This past year and a half has been a doozy. And more than ever before, I’m seeing the huge impact stress is having on my clients’ health. Today I want to discuss with you what stress is, its effect on our health, and how you can work to lower your stress levels, all in the name of mental and physical health.
Are You Like Lauren?
This client, let’s call her Lauren, may reflect the way your life operates. You may be on autopilot, not really noticing the mental, emotional, chemical and physical stressors you’re introducing to your life on a minute-by-minute basis. So let’s take a look.
Lauren is a working mom of 3 kids in elementary and middle school. She starts her day dragging herself out of bed after hitting snooze three times, making the kids as balanced a breakfast as she can manage, and getting them packed for school and out the door on time.
Her mind is racing with anxious thoughts: What is my number one priority at work today?; How will I get everything done on my to-do list?; Shoot, I didn’t plan dinner; I hope today isn’t the day there’s a COVID positive case announced at school. And so on.
Then she’s rushing to attend her 9 am meeting, coffee in hand (having skipped breakfast), feeling the beginnings of an upset stomach. Her day is packed with meetings and responding to emails. She has a few minutes to grab a bagel for lunch, then fuels on coffee and sugary snacks in the afternoon to prevent herself from falling asleep in yet another Zoom meeting.
She ends her day starving, on edge, and tired, and opens her fridge to cobble together something for dinner (because who has time for meal planning?). Then it’s off to kids’ activity drop-offs. When the kids are finally in bed, she starts a load of wash (need clean masks for tomorrow!). Then she takes an hour to herself scrolling instagram while watching something escapist on Netflix with her partner, before finally dragging herself to bed. She wakes up in the middle of the night and has trouble getting back to sleep, with the alarm waking her the next morning far before she feels ready.
Lauren is exhausted, anxious, experiences digestive discomfort, and has trouble staying asleep at night. She’s in survival mode, and it’s deeply affecting her health and happiness.
Does this sound like you?
Many of us are experiencing some version of this go-go-go lifestyle, with mental and emotional stressors, along with physical stress like overtraining or under-sleeping, or chemical stress like a poor diet. And stress directly and indirectly affects our health. But the true effect of stress feels a bit abstract, so let’s look at a few specific ways stress actually affects our health.
- When we are stressed out, we are in “fight or flight” mode. Our bodies release stress hormones to give us a better chance of survival in the short term, say when running from a bear. Non-essential functions such as digestion, reproduction, collagen formation, and bone mineralization become inhibited. So when we are under chronic lower-level stress day-in and day-out, these functions crucial for robust long-term health start to break down, leading to unwanted symptoms.
- Stress causes leaky gut. It’s well-documented that stress increases intestinal permeability (widening gaps in the intestinal lining). This allows pathogens, toxins, and undigested food particles to pass into our bloodstream, triggering our immune system. This leads to inflammation that can be felt all over the body, including headaches/migraines, skin rashes or acne, joint pain, mood disorders, digestive discomfort, hormonal imbalance, and so much more. Leaky gut also leads to food sensitivities. When food particles that are not digested well enough to be absorbed properly by the body are allowed into the bloodstream, our immune system mounts an attack. After repeat exposure, our immune system tags these foods as the “enemy”, releasing chemicals to protect us, and giving us these unwanted symptoms.
- Stress leads to poor blood sugar regulation. When we are constantly stressed, our body is putting out stress hormones, like norepinephrine and cortisol, which increases our blood sugar. Increased blood sugar means more blood sugar crashes and spikes. This leads to energy slumps, sugar cravings, and middle-of-the-night wake-ups. Over time, this will affect our metabolic health, contributing to insulin resistance and heart disease.
And of course stress has indirect effects. When we are stressed, we don’t take the time to sit down and eat slowly in a rested state, which severely impacts digestion and absorption of nutrients. And we certainly aren’t prioritizing the foundations for good health; we aren’t planning out our food, making time for mindfulness or exercise, or getting enough sleep.
So, what can we do?
It’s best to address stress slowly, and start with the lowest hanging fruit, lest we get more stressed about needing to reduce our stress!
Really, we have two options. We can either:
- Remove the stressors. Of course this isn’t always possible, but I encourage my clients to take a look at what is causing them the most stress and see if there’s anything they can do to get help with at least one of these items. Can they remove it from their list, even temporarily? Can they get outside help with it?
- Increase our resilience to stress. Once you’ve gotten your stressor list down to the stressors you simply can’t eliminate or reduce, we focus here. Choose one or two of these to start increasing your resilience to stress today:
- Move: a short walk after a meal (or anytime) can help reduce cortisol levels
- Laugh: get together (safely) with friends, watch a comedy special. Don’t forget to have fun! Laughter and smiling increases the release of dopamine, which has numerous positive effects on our mood, sleep, and digestion.
- Spend time in nature: Go for a walk in your local park, or get out for a hike.
- Meditate: Use an app like Calm or Headspace to practice meditation for at least a few minutes a day to get started. The science shows the effect of meditation on stress-management is considerable, so it’s really worth the effort.
- Targeted supplementation, such as adaptogens. This comes with a caveat! Adaptogens are only useful when used in conjunction with other lifestyle measures and with testing to see which ones are right for you.
- Prioritize bedtime: resist the urge to scroll on your device or binge-watch Netflix, and get in bed a little earlier; your health depends on it!
I’d love to hear from you; do you think stress is impacting your health? Reducing your stress is a key part of the healing process, but often we have gotten ourselves to a place where the impact has been so huge that we need to layer in other diet, lifestyle, deeper testing, and targeted supplementation to get you thriving again.
This month at A Balanced Table, 3 spots have just opened up for new clients. In my program, I design a protocol specifically tailored to your symptoms, based on functional lab testing. You have full access to me, as well as sessions with our in-house health and nutrition coach, Annie-Rose (who can walk you through your stressors and help you mitigate them!). If you’re ready to invest in your health and finally feel better, I’d love to help. Fill out this short application to work with me here, and if we’re a good fit, we can set up a 15 minute appointment to talk about your specific concerns and how we may work together. If you’re excited about this idea, don’t wait! These spots will fill up quickly.