We’ve all heard before that stress isn’t good for us. It can cause weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, etc. but the real question is why does this happen and what can be done about it? To understand this more, we have to talk about cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone secreted by our adrenal glands. What do our adrenal glands do? The purpose of our adrenal glands is to help your body cope with stressors and keep your body alive. Your adrenals are there to help out when you deal with any kind of stress ranging from a HIIT workout, to your morning commute, to a major surgery, to a sugary dessert. Your energy, resiliency and endurance all depend on your adrenals functioning properly.
It is important to understand that your adrenals respond to every kind of stress the same way. Your adrenals don’t know the difference between the stresses of thousands of years ago when primal man was running from a bear versus the stress of fighting with a loved one. And, unlike the bear situation in which you probably had time to recover in between running (hopefully), these modern day stressors tend to happens simultaneously and consistently leaving our body no time to recover.
In these stressful situations, your adrenals secrete the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has many important functions such as the quick release of glycogen (sugar) for immediate energy. However when cortisol is released too frequently then our other vital mechanisms begin to shut down such as your digestion, immune system, endocrine (sex) function, etc. It is also noted that excess cortisol leads to weight gain.
In this situation, what can happen is first your cortisol may sky rocket. Your body is producing lots of it in order to deal with all of the stress. However, over time, your adrenals become “burned out” and your cortisol levels will plummet. Neither of these situations are good and we want to keep our cortisol levels balanced for when we need them.
So, what to do about this? Stressors are always going to be present in our lives, although there are some stressors we can avoid completely (like excess sugar!) and others that we can work to reduce through various stress reducing techniques. Here is my list below:
- Your Diet
- Make sure you are eating healthy fats! I cannot express enough how good fats are for us. Also, we are often replacing these good fats with sugar (such as fat free yogurt!) and sugar is extremely stressful on the body.
- Eliminate processed foods- these foods actually deplete your own vitamin and mineral reserves just by trying to digest them! Be cautious of anything that comes in a box.
- Remove refined carbohydrates- excess carbohydrates can lead to blood sugar imbalances which increases cortisol levels. I’m not saying to eliminate carbohydrates entirely, but focus on vegetables and fruits rather than bread, pasta, and pop tarts : )
- Make sure you are eating ENOUGH! Far too many people are not eating enough food (or eating the wrong types of food) and this causes a stress on the body.
- Use salt! Good quality salt (sea salt, Himalayan salt, or my favorite Redmond Real Salt) contain trace minerals that are extremely beneficial to our health. Also, salt will help to prevent dehydration! To test out if your body is actually depleted from salt, take ¼ teaspoon of salt in a glass of water first thing in the morning. If you need the salt, this will taste good to you.
- Chill out on the caffeine and stimulants. I know that for some the prospect of giving up coffee sounds extremely difficult, but caffeine makes your adrenals go into overdrive as they try to keep up with this increased energy. This leads to additional stress in your body and I would suggest trying to cut back or keep caffeine intake at a minimum.
- Exercise and stress have a very interesting relationship. Too little exercise and you won’t experience the positive benefits like endorphins, moving your lymphatic system, and hormone regulation. However, too much exercise can be just as harmful.
- The best type of exercise when you are stressed is walking and yoga. These exercises allow you to move your body and gain those helpful benefits from exercise without overtaxing your body and leaving you depleted. The most important part of exercise is to do it intuitively. After you are finished with your workout, think about how you are feeling. Are you exhausted and now feel like you need to lay down for the rest of the day? Or did the movement leave you feeling better? Make sure to think about how you feel the next morning as well, as this will often tell you if you did too much.
- During periods of stress, try to focus on relaxation instead. This is particularly a time where your body needs adequate sleep, at least 8 hours per night, so focus on getting to bed at a reasonable hour. If you are having trouble sleeping, try taking a bath with Epsom salts (magnesium is great for relaxation) or put some lavender essential oil on your feet!
- Remove the stressors. While it is almost impossible to remove all stress from our lives, try to figure out what you can cut back on. Do you hate grocery shopping with a passion? Ask your partner to step in for you. Are you absolutely dreading your workout? Don’t do it! Go for a walk instead. So much of stress is actually decisions that we have the power to change. So say “no” if you don’t feel like going out, ask for help when you need it, and focus on self-care.
Also, get tested! You can get tests for you cortisol levels by doing a saliva panel (your cortisol should be highest in the morning and lowest at night) and by doing other lab tests. Also, as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner I am able to help you understand if you are experiencing adrenal imbalances through a hands on functional evaluation.
Leave a comment if you would like to find out more! Thanks for reading!