratitude, and being present every day.
- Get regular massages. It’s not self-indulgence. It’s self-care. Studies suggest massage therapy is beneficial in improving mood and fighting stress. Massage also supports immune system function and eases tense muscles and chronic pain, which help counteract the adverse effects of stress.
- Say “No” more. Life is filled with too many demands and too little time. For the most part, we choose to accept these demands. Remember, You don’t have to let the needs and expectations of others rule your life. Nor should you demand too much from yourself. It’s okay, even necessary, to say “No.” You’ll find you perform better with fewer demands on your plate while reducing unnecessary stress.
- Hydrate. Drink water, ideally mineral water or herbal teas, and eat water-rich foods such as soups and smoothies to stave off dehydration.
- Try acupuncture. Research has shown that acupuncture can reduce the stress hormone response during times of chronic stress. Acupuncture can also cause the nervous system to produce painkilling chemicals and stimulate the part of the brain that controls emotions, including anxiety. Combined, this can be a powerful ally in combatting stress and its physical and emotional impacts.
- Consider essential oils. Research has shown that aromatherapy using essential oils can alter brain waves and behavior, reducing the perception of stress, increasing contentment, and decreasing levels of cortisol.
- Practice sleep hygiene. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day and take a look at the recommendations for good sleep here and here to help get a good night’s sleep, every night.
- Listen to relaxing music. Research has shown that music around 60 beats per minute can cause the brain to synchronize with the rhythm, increasing alpha brainwaves. Alpha brainwaves are most prevalent when we are relaxed and conscious. Find something slow that resonates with you and play it in the background to help induce relaxation and release stress.
- Move your body. Engage in non-competitive, regular exercise most days of the week. Include aerobic exercise, which releases “feel- good” endorphins, along with mindful movement such as yoga, pilates, or stretching.
- Eat well. When you’re stressed, your eating habits can quickly go astray, veering into comfort food land and weight gain, or resulting in a deficit of necessary nutrients. It’s especially important to eat a clean, plant-rich diet rich in stress hormone regulating foods. Salmon, olive oil, avocado, pistachios, almonds, and walnuts are all excellent choices. Leafy greens are a healthy source of essential minerals, such as iron and magnesium. Organic eggs, oatmeal, tofu, tempeh, and clean, organic meats are great sources of B vitamins, which tend to be depleted by stress. Food is powerful medicine.
- Consider supplements. Incorporating multivitamins and nutritional supplements can help replace nutrient stores that tend to get depleted by stress. Vitamin C helps to boost the immune system and regulate cortisol levels. B vitamins are also beneficial for nervousness and anxiety. Adaptogenic herbs such as Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, and Ginseng help to regulate the body and its ability to cope with stress. Medicinal herbal teas containing chamomile, passionflower, schizandra, lavender, and kava may also be helpful. It’s always best to consult a health practitioner before starting any new supplements.
- Reduce alcohol & sugar. When we’re stressed, we tend to reach for sugary treats and increase alcohol consumption. While these substances may create a temporary sense of calm or satisfaction, both can exacerbate the impacts of stress, further compromising the immune system, increasing anxiety, and disrupting sleep.
- Don’t stress about being stressed. Easier said than done, but worrying about stress is only going to make your stress, and it’s health impacts, worse. With awareness, reducing stress where possible, and incorporating the practices above, you can relegate worrying about stress to the back burner. Knowing that you are taking pro-active steps to help reduce the impacts of unavoidable stress on your health and wellness puts you in the driver’s seat.
New to acupuncture, yoga, or herbal teas? Join us on October 16th from 5:30-7:30 for wellness Wednesday for an evening sampler of natural remedies to help manage stress and anxiety.
You can also book a complimentary 30-minute consultation with one of our Naturopathic Doctors to assess your needs and create a plan, or a complimentary Meet Your Practitioner appointment to see how massage, acupuncture, chiropractic care, and professional skin care can make all the difference in your health as it relates to stress.