When a doctor comes face-to-face with her own health scare, she chooses to practice what she preaches and address the root causes.
Stress is unavoidable. It’s a part of life that comes in all shapes and sizes. However, being cognizant of its presence and learning to navigate it are literally the keys to your wellness journey.
Some even say stress can be a healthy motivator, while others would beg to differ. If you are finding yourself chronically tired, uneasy and unable to perform — your body may be experiencing a strong sense of imbalance. The culprit may be none other than chronic stress.
Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. I was born in the Midwest and grew up in what I considered to be a very healthy family. We ate home cooked meals, regularly visited the chiropractor, took our daily vitamins, and were always engaged in some sort of physical activity. I thought I was the epitome of perfect health. And yet, just a few years ago sitting at my desk between seeing patients my heart rate took off. I kind of panicked as I had never experienced anything like this in my life.
I was taken to the emergency room that day as my heart continued racing. As it turns out, I was experiencing tachycardia. I was short of breath, had lots of palpitations, and WOW was it interfering with my sleep. I was exhausted as well. It felt like my world was falling apart quickly. Meanwhile, I had grown a team at my practice. I was the only revenue producer. I had employees to pay and most importantly, patients to help. I had to get my life back on track and quick.
Conventional medicine had no answers for me other than to take a medication to control my heart rate. But I knew there had to be more to my story.
Since I practiced functional medicine, I also understood that I was going to have to treat myself to discover the root cause of my problem. In other words, I had to take a page from my own playbook and practice what I had been preaching. There ended up being many causes beneath the surface of this… and stress landed at the top of the list!
Stress is processed by our brains as one of the biggest signals that our bodies are out of equilibrium. When a distress signal is sent to the brain, our sympathetic nervous system comes into play and heeds the call. This releases a mix of complex chemicals that prepare the body for physical action including adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine. As a result, blood is diverted from other bodily functions, such as digestion, to the muscles. A boost of adrenaline, responsible for a faster heart rate and increased breathing, enables us to focus our attention in responding quickly to the situation at hand. This, however, is not sustainable long term. We can’t live in this state forever.
A parasympathetic nervous system is also at play here. The sympathetic nervous system is like a gas pedal, activating a ‘fight-or-flight’ response, and the parasympathetic nervous system is like a brake pedal, activating a ‘rest-and-digest’ response. Our system cannot operate without an adequate balance of both.
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
In the modern world, ‘fight-or-flight’ is designed to help us manage dangerous situations. Slamming on the brakes when someone runs in front of our vehicle is an example of acute stress. When a physical stressor lasts a short duration, it is referred to as acute. Some believe being exposed to acute stressors helps our bodies become more resilient and provides protective benefits. This is evidenced in our heart rate variability. Our heart rate needs to be able to adapt, increase and decrease quickly when needed. This is actually something you can now measure with a variety of devices and applications. It’s also evidenced with immune activation or enhancement like during surgery or when receiving a vaccination.
On the other hand, toxic relationships, a poor work environment, or even having too much on your plate are all examples of chronic stress. This certainly rang true for me. Chronic stress can also refer to unresolved trauma from the past, such as physical abuse or chronic pain; these stressors are what negatively impact our health in the long term. They are often the unrecognized, underlying factors that chip away at our vibrancy over time.
Symptoms of Stress
Has your body alerted you that you are in a stressed state? Many of my patients don’t even realize that they are experiencing symptoms of stress. Our bodes can alert us in several ways. You may relate to this as well.
Symptoms of stress include:headaches, tight neck/shoulders, back pain, indigestion, stomach aches, sweaty palms, sleep difficulties, restlessness, dizziness, palpitations, ringing in the ears, grinding teeth, and compulsive gum chewing.
Symptoms of stress include: overwhelming sense of pressure, crying, anxiety, nervousness, boredom, edginess (feeling ready to explode), jealousy, anger, resentment, unforgiveness, shame, loneliness, feeling unhappiness for no reason, and feeling powerless to change.
Symptoms of stress include: trouble thinking clearly, memory fog, forgetfulness, inability to make decisions, constant worry, loss of sense of humor, and even lack of creativity.
*It doesn’t really matter what symptoms you have, the results on your health will be the same.
Impact of Stress on our Health and Hormones
Stress impacts our ability to fight infections, weakens our immune system, can lead to high glucose and weight gain, and can rob us of hormones (not to mention, happiness).
Stress is literally your bodies biggest hormone hijacker.
Hormones are produced by what I call our ‘A team;’ our sex organs (ovaries in women and testes in men), but also by our ‘B team;’ our adrenals. Initially when under stress your adrenal glands, (B team) produces more cortisol, but over time its production of cortisol and sex hormones fail. I’ve seen many patients present to me after they crash and burn. I’ve been there myself as well.
Why should you care? Our hormones help us thrive in life. Estradiol helps with hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, memory, and fertility. Progesterone is our most soothing hormone. It helps with sleep, anxiety, moodiness, PMS, and also fertility. Testosterone helps with mood, motivation, drive, libido, energy, and again fertility. All hormones help with bone density, protect our cardiovascular system and can even help preserve our memories. Hormones help you age well and provide a better overall sense of wellbeing.
In order to reduce stress, you have to have a desire to change your habits. Unhealthy coping mechanisms include: binge eating, alcohol consumption in excess, smoking, excessive TV watching, social media and digital media addiction, compulsive shopping, and even gambling. These can become patterns of distraction and self-medication, a numbing out.
Incorporating healthier lifestyle, nutrition, and supplement changes to assist your body in managing the stress you are exposed to is crucial.
Implementing positive habits is one of the best things we can do to ultimately reduce stress. All the recommendations below help reduce stimulation, reduce the gas pedal effect, that ‘fight or flight’ from the sympathetic NS and help induce relaxation from the parasympathetic NS bringing you into a better state of balance.
- Counseling or coaching can help you get to the root cause of your habits, emotions, and behaviors.
- Setting healthy boundaries and not over-committing yourself can help you say, No. This will reduce the sense of overwhelm that contributes to stress.
- Focus on the present instead of spending time worrying about the past or living in fear of the future. The present moment is the only time you have control over.
- Deep breathing with visual imagery is a fast, easy and effective way to turn on that parasympathetic response. To start, breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 6 and breath out for 8. Repeat this several times.
- Meditation is used by some of the most successful people to start their day. Honor your body and brain with mental downtime, time for reflection and periods of stillness. A great meditation app can help you learn to calm your mind.
- Yoga, which is calming and involves deep breathing,can be more beneficial than high intensity cardio. Physical movement promotes movement in other aspects of our being.
- Music is a great way to soothe yourself, especially if you listen to it daily and in the evenings.
- Positive affirmations are great to incorporate daily. Read them, write them, repeat them!
- Create a habit of gratitude by starting your day with journaling about 3 things you are thankful for. End your day reflecting upon all the things you are grateful for.
- Take time to laugh and play.
- Practice grounding techniques and connect with nature. Taking time to disconnect with technology, even turning off your cell phone or putting it in airplane mode as you sleep reduces your exposure to electromagnetic chaos. Reconnect with the earth by walking on grass, the beach, the sidewalk, and even on dirt helps you receive and become charged with electrons, electrically grounding you to reduce stress.
Often times when we are stressed, the last thing we crave is a big fresh green organic salad. Typically, we turn to what we ironically refer to ‘comfort food,’ things like chocolate or potato chips. We crave those because they boost serotonin levels, which is our happy neurotransmitter. However, the effects are short term and satiate a bad craving of instant gratification. So, what should you be eating instead?
- Starting your day with a protein rich breakfast is crucial. Protein contains amino acids which fuel neurotransmitter production to make you feel good and also help to balance your blood sugar. Protein also supports adrenal function. A donut and coffee with carbs, sugar and caffeine will only support your body with short term effects. Then you’ll crash.
- Healthy fats like avocados, seeds, nuts, olive oil, and coconut oil fuel your brain which is made out of fat. Fats are also the building blocks for hormone production.
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol which rob your body of nutrients.
- Eat organic when you can, especially for thin skinned vegetables and fruits that herbicides and pesticides can penetrate into. Visit the Environmental Working Group website for a list of ‘Dirty Dozen’ foods that you should also purchase organic. Consuming these toxins only adds to stress on your body which is not something you need if you are trying to reduce stress. You can find the Dirty Dozen List here.
- Avoid your food sensitivities which only further stress your body.
As mentioned, many nutrients are unfortunately depleted by stress and thus need to be replenished to help our bodies handle that stress. Caffeine, alcohol, and various medications also deplete these nutrients.
- Magnesium is the most soothing, calming mineral and one of the first nutrients depleted by stress. Magnesium can help to relax the mind for better sleep, the bowels to reduce constipation, the nerves and blood vessels to help lower blood pressure and reduce headaches. Severe deficiency can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and muscle cramps. It’s extremely common to be low and easy to supplement. Look for an amino acid chelated form like glycinate which has superior absorption.
- B Vitamins like B6, B9, and B12 are extremely important for the adrenal glands. B6 is specifically necessary to convert all amino acids to neurotransmitters like serotonin to make us feel good. Deficiency can cause neurologic and mental health symptoms like depression, irritability, insomnia, and confusion.
- 5HTP is an amino acid extracted naturally from the seed of the African plant Griffonia simplicifolia. It’s a precursor to serotonin. It helps to calm the central nervous system: reduces anxiety and promotes both a healthy mental outlook and better sleep.
- L. theanine is also an amino acid from the leaves of green tea. It converts to GABA in the brain, calms the central nervous system inducing a relaxed state. It is most helpful for: sleep, anxiety, and stress.
- Remember how stress can increase blood glucose and lead to weight gain? Guess what can lower that? Omega 3’s like fish oil. When selecting a fish oil product look for high potency EPA/DHA and verify that the source of the oil comes from small fish like sardines and anchovies with less mercury. Verify the product is distilled from heavy metals and elect for the triglyceride form if possible. The brand I recommend at my practice is Your Longevity Blueprint omegas which are pure and safe containing therapeutic potencies.
- Adaptogenic herbs have been used by other cultures for centuries. Rhodiola rosea, Eleutherococcus senticosus (ginseng), Schisandra chinensis, Ashwaganda, and Vitex can help to improve cortisol levels. They can assist with neurotransmitter and hormone production, memory, energy, mental clarity, emotional wellbeing, mood, and ultimately help your body adapt to stress better.
*Always alert your medical provider if also on any medications for mood/sleep.
Yes, there will always be stress — yet, each of us gets to choose how we manage it. Remember, there is no pill, potion or powder that will replace the power of lifestyle changes. Those changes are foundational to a healthy reduced stress state. And the reality is that unless you make this commitment to yourself and take action (daily), things won’t change.
You have choices.
I had two choices: take medication to control my heart the rest of my life, or heed the same advice I had given so many of my patients for years.
As a functional medicine provider, dedicated to practicing what I advise, I chose the latter. Through my struggles I learned to become more in tune to my body. I incorporated lifestyle, nutrition, and supplements changes.
I learned to honor my body’s need for mental downtime, with calming activities like yoga and meditation — and I reduced my workload immediately. I incorporated deep breathing over lunch. I changed my diet; increasing protein and avoided my food sensitivities like gluten. I took supplements like L. theanine and magnesium, and continue to integrate and build upon all of these changes daily.
This will be an ongoing process for the rest of my life. The results? Thankfully, I no longer experience that scary fast heart rate or palpitations, and I never had to succumb to medications.
I also learned the incredible power of choice and that the miraculous ability of the body to reset when supported accordingly.
Are you ready for a bit more ease and a lot less stress? Don’t wait until you find yourself in an emergency room like me. Start today. Incorporate some of the above listed lifestyle, nutrition, and supplement suggestions. And I promise you: Your body will handle stress better. Your nervous system will be more balanced. And your hormones and your stress-free best self will thank you!
You may also enjoy reading 7 Ways to Incorporate Better Health and Wellness into Your Life by Rachel O’Conner