In my last column, Modern Day Stress: A New Paradigm of Meaning I discussed the need for a new definition of stress in our modern day and also encourage you to take a look at the myriad of ways stress is playing a role in your own life. The traditional definition simply geared towards a physical event or a mental state requiring the body to respond just doesn’t cut it anymore in a society where there are stressful influences coming at us from all different directions. Making the issue worse is the way individuals are choosing to respond to their perception of stress. The increase use of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sugar and energy drinks in response to dealing with everyday stressors are creating an even more stressful situation in the body, contributing even more to the adverse health conditions. We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge but with the acknowledgement of your own unique situation and understanding of this new paradigm we can take a deeper look at how we can live full and healthy lives despite some of our modern day challenges!
Whether the stress is acute or chronic, perceived as good or bad, or it is passive or active the response by our bodies is intended to preserve life; it is a survival mechanism. A healthy human stress response involves many components. First, the brain initiates the most immediate response signaling the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and norepinephrine. This is the chemical that makes you feel jittery immediately after someone scares you or if you have had too much coffee! Then the hypothalamus and pituitary activate another part of the adrenals releasing a hormone called cortisol. This is followed by the nervous system initiating behavioral responses like alertness, focus, reduction of pain receptors and the inhibition of reproductive behaviors and desires. The sympathetic nervous system then kicks in to increase the heart rate, blood pressure and release fuel to help fight or get out of danger and, as well redirects blood flow to the heart, muscles and brain, away from the gastrointestinal tract and digestive processes. To accommodate these demands there is a huge increase in energy production and utilization of nutrients and fluids in the body. Once the stressful situation has passed, the brain signals the responses to be “turned off” and finally recovery and relaxation allows the body to re-establish balance in all systems, replacing lost nutrients and eliminating waste products accumulated during the process.
The key element in this stress response that is missing in our modern day stress paradigm is RECOVERY. While there are usually recovery times for life threatening events like getting chased by a polar bear, there are few for the recurring events like backed up traffic, relationship troubles, financial pressures, job stresses, negative self-talk and image, poor physical conditioning, artificial lighting, malnourished diet, inadequate sleep, genetically modified foods, environmental toxin accumulation and so on. In fact, these types of stressors each day can string themselves together rendering the stress response to be “turned on” all of the time. This is causing many of the health issues I see in my practice each and every day. People are complaining of anything from a compromised sleep/wake cycle free of medication, a decrease in libido, poor digestion, constipation, hormone imbalances, thinning hair, adult acne, chronic and persistent fatigue, weight gain around the belly, mood swings and depression.
So what can we do about it? First of all, I have mentioned increasing awareness, knowledge and identification of your own unique situation. This is paramount, as reality orientation is necessary for any health change. Second, we must start responding to any fatigue with rest. Rest is where the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of our survival response) is initiated so the body can rest, relax and repair. And finally, I am a huge advocate of supplementing your lifestyle. While it is important to continue to make efforts towards increasing our recovery and therefore decreasing our state of stress induced nutrient depletion, this will not likely happen overnight. By supplementing our lifestyle we can stop the hemorrhage of our health and work towards getting our lives back! Next column will detail exactly what is depleted and therefore needed to correct the imbalances derived from our modern day stress! Until then, respond to any fatigue with rest. Feeling tired is your body’s way of trying to get your attention, alerting you that something is out of balance. Keep increasing your awareness of how big a role modern day stress plays a part in your health!