Stress: Is it good or bad?
Often times we associated the word with negativity. Stress is actually important in some situations, however. One example of the positive effects of stress is that it keeps us alert. For example, while you are stressing about your exam, you alert and awake which makes your body work harder. Another occurrence may be when you encounter a dog barking at you, the body releases the stress response, releasing adrenaline and cortisol, thus resulting for you to sometimes run faster than usual when it chases you. This is called the “fight or flight” response of the body which enables the body to react quickly to life-threatening situations.
Some of the negative physical effects on the other hand are experiencing aches and pains, chest pain, or a feeling that your heart is racing. Others may have trouble sleeping, stomach or digestive problems, and or an increase of blood pressure.
Stress can occur exogenously – meaning from the outside: Work, Finances, Relationships. Stress can occur endogenously – meaning from the inside: food sensitivities, HPA Axis dysfunction, tumors. My question for you-- do you still find time to relax and clear your mind to help regulate your stress response despite what you are dealing with?
STRESS SCIENTIFICALLY EXPLAINED: WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
The stress axis within our body is called the HPA Axis – Hypothalamus, Pituitary, and Adrenal Axis. These organs within our body work together through a negative feedback loop to release hormones in response to emotional, physical, mental, external, and internal stressors. The hormone we are discussing specifically is released from the adrenal glands and is called cortisol. The adrenal glands sit just above the kidneys. Cortisol can be released with good stress or bad stress. It can be released acutely (short term) or chronically (long term). Long term, this release can cause your blood sugar level also increases, thus the body craves sugar and carbohydrates (which is also where the thing called “stress eating” developed). Further, this can lead to insulin resistance, prediabetes, and diabetes.
Another effect of increase in cortisol levels is the decrease in the flow of blood and oxygen to your stomach, causing sudden stomach cramps. Remember when you are about to have your speech in front of a lot of people and you suddenly felt a pain your stomach (or maybe you had loose stool? TMI.. I know)? This may be the reason why.
Inflammation of your digestive tract is another effect in an increased cortisol level. This in turn gets rid of the balance between the good and bad bacteria that live in your digestive tract. The lining of your intestines, which prevents your bowels from filtering out harmful gut bacteria, gets inflamed and your immune system comes to a rescue with a rush of fluids to flush out the harmful bacteria. Long term this causes damage to the gut lining, persistent response by the immune system, and eventually leads to autoimmune disease.
Another agonizing effect of high levels of cortisol for a long period of time, is the potential of depression and anxiety. According to PsychCentral, a 2012 study found that participants with major depressive disorder had higher cortisol levels in the evening compared with control participants without depression. This does not mean every individual with high cortisol levels is depressed, though there is a correlation.
Other very common effects of high cortisol levels are interrupted sleep, fatigue, brain fog, and abdominal weight gain (or the inability to lose abdominal fat).
HOW CAN WE LOWER CORTISOL LEVELS DESPITE STRESS?
One of the best things to do is to clear your mind through meditation. During this activity, you focus your attention and experience calmness amidst the noisy or jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind. This can instill a sense of tranquility that can benefit your overall health. Anyone can do meditation through a guided session or you can do it anywhere at anytime by just relaxing your thoughts and taking a deep breath whether you’re on a bus riding to work, or you’re out for a walk.
PUT YOUR EXPERIENCES INTO A JOURNAL
Journaling: your ability to write your thoughts, be it happy or sad, joyful or resentful. This is a good release of suppressed emotions. Maybe talk about the things you have experienced in a day or on a trip, the things you have felt during these events or maybe draw the things you have seen. Also, no one gets to judge you as you are the only one who knows about this. This also serves as your diary where you can always look back on the experiences you’ve gone through and maybe sometimes ponder that once in your life, you have gone through a difficult situation and made your way through it. This can help us get through other good times, provide encouragement, and self fulfillment.
This is one of the best ways to fight stress. Exercising does not only give you a healthy body but also a healthy mind. During physical activity, our body releases endorphins, a “feel good” brain chemical which blocks the perception of pain and relieves stress thus improving your sense of well-being. Also, this focuses your mind into the movement of your body and keeping you away from your day’s irritations. Your exercise may be walking, jogging, gardening, swimming, weight lifting, biking, or pickleball! Exercise, of course, can cause cortisol levels to elevate in a negative way as well if it is too intense or if we are not fueling our body appropriately. Make sure to discuss the details of your exercise with your functional medicine provider.
HAVE A HEALTHY DIET
Consider eating whole foods like fruits and vegetables, fish, beans, nuts and seeds. This keeps you away from deficiencies in nutrients that help regulate stress or cortisol levels. In addition, stabilizing blood sugar levels is vital to stabilizing cortisol levels. A meal plan high in carbohydrates, sugar, and alcohol OR a meal plan low in protein and healthy fats can also cause cortisol levels to remain high.
LISTEN TO YOUR FAVORITE MUSIC
Have your own playlist of your favorite songs. You just have to sit down, keep quiet and listen to it or maybe dance your way into it. This helps you relax your mind and would sometimes make you forget the reasons for your stress.
CONNECT WITH YOUR FRIENDS & FAMILY
What more would be the best way to spend your time? That is, with your family and friends. Have a trip out of town, go on swimming, plan your beach getaway or simply just watching a good old movie at home with them. This gives you a good time to relax and also strengthen your bond with them.
PROPER NUTRIENT AND AMINO ACID LEVELS
It is very important to make sure you are absorbing, replacing, and optimal with your vitamin and amino acid levels. Some of these vitamins may be Vitamin D, B12, and Magnesium. Some of the nutrient and amino acid levels are Folate, L-Glutamine, L-Theanine, and Inositol. I always recommend treating the individual, not the “one size fits all” approach. It is important to understand your own levels.
SELF-LOVE or SELF-CARE
The best thing an individual can have is self-love. We can never be truthfully happy if we do not give time for ourselves. You can do this by pampering yourself, go to a salon, get yourself a massage, practice yoga, or just simply taking a bath. Self-care or self-love doesn’t have to be grandiose or complicated. It could just be something that would make you happy and contented.
These are just simple ways to clear your mind off of everything. Never forget that stress is always there, the only thing that would matter is how we should handle and overcome it. You always got this!