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How Stress Harms the Body

Stressed woman

By DR. TRACY McALVANAH

Approximately two-thirds of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related complaints!   

Stress is the body’s reaction to any situation that is demanding or dangerous. When we experience stress, the body responds by making adrenal hormones (such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol) that help your body cope. Commonly called the “fight or flight” response, this is where your blood pressure increases, your hands sweat, and your heart rate and breathing quicken. You’ve probably felt it during that big job interview, before a first date, during an argument, or being stuck in traffic when you’re running late.

Our bodies normalize quickly after responding to short-term stressors. But problems arise with chronic stress, such as financial worries, major life changes, job stress, or an ongoing illness. Other chronic stressors are not lifestyle related but instead metabolic: gut infections, leaky gut, food intolerances, blood sugar imbalances (low blood sugar, insulin resistance, or diabetes), anemia, autoimmune disease, inflammation, and environmental toxins are examples.

It’s no wonder adrenal stress is one of most common problems encountered by functional medical practitioners.

How stress damages the body

In chronic stress, the adrenal glands continually produce the hormone cortisol. Known as the “aging hormone” (ever notice how you look older when you are stressed a lot?), chronic high cortisol is linked to:

  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • depression
  • insomnia
  • suppressed immunity
  • insulin resistance
  • increased belly fat (muffin top anyone?)
  • reduced libido
  • bone loss
  • low energy
  • heart problems

How do you know if you have adrenal stress? You may experience ongoing fatigue, energy crashes, difficulty recovering from long days or stressful events, headaches, difficulty falling and staying asleep, difficulty waking up, mood swings, sugar and caffeine cravings (do you need to refresh from the afternoon blahs?), irritability, lightheadedness between meals, eating to relieve fatigue, dizziness upon standing, gastric ulcers, and hypothyroid symptoms.

At Wholistic Medicine Specialists, we measure the stress response through specialized Functional Medicine lab tests:   The Adrenal Stress Index  and Neurotransmitter Testing.

Clinical Supplements can help buffer the damages of stress

Everyone is familiar with classic stress-relief methods such as meditation, exercise, enjoying hobbies, and socializing, but there is much more you can do to support the body’s stress response.

One of the most reliable ways to buffer the damages of stress is to take adrenal adaptogens. These are a unique class of healing plants that support healthy adrenal function and help regulate the body’s stress response. Adrenal adaptogens include panax ginseng, Siberian ginseng (eleuthero), astragalus, rhodiola, ashwagandha, licorice root, holy basil (tulsi) and schizandra.

In addition to soothing inflammation and increasing energy and brain function, these herbs can also help the body and brain cope with stress. Although they come from the plant world, adrenal adaptogens are potent medicines that should be taken under the supervision of a trained practitioner.

There are many other types of supplements that should also be considered help normalize cortisol levels and protect the brain from the damages of stress.

Lab testing takes the guesswork out of determining which clinical supplements are best for your specific needs.

Lifestyle habits can protect you from the damage of stress

Of course, one should always consider lifestyle habits when addressing stress.   Below are lifestyle suggestions to help support healthy adrenal function and stress response:

  • Avoid or greatly minimize stimulants.
  • Eat nutrient-dense foods.
  • Avoid high carbs and sugars.
  • Avoid dietary causes of inflammation such as food allergens, high fructose corn syrup, refined foods, and especially industrial seed oils such as canola oil.
  • Have adequate intake of essential fatty acids (DHA and EPA).
  • Have proper sleep habits.

Though we may live in a world of unrelenting stress, it is possible to successfully manage the body’s response through a combination of healthy lifestyle habits and herbal adrenal support.

For more information on how to identify and manage stress, contact our office 678.987.8451.