How it Affects You, and How to Fix It.
The truth is, most people who come to see me are holding an inordinate amount of stress. I don’t just mean the rushed, nervous, phone-checking, frazzled, distracted patients. They’re obviously stressed out, sure. But its impossible for today’s world, especially over the past few months, NOT to have a negative effect on our health.
I’d venture to day that stress is the number one health problem of our time. It’s linked to just about every disease process, either causing or exacerbating them.
So what is stress?
Here’s the short answer: Stress is a cascade of events in the body set off by a thought, an action, emotion, a physical problem, or a life situation (also known as stressors). It can be beneficial or detrimental; stress isn’t bad or good in and of itself. But let’s face it, people rarely say, “I’m so stressed, life is great!” When you’re experiencing stress in a positive way, you call it by other names, like “motivation” or “excitement.”
To get into how stress adversely affects your health, we need to differentiate between an acute stress state, which is normal, and an ongoing stress state, which is much more problematic. When people say they’re stressed, they’re usually referring to an ongoing feeling of intense pressure or strain that is manifesting itself in mental and physical signs and symptoms.
What’s the relationship between stress and your hormones?
To break this down in doctor-speak, I’m going to tell you about the hormone most directly related to stress: cortisol. Cortisol is in a class of hormones called glucocorticoids, so-called for their relation to glucose (sugar) metabolism. It’s a critical hormone for survival; so critical, in fact, that we would die very quickly without it.
When your body experiences a stressor, your adrenal glands — two pyramid-shaped glands that sit atop your kidneys — secrete certain hormones, namely adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The cortisol signals your body to release glucose into your bloodstream. Suddenly, you have extra blood sugar to give you the fuel to deal with the stressful circumstance you find yourself in. Some extreme examples of this are the incredible but true stories of people lifting cars or breaking down doors in burning buildings to save a trapped loved one. Once the stressor has passed, cortisol levels fall back into their normal range.
If stressful events keep occurring again and again (which they do in most people’s everyday lives) and they’re not being dealt with properly, an ongoing stress state occurs. When you have ongoing stress you also have elevated levels of cortisol throughout the day, which ultimately means elevated blood sugar. Elevated blood sugar is shown to have all sorts of negative effects on the body: it damages your gastrointestinal tract, immune system, brain, and cardiovascular system. It also causes your body to store more fat.
Furthermore, when your body prioritizes cortisol production, production of many of your other key hormones is put on hold. You experience a decrease in fat-burning hormones, hormones that support your libido, hormones that help you heal, and more. These hormones are testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and thyroid hormone, to name a few.
Eventually, if the stress continues for a long enough time, your body ends up unable to produce any more cortisol than is necessary to barely get you through the day. You end up with constant fatigue, susceptibility to infections, and more. This spectrum of negative effects of stress is known as adrenal fatigue or adrenal insufficiency.
So what can you do about chronic stress?
The question and challenge for me as a practitioner is, “How do I assist my patients in a world that’s constantly presenting them with stressors?”
One extremely effective strategy for my patients who have really bottomed out in their cortisol production is to administer hydrocortisone, a pill they can take ho help with the insufficiency of cortisol production by the adrenal glands (this is different then prednisone, which you may have heard of). But hydrocortisone is usually only administered for so long. Any approach to adrenal recovery needs to address lifestyle changes to replenish natural production of cortisol. It’s also important that your other key hormones are at optimal levels, which often means hormone replacement therapy.
In an ideal world, I’d tell my patients to quit their jobs, throw their phones in the garbage, and live in some quiet cabin in the mountains or a beach bungalow. If you can do that, great! But of course that’s not reasonable advice for most people.
So sleep is the first thing I address. Quality sleep is restoring for the adrenal glands and our cortisol levels. Deep sleep, sleep on a regular schedule, and enough sleep. You can read more about this in my next blog entry.
Meditation also helps. The meditation I’ve seen the most studies on is called transcendental mediation (TM), which is know to affect physiological change. But there are a variety of meditation techniques, and most of them are useful for decreasing negative stress. If one technique doesn’t suit you, find another one.
Exercise is a great way to de-stress by directing all that jittery energy. But this is only an option for someone in the beginning stages of the stress cycles described above. If someone is suffering from extreme fatigue, intense exercise isn’t always a good idea and can actually worsen the problem. Leisurely walks, stretching, very light yoga (i.e. spiritual-based yoga, not hot yoga, etc.) can be helpful.
Other lifestyle changes I suggest are increasing leisure activity, going out into natural settings like the woods or the beach, and restricting access to news. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make sure you have real outer and inner boundaries between work and personal time. Teach yourself to resist looking at your phone and emails every few minutes, and that when the work day is over, it’s over.
How can you get the assistance you need?
Tackling stress can itself be stressful if you’re doing it on your own. Especially since there is likely other hormonal support needed. That’s why it’s important to find a supportive Age Management and Hormone Optimization specialist to assist you.