Understanding the Stress Connection

This is THE most important chapter in my opinion because you can have the best diet in the world, exercise regularly and be in great shape….but if you’re reacting to stress instead of RESPONDING to it, like me…then you will eventually have health problems of some kind.  I believe my reacting to stress started as a baby….I was just one of those sensitive babies that reacted to every sound, every new situation….compound that sensitivity with having a very turbulent family life…alcoholic and abusive Father …I was incredibly shy, zero self esteem, thought I was so ugly that no boy could stand to even look at me (so sad and silly, I know)…but hey, I’m an adult now, I appreciate the good things my Mother and Father gave me and forgive the rest and am ready to move on.  I’m 56 years old…I’d say it’s about time to live my life…don’t you?  Stop fretting about every little thought in my head and be present, right now, experience the things that bring me happiness, joy, laughter and good health.  So here we go….the highlights from Understanding the Stress Connection:

The autonomic nervous system that controls your body functions such as heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate and digestion has an on and off switch that is supposed to balance each other.  The on switch is called the sympathetic nervous system and it fires up when you’re stressed (you’ve heard fight or flight response). The off switch is called the parasympathetic nervous system and it acts as the brakes, helping you relax and turn off the stress response.  It’s supposed to turn off the fight or flight response, helping to bring you back into balance so you don’t get stuck in overdrive.

There’s also a hormone response to stress which starts in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland…where your emotions, thoughts and feelings are translated into hormone signals. which stimulate all your endocrine organs, including the thyroid, adrenals and ovaries to make their own hormones.  Cortisol is the most potent and raises your blood sugar so you can have the fuel to fight or flee and is the main anti-inflammatory hormone in the body, suppressing your immune cells and preparing your body for a potential injury…having direct impact to your immune system.  One of the most common symptoms of chronically high cortisol levels is an expanding waistline.  Belly fat is sometimes called “brown fat” because it looks and behaves differently from the other fat in your body, creating a lot of inflammation.  Stress normally has a starting point and an ending point but sometimes the stress system gets stuck in the on position.  This is called chronic stress.  I love the example Susan Blum gives in her book, about a documentary on zebras and lions.  “When one of the lions started chasing one of the zebras it was clear that the zebra was in a fight-or-flight mode as it ran for its life.  Finally, when it evaded the lion, its body began to shake wildly.  But then an amazing thing happened:  this same zebra who had just been running for dear life began quietly grazing in the field like nothing had happened.  It had already forgotten about the near-death experience it had just had, and I’m sure that if we measured the stress hormone levels in that grazing zebra, they would have been back to normal.  The zebra had a way to turn off the stress response and was now moving on.  Wish I could do this…I’ve actually heard a similar story about ducks….that after they fight they shake and ruffle their feathers then go back to what they were doing.  Here’s a good thing to try…when you’re going through a stressful situation, just taking a few deep breaths, might work the same way…..hey, I just thought of the term “shake it off”…maybe that’s where that came from.

Stress is believed to be a contributing factor in an amazing 80 percent of all chronic conditions, including autoimmune disease, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.

The Adrenal glands.  Conventional medicine has ignored them because our medical system is primarily focused on looking for disease and the main diseases of the adrenal glands are extreme situations…Cushing’s syndrome (high levels of cortisol, usually from a tumor) and Addison’s disease, an autoimmune condition that destroys the adrenal glands so they fail to make any hormones at all.

These are the hormones produced by the adrenal:  Aldosterone, regulates blood pressure.  DHEA, regulates blood sugar and lipids and helps support your bones.  In women they can also make testosterone and estrogen from DHEA, especially during menopause.  Cortisol, the most potent stress hormone is considered a primary hormone…needed for life.

The adrenals are happiest and healthiest when you’re sleeping a minimum of seven but preferably eight or more hours a night, eating balanced meals that contain adequate protein and veggies, limiting sugar and white flour, practicing some form of relaxation, exercising moderately (not too much and not too little), and minimizing your exposure to toxins.  The first thing that happens when your adrenal glands get weary is that your DHEA and testosterone levels fall.  Your adrenal glands are focusing all their efforts on making cortisol….which is needed to live, whereas low DHEA and Testosterone might make you sick, but you’ll live.  If you don’t do anything about it, next you may no longer produce sufficient cortisol and adrenaline.  Then your levels of these two crucial hormones begin to plummet, severe exhaustion sets in, often combined with inflammation in the joints or muscles that can cause pain, swelling, or stiffness, especially in the morning.

Okay….so do I have adrenal fatigue?  If you have a history of a lot of stress, not getting enough sleep or exercise, eating a diet high in sugar and bad fats, you don’t ever slow down and relax, and you have a high toxic overload (which can be mercury in your fish, pesticides in your food, or other exposure to environmental chemicals)…..your adrenal glands may be exhausted.  Well, I have a history of a lot of stress, even though I have very little stress now, I haven’t been able to sleep well for the last few years, I have trouble slowing down and relaxing (although I’m working on this, with breathing techniques, meditation, yoga)…For the last year I’ve had an extremely good diet and have always exercised regularly (sometimes too much…which I’ve toned that down quite a bit in the last year)

If you wake up tired, feel best during the middle of the day, crash and need a nap in the late afternoon, and then get a second wind at night, you have the classic pattern of tired adrenal glands.

Stress can directly suppress an immune moledule (called secretory IgA) that helps keep the good bacteria strong and growing and the bad bacteria and yeast out.

Meditation causes blood vessels to relax and dilate; as a result, more blood vessels relax and dilate.  Your body can actually learn to have a different kind of response to a situation so that you don’t turn on the damaging hormones and instead maintain a balanced inner world that will help you prevent and reverse any chronic illness you have.

Check out The Center for Mind-Body Medicine at www.cmbm.org for ideas.  One of her suggestions is the book that I was already reading and love, Full Catastrophe Living, Using the Wisdom and Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD (see website at www.mindfullivingprograms.com).  He also has some meditation and yoga CDs.  I bought this book a couple years ago but I guess I wasn’t quite ready to make any changes…my health has given me a new outlook and I’m loving every page and soaking it up.

Next week I’ll go over the chapter, Understanding the Stress Connection Workbook….a self assessment to find out how to put it all together and know how to proceed with a plan for you.


2 responses to “Understanding the Stress Connection

  1. So how do I get this Cortisol Hormone to it’s normal state as it is really changing my body shape. I exercise and do daily yard work and housework and eat my veggies. I am busy moving around all the time. I relax on my exercise ball. This is well put together website. It’s a very nice beginning.

    • Hi Sue! Thanks for reading my posts. In the way of cortisol I think it’s getting back to basics and having balance, which is eating a healthy diet, getting enough rest, finding things that are relaxing and enjoyable for you such as tai chi, meditation, yoga, or just taking a walk in nature, connecting with people you enjoy being with, art, music, getting good sleep, drinking plenty of water…..then, if you’re still having problems it’s time to get on the detective path and start searching for the key to your good health…balancing the immune system, healing your gut, cleansing your liver, testing for parasites or bacteria, minerals testing….hopefully you won’t need to go there. Remember, your body wants to be healthy. It’s constantly striving to keep you healthy and alive….so it’s important to love your body and work with it.

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