NW Calgary Naturopath

What does stress do to my body?

My blog today is going to be about the impact that stress, and specifically the stress hormone, cortisol, has on our physical, mental and emotional health.
We all go through periods of stress. These periods are meant to be short term, so that our bodies temporarily alter function to get us through the stress, to survive. Stress for us used to be running from a wild animal. Our heart rates would elevate, our pupils dilate, blood is sent to the limbs so we can run, and away from our digestive system. All energy in the body is used for survival. Then after the period of stress, we would rest and recover. We go through a period of fatigue, so our body can replenish our stress hormones, and then we feel good again.
So what happens when stress these days is constant? Financial worries, career goals, taking care of children, managing a household….our body cannot tell the difference between these stresses, and actually being faced by a bear. Then our body is constantly in survival mode….and healing and regeneration takes a back seat.
What are the impacts of these levels of stress on our bodies, and what can we do to help our bodies manage? Keep reading to find out!

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced by our adrenal glands, little glands that sit on top of our kidneys. It is produced when we perceive stress (physical, mental or emotional….even a stressful thought or memory can trigger a stress response!). Processes in the body that are not required for immediate survival (such as digestion, bowel movements, tissue healing, etc) are put on pause, for processes such as increasing our blood sugar (so we can run!), temporarily boosting energy and focus, and shuttling blood to our eyes and our arms and legs.
Short term elevations in cortisol are a healthy response to stress, and are needed to survive (or even get through a stressful situation optimally).
The problem arises when we are constantly under stress. Then we can start to see symptoms such as:
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • headaches
  • hypertension
  • poor memory
  • poor digestion, IBS, constipation, diarrhea, etc
  • poor sleep
  • weight gain or difficult weight loss
  • fatigue
  • decreased libido
  • brain fog
  • blood sugar imbalances
  • increased appetite and cravings for high fat/high sugar foods
  • increased colds and flus
  • irritability
  • poor exercise recovery (more prone to injury, or muscle fatigue, decreased ability to exercise)
  • disrupted hormone levels, ovulation and even fertility
  • hypothyroidism
  • fibromyalgia and/or chronic fatigue syndrome
  • decreased bone, muscle and collagen formation
Eating when you are feeling stressed causes your digestion and absorption to be compromised because  your digestive system will release less enzymes and slow your gut motility. The mucosal lining of your intestines can become irritated and inflamed over time, contributing to the development of ulcers. 

Stress is unavoidable, so how can we mitigate the impacts of stress on our mental, emotional, and physical health? 

  • get a good nights sleep – aim for 7 to 9 hours, and if you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking rested, let me know. There are a multitude of supplements that can help with this.
  • exercise – the best way to burn the cortisol in your blood stream is to exercise! Studies have shown that stressed mice that were allowed to run around had lower incidence of ulcers, and longer life spans. Get that cortisol out of your system by using it! Be careful not to make your exercise too long or intense….if you are feeling exhausted after exercise, you are overdoing it. Talk to me about this at your next visit.
  • catch stressful thoughts – our thoughts can absolutely trigger and/or maintain a stress response. All or nothing, worst case scenario and perfectionist thinking can be harmful to us, and if we can catch and rewrite our thoughts in a more positive way, this can help our stress response. 
  • eat a healthy diet, rich in protein, low glycemic index grain and lots of fresh fruits and veggies and healthy fat, with minimal sugar, alcohol, coffee and refined grains. Food can be your fuel rather than contributing to the stress your body is experiencing.
  • laugh! Have a good social network that you can talk to, socialize and have fun with! Giving your mind and body a break from your daily troubles will help you feel refreshed and give your mind a new perspective.
  • eliminate habits that create stress – over exercising, having to have a clean house all of the time, unhealthy relationships, having to eat a perfect diet, overspending….these are different for everybody. Take a look at habits in your life that cause more stress than pleasure and assess if they are worth continuing with. 
  • Vitamins, Supplements, and Herbs! These are wonderful for helping your body deal with stress, cravings, quality of sleep, energy, and so much more!
  • Acupuncture – this is huge for anxiety, sleep, digestion, calming the mind, energy, and so much more. You can read more about acupuncture here
  • Massage – this is a great therapy for tight muscles, headaches, muscle injuries, and so much more. It’s great to put your body into parasympathetic, healing mode.
  • Yoga – this is a great workout to calm your mind and slow your thoughts, as well as working on your fitness in a way that is not using cortisol to fuel the work out (like high intensity cardio or lifting heavy weights)
  • Counseling/Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – sometimes talking to someone about your problems can give you perspective, and ways to address these issues that you couldn’t discover because you are too close to it. If you can find a therapist that you trust, this can be a great support. 
As you can see there are so many ways to help you body be resilient against stress. 
I hope this email helps you and if there is anything I can do to help, let me know at your next visit!
Calgary, AB T3B 4Z1
(403) 719-2594
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