Everyone experiences stress, it is impossible to avoid it. There are numerous types of stress, such as physical stress from contact sports, vigorous exercise or accidents. There is also chemical stress that we have no immediate control over from things like noise, water and air pollution or chemical stress that we choose to inflict on ourselves from cigarettes, alcohol or other recreational drugs. We also face stress on a daily basis from our jobs, relationships, family dynamics, and conflicts. This list of items is only the tip of the iceberg. Stress is actually a normal part of our lives and our physiology, but it should not be as chronic and constant as it has come to be in our daily lives. Humans, especially Americans, have come to accept constant stress as a typical aspect of their lives and just keep trudging through it all.
The Physiology of Stress
There are two primary stress hormones: Adrenaline or Epinephrine and Cortisol. Both are produced and secreted by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, but adrenaline is secreted very quickly as an immediate reaction to a stressful situation and cortisol is secreted to maintain the physiologic reaction to stress.
Adrenaline is a hormone produced in the medulla of the adrenal glands and in some neurons of the central nervous system. It is released into the bloodstream and serves as chemical mediator and sends nerve impulses to various organs.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, in the glucocorticoid class of hormones, and is produced in humans by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex within the adrenal gland. It is released in response to stress and low blood sugar.
When you are driving down the road and an animal runs out in front of you for example, your eyes immediately send a message to the amygdala in your brain, which is the emotion center of the brain. The amygdala then sends a message to the hypothalamus to trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight or flight autonomic portion of the nervous system. The brain then sends a message through the sympathetic nervous system and the bloodstream with hormones to the adrenal gland and it is the adrenal gland that secretes adrenaline and then cortisol. The adrenaline increases your pulse rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and blood sugar so that you can immediately enhance your attention and physical reaction to the immediate danger. Cortisol takes a little longer to be secreted as a hormone and it will help to maintain the alertness for ongoing danger or conflict.
The Parasympathetic nervous system is the counter force to this fight or flight system and is nicknamed the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system. Its primary neurotransmitter is acetylcholine that is sent through different nerves to help calm us or put the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system. When our parasympathetic nervous system is up and running optimally we can digest our food well and our sexual arousal is more likely to be present when we want it to be.
Balance is the name of the game with these two nervous systems and all of our hormones. Basically, in the present world fight or flight predominates; so, we need to take action to make sure we exercise our parasympathetic nervous system and quiet our fight or flight so we can rest and digest or feed and breed!
Put a DENT in your Stress through Diet, Detox, Exercise, Nutrition and Treatment
It can get to the point that stress controls our lives. Having a family and maintaining supportive friendships, raising children, developing, maintaining or expanding a career and finding time to exercise and take care of ourselves can be overwhelming. Then add deadlines, sick children or other family members, a difficult boss or teacher, and the stress of it all can multiply pretty quickly! Without understanding the strategies one can use to balance your life and put a DENT in your stress things can feel far too overwhelming and hopeless. But, there is hope and there are ways to put a DENT in your stress.
Like anything that is built to last or truly change your life it will take action and effort, but if you take things one step at a time and slowly make changes one at a time or step by step things will improve. What most do not understand is there are fundamental aspects of your health and your life that if you attend to, then you will be able to take more control of things, adapt better to the bumps and have tools to establish balance in your life. You see, there is no quick fix or pill that is going to change things over night. Any change that will have effect for the long term takes time and effort. This is called behavior modification and once someone is ready to step onto a path of change to improve the fundamental pillars of their health and their life one goal or change leads to the next goal and change and before you know it you have put a DENT in your stress and able to obtain and feel balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. You are able to rest and rejuvenate better during your down time. You will feel more energy and are able to enjoy life more fully and have time and energy to exercise and get your mocho back!
As I have said the steps involve the fundamental pillars of health and you work on them one at a time. The fundamental pillars of health and vitality start with your Diet. You see, food is information to your brain, your organs and every cell in your body. If you eat processed foods, sugar and chemical laden foods in which you cannot even read the label because it reads like a foreign language, then those foods are going to appear the same to your brain, organs and cells: like a foreign language. They are going to be toxic and irritating to your body, physiology and biochemistry and therefore your sympathetic nervous system and your immune system are going to be in a fight or flight mode against this toxic information.
On the other hand, if you feed your brain, organs and cells real whole foods full of natural color with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, berries and meat; then your cells will recognize these natural whole foods, be able to utilize the nutrients and positive information from them and fill you with energy, hope and vitality.
The next fundamental pillar of health is Detox. As we have already said we live in a toxic world and physical, chemical and emotional stress is a large part of our lives. Our bodies are an amazing in that they are equipped to break down toxins and eliminate them. But, if you overwhelm your body with toxins and do not take care of it, like any machine or filter it will break down. In order to optimize your ability to detoxify chemicals or irritants that you are exposed to, first of all go back to the first fundamental pillar of Diet. Make smart food choices that do not overwhelm or clog up your liver and kidneys with an overwhelming amount of sugar or high fructose corn syrup or alcohol for example. Make food choices that break down easily and provide the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that will aide your liver and kidneys to detoxify the toxins you do not have a choice about. Once you have taken action to change your overall Diet, then it will be time to make changes and choices to support your detox system more and more. This can be through foods, supplements, exercise, sweating, and mindfulness practices that help quiet and balance your thoughts,
Once you have taken steps to improve your diet and your ability to detox and are feeling more energized, then you will be able to work on the third fundamental pillar of health: Exercise. Exercise and Movement are imperative for all of us. Exercise is not just for those who can, but for those who think they can’t. Our connective tissue or fascia surrounds everything in our bodies and “connects” everything in our bodies. It is imperative that we move our connective tissue and keep it healthy. The problem is that we have been taught to think that it takes long hours of tedious exercise to be healthy. We think it takes at least an hour per day of the treadmill, bike or rowing machine to reach optimal health and this cannot be further from the truth. The truth is high intensity exercise like weight lifting for only 20-30 minutes 2-3 times per week will improve your hormonal balance, build muscle which will burn more fat and give you more energy than long periods of aerobic or endurance exercise that actually increases stress and depletes you.
The fourth fundamental pillar of optimal health is Nutrition. As much as we want to get the majority of our vitamins and minerals from our food by eating whole foods of all colors of the rainbow, it is typically not possible to get all that we need to be optimally healthy from our food alone. There are a number of reasons for this. The first reason is due to the focus of this blog: Stress. The physical, chemical and emotional stress we are under on a daily basis requires an enormous amount to vitamins and minerals to counter. Many of the biochemical reactions of our detoxification system require vitamins and minerals as co-factors. Toxins can act as negative co-factors to chemical reactions and disrupt detoxification; and, vitamins and minerals act as positive co-factors and counter the negative co-factors. So, you can see that the more toxins we are exposed to the more vitamins and minerals we need. Other reasons we cannot get all of the vitamins and minerals we need from our diet alone are due to soil depletion and travel depletion. The soils our fruits and vegetables grow in have been depleted by the same chemicals that are in our environment and depleting our health. If the soil is depleted, then the plants that grow in it are going to be depleted. This is why buying organic can be so important. The other issue is that most of our fruits and vegetables have to travel hundreds to thousands of miles to get to us. Once the fruit or vegetable is picked from the plant its enzymes, vitamins and minerals start to be depleted, so the further they have to go from plant to table the less vitamins and minerals and positive enzymes they will provide us.
And the final fundamental pillar of health is Treament; but, I do not mean treatment from a doctor or other practitioner. I mean Self-Treatment. There are a plethora of stress management self-help modalities out there to learn about and see what resonates for you. Meditation is one awesome example, but it is not for everyone. The main point is to find some activity that helps you clear your mind and lose track of time so that your ego, brain and sympathetic nervous system are quiet and your heart, soul and parasympathetic nervous system can have time to rejuvenate. This can be as simple as a walk in the woods or doing a craft or hobby. There are also simple breathing techniques that can provide balance. But, as we have been emphasizing it takes action to try different modalities to see what works for you and then to make a habit of practicing your chosen modality of self-treatment to balance your stress most days of your life.
Over the coming weeks I will elaborate further on each aspect of how to put a DENT in your Stress through Diet, Detox, Exercise, Nutrition and self-Treatment.