How Chronic Stress Affects the Body and How to Combat It
The word "stress" is so common place within my practice when patients come in. Waking up, rushing to get to work, the stress of sitting in traffic during the daily commute, dealing with out of balance eating habits, our eyes focused on electronic devices, the caffeine rush, kids, family, pets, the question of "What is for dinner?", and the deep compression of when we finally hit the pillow can all build over time. We go day in and day out facing all sorts of stress factors that we forget how important it is to decompress from the daily routine. Mixed that with outside stress from our usual day to day can cause the nervous system to go into a full alert creating a loop of chronic stress. Whew! Just typing that I feel my anxiety level rise!
Stress almost has this bad rap of being the bad guy and the reason for all the physical and emotional disturbances. However, stress isn't such a terrible aspect of life. It is actually needed for the nervous system to acclimate during times of survival. For example, during the days of the hunter and gathers, stress would increase to run away from dangers such as a bear or lion attacking in order to find shelter. At this point, the nervous system bounces from the parasympathetic system to the sympathetic system, which regulates the fight or flight mode. When seeking safety the amount of adrenaline rushing through the body is so quick because the brain and body's reaction is immediate. Most bodily functions come to a slower pace. There isn't a need to eat a sandwich or have a nap during the moments of running away from an angry or hungry animal. So this causes digestion to slow down, appetite becomes nonexistent or increases to meet the needs of survival and energy being used, all senses sharpen, mental focus is on point, oxygen pumps through the lungs to oxidize the muscles.
However, once shelter or a safe place is found, there should be a period when the body comes to the realization that it needs to rest. The nervous system switches back to the parasympathetic system, the rest and digest mode. During this period, the body will begin to lower the adrenaline levels, switch all systems to full efficiency and resume the normal flow of things. But what if the body is in constant stress-survival mode with no animal or source attacking? What if the body experiences this level of adrenaline on a daily basis, never finding a safe place or shelter?
The body will eventually begin to slowly break down, limiting each body system with less capacity than what it should operate. Meaning, the body becomes fatigued, anxious, eating disorders develops headaches, weight gain, heart disorders, cognitive function slows, reaction time decreases, insomnia becomes an issue, and reproductive issues become present. Over time cells will change a bit due to the amount of stress being applied throughout the body. We don't realize the effects of chronic stress until we reach the point of apparent symptoms. Addressing the symptoms and the root of the stress will help tremendously to bring the body back to balance and return to the rest and digest mode.
Here are some ways to combat the symptoms of chronic stress:
Sleep is such an important part of any healing process. It allows the body to repair, recuperate, and regenerate. When the body is stressed, it goes through such a wiring that is fatiguing as a whole. Everyone experiences different symptoms but everyone could use adequate sleep. The number of hours aren't the main focus but instead the quality. It is best to aim for 8-10 hours of sleep, where there is little disturbance throughout the night. Reducing the amount of exposure to electronic devices two hours before bed and having the room cool throughout will help the body to be more at ease.
2) Nutrient Dense Foods
Nutrients in food are our body's fuel. So providing food that is packed with vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients are key to keeping the body going. During times of stress, this fuel will be the main energy source for all systems to be supported through out this survival mode. Food not only supports the bodily functions, it also assists in the healing process when the body is ready for the repair state.
One of the best ways to reduce the amount of adrenaline is to get the body moving! Movement allows the body to expend the additional energy so it doesn't create a domino effect of other symptoms later on. Some of these symptoms show up as insomnia, anxiety, headaches, and disruption to digestion. Feeling the weight of chronic stress can cause the fall back of fatigue but by incorporating movement a few times a week for a minimum of thirty minutes should in turn increase the energy level. Some great forms of movement are walking, swimming, bike riding, and hiking.
Herbal therapy has been used for years to address a number of issues. Due to the long standing symptoms, the body sometimes could use a helping hand from Nature's medicine. Some herbal formulas give that extra push to work from the inside out. There are some herbs that work with the nervous system to modulate the stress response. This gives the body a chance to slowly turn off the sympathetic system and turn on the parasympathetic. Herbs such as Lemon Balm, Ashwagandha root, Passion flower, and Holy Basil (Tulsi) are great at reducing stress gently.
Traditional Chinese Medicine has a number of ways to assist the body. Acupuncture is one of the most common forms of treatment. This form of therapy helps by releasing endorphins (the feel-no-pain chemical) and sending signals to the brain to relax and be calm. The body has a moment of full relaxation. Acupuncture also helps to detox the body allowing all the toxins, built up waste byproducts that have been accumulated over time, to be evacuated. This helps the immune system and the body to stay strong but also reducing the many symptoms from chronic stress.
Managing chronic stress can be a mission. The first step is realizing what the stressful triggers are and working with them. It is never easy changing course but hopefully these tips can help you work through the symptoms.