Welcome to Part 2 in our blog series “The High Cost of Stress”.
In the first segment of our series, our discussion concentrated on the technical aspects of the physiology of stress. In particular, we focused on the HPA Axis, our body’s stress management system, and the negative effects of chronic, high stress. Long term exposure to stress overload frequently results in a condition known as HPA Axis Dysfunction (HPA-D), which is an underlying cause for numerous chronic health problems.
As we mentioned, the HPA Axis is a very complex endocrine system. When it is not functioning properly, our metabolic reserves gradually become exhausted and the ability of our body to mount a healthy response to stress is compromised. Most clinicians agree that this downward spiral occurs in stages and manifests itself in a variety of symptoms. While the intensity may vary by individual and stage, HPA-D is commonly associated with symptoms that include among others:
- – Generalized anxiety
- – Chronic and pervasive “tiredness”
- – Agitation and irritability
- – Gastrointestinal problems
- – Frequent headaches
- – Insomnia
- – Memory and concentration impairment
- – Weight gain
- – Cravings for sweet and salty foods
- – Hormonal imbalances
- – Episodes of depression
- – Compromised immune function
- If left unchecked, HPA-D can predispose individuals to some serious long term health consequences such as: heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, hormonally mediated diseases, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, clinical depression, and various other psychological manifestations.
Because chronic stress is so common in our over-busy culture, it seems that most of us have come to accept it as a normal part of life so we often downplay its significance.
Perhaps the most important information you can glean from this blog is the reminder that long term exposure to high levels of stress is not normal for your body and ultimately, it can result in real and life-altering health problems.
If you are currently experiencing significant negative effects of chronic stress, it is important you give serious consideration to making some practical lifestyle changes for your future well-being.
It is also important to realize that HPA-D is typically the result of a negative cycle that takes a long time to manifest itself. The process of restoring metabolic reserves and healing also takes a long time. Depending on severity, it can take from several months to a couple of years to regain healthy HPA Axis function.
In addition, it takes a comprehensive or holistic approach to address this dysfunction effectively. We all wish that we could solve our stress related health issues with a simple handful of supplements, but unfortunately that’s not the case. While supplements can certainly play an integral role in restoring adrenal health, it is essential to understand that it also takes commitment to change the negative lifestyle habits that contributed to the development of HPA-D.
We would like to highlight four primary lifestyle opportunities where healthy changes can make a tremendous contribution to reducing wear and tear on the body:
- Intentional stress reduction
- Sleep Habits
The total stress load we carry is most often the sum of several smaller sources of stress. Most of us don’t intentionally seek to add to our stress load, and often we don’t recognize that we have until the negative weight of additional stress is felt.
For many of us, there are chronic stressors in our lives over which we have only limited control, and these can produce a sense of powerlessness to change. These might include job related stress, difficult relationships, and health issues. The important thing to realize is that while we may not be able to immediately change all of our stressors, we have the power of choice to change some of them, and every small step in the right direction helps.
There is valuable information on each of these subjects, but here are some suggestions to help you be proactive:
Intentional Stress Reduction
- – Learn to say “no” to voluntary additional responsibilities that add stress to your life
- – Take an inventory of the most frequent stressors in your life and make a realistic plan to reduce their impact as much as possible
- – Develop better time management skills in order to prioritize your workload and break it into more manageable segments and to generate free time for personal health
- – Intentionally build some stress free margin into your lifestyle by scheduling regular time for relaxing activities like hobbies, time with friends, or enjoying nature
- – Take time to foster healthier relationships
- – Make an investment spiritually. Discover or reconnect with the power of personal faith and the value of that almost forgotten concept of “peace”
- – Invest in helping someone else in need. This can refresh your perspective and provide some powerful positive feedback
- – Seek professional counseling to help cope with complex life issues and traumatic experiences
Light to moderate exercise with a cardio element is especially beneficial for restoring HPA Axis balance. It is important not to overdo it or exercise until you’re exhausted. Excessive exertion, particularly if you are out of shape, can actually have the opposite effect on your adrenals by creating a new stressor that can overwhelm your limited reserves. Commit to regular light exercise and gradually work your way into the moderate range.
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of a healthy diet in restoring metabolic reserves and helping your body improve its ability to cope with stress.
A nutrient dense diet consisting of whole, low sugar, clean foods provides the necessary vitamins, proteins, and healthy fats to rebuild your metabolic reserves. A metabolic restoration diet would ideally be rich in such things as:
- – Lots of healthy greens and super-foods
- – Organic cruciferous vegetables and beans
- – Proteins such as cold water fish or free range chicken
- – Mono-unsaturated and omega-3 healthy fats
- – Whole sprouted grains
- – Low glycemic index fruits
It’s important to note that caffeine and other stimulants, like high sugar energy drinks, should be avoided.
There are several good diet programs that focus on healthy adrenal function and HPA Axis improvement. One that we recommend checking out is the Adrenal Reset Diet by Dr. Alan Christianson.
Quality sleep is absolutely essential for restoring a healthy HPA Axis. Ideally, you should consistently get at least 8 hours of sleep per night. Not only does sleep provide the opportunity for us to heal, but it helps maintain a normal circadian rhythm which has a direct relationship to a very important stress hormone, cortisol. In a subsequent blog, we will be discussing this essential hormone and its role in stress management.
“Sleep hygiene” is a phrase used to describe the non-medication steps we can take to encourage healthy sleep:
- – Adopt a consistent sleep routine and stick to it every night
- – Establish a consistent bedtime
- – Avoid caffeine or other stimulants for at least 6 hours before bedtime
- – Ensure your bedroom is dark and quiet (cortisol rhythm is related to light)
- – Only nap early or not at all
- – If a pet regularly wakes you, consider keeping it out of the bedroom
- – Balance your fluid intake so you won’t be disturbed frequently for bathroom trips
- – Don’t watch TV or “on screen” devices while in bed
- – Don’t be a clock watcher, turn your clock to face away from you at night
We hope this discussion about the importance of addressing chronic stress in your life will encourage you to take some proactive steps towards future health and vitality.
Please join us next month for part 3 in our series “The High Cost of Stress”!
Scott Henson, Pharmacist and Guest Blogger – Ashley H. McKnight, UNC PharmD Candidate, Class of 2018
 Christianson A, NMD (2014) The Adrenal Reset Diet. New York, NY. Harmony Books.