Is stress wreaking havoc on your body? Here's how to know, and what to do.
Yes, my title is fairly bland today.....But I ain't even mad about it.I did not have the creative capacity to come up with anything better. What can I say? I'M UNDER A LOT OF STRESS GUYS.
This month has been CRAY CRAY. Not just because of the holidays (though there’s that), but both my mother and grandmother went into surgery within 10 days of each other early this month. I rushed home and have been here ever since...As you can imagine, it has been physically and mentally taxing on the entire family.
I am no stranger to stress, though, as I’m sure you guys have picked up on.
All my ladies out there with type A, perfectionist personality types whose natural state is anxious and tightly wound I FEEL YOU.
And I know I say all the time “stress is bad. Stress is VERY bad”. And I know you know it...but I want to make sure you KNOW know it….. You know?
I want to paint a picture of what stress ACTUALLY does to your body, how to tell if your symptoms are caused by STRESS alone, and why your period, fertility, thyroid, skin, immunity, gut, and mind are all sitting ducks when it comes to stress.
AND THEN. Once I'm done scaring you. I will take you through practical, hands-on tricks to stop the biological stress cascade so you can combat it like the wonder woman bad ass you are.
Got it? Awesome. Let's begin.
WHAT IS STRESS ANYWAY?
A lot of us think of stress to mean work, relationship, or family stress. But it is actually MUCH broader than that. The formal definition of stress is ‘mental, emotional, or physical strain/tension exerted from demanding or adverse circumstances’....did you see how many commas and slashes I put in there? IT IS BROAD you guys. So I'm going to break it down in the simplest concept as it applies to your bodies. There are 2 types of stress:
Acute:sharp and intense, usually all of a sudden→ death of a loved one, physical trauma, an emotionally traumatic event like rape
Chronic: steady stream of stress over long periods of time, sometimes small and not received consciously→ over exercising, not eating enough, under eating certain macronutrients, traffic, toxic relationships, long-standing nutrient deficiencies, working in a job you hate, living in a city you don’t like, school, negative self talk, chronic pain, insecurities, poor self esteem, etc. *some acute stressors can morph into chronic low-grade stressors over time if not dealt with
For the purpose of this article, I am discussing the chronic, day-in-day-out stressors, both conscious and subconscious, that cause us to live in a Sympathetic Dominant State (aka our “fight or flight” mode).
There are two branches of our nervous system: Parasympathetic (rest and digest) and Sympathetic (fight or flight). I describe more about these two HERE. But what you need to know now is HEALING happens in the Parasympathetic mode, BREAK DOWN and STRESS happens in the Sympathetic mode.
In optimal health, you are dominantly chilling in the relaxed/Parasympathetic state and swing over to your stressed/sympathetic state when you need to, then return back to being relaxed. In today's world, with work deadlines, social media, and body insecurities, that is VERY much reversed. We spend MOST of our time chaotically running around in Stress mode and, only when forced to sit down and take a break, do we kick in our relaxation mode.
Let me be clear: THIS IS NOT A SUSTAINABLE WAY OF LIFE. Operating out of a sympathetic dominant state breaks down the function of your body at a cellular level, and neglects the necessary healing it takes to rebuild. What you get, then, is brokenness on multiple fronts. This is EVEN MORE true for women, as we are more sensitive to stress to begin with (what with the whole being able to make a baby thing).
Here are the major issues and symptoms that will result from a woman being under prolonged stress.
HOW STRESS UNIQUELY AFFECTS FEMALE BODIES
This is the biggest one that comes to mind. Here’s why: according to most recent statistics, 12% of Americans will develop a thyroid condition in their life. Already, an estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, and UP TO 60% ARE UNAWARE OF IT. Why? Because it is one of the most under-diagnosed conditions--The reasons for that I will touch on in another post on another day. The point, for now, is this: it is MUCH more common than you think.
If you have any of these symptoms, your thyroid may very well be under functioning:
unexplained weight gain
cold hands and feet (or being cold in general)
weight loss resistance
mood swings, anxiety, or depression
hair thinning/hair loss
You might be thinking "damn, Jess....that's a lot of symptoms for such a tiny gland". This is true....AND I ONLY LISTED THE MOST COMMON ONES.
Think of your thyroid like the master furnace for your body. It is the energy system that keeps EVERYTHING else running. No thyroid= no metabolism, hormone processes, skin turnover, hair growth, etc.
You know what else is special about the thyroid? In women, it is about the FIRST thing to give way in times of stress. It is a delicate butterfly (literally...the gland is shaped like a butterfly), and gets crumpled under the weight of your impending work deadlines, overexercising, or constant negative self-talk. As I mentioned above, 20 million Americans have a thyroid condition, whether they know it or not, and 70% OF THESE ARE WOMEN. Which means for every man that has hypothyroidism, you'll find 7-8 women that have it ....THAT'S A LOT OF WOMEN WITH COLD HANDS AND FEET.
It is VERY common to see under active thyroids pop up in women with a history of restrictive dieting and overexercising, anxiety, type A personalities, new mothers, carb restriction, or ladies that are just plain STRESSED.
As you'll remember from my About page, I myself was diagnosed Hypothyroid after years of disordered eating and running my body into the ground. If you have any of the symptoms above and suspect your thyroid is to blame, consider working with me or other functional practitioners on a multi-level approach to getting your thyroid back in action.
I've touched upon how your digestion is affected by stress HERE and especially HERE. But briefly, the basics of it looks like this: when you live in a predominantly Sympathetic Nervous state, your digestion is inactive the MAJORITY of the time. Remember, the PARA sympathetic state is called "rest and digest" for a reason. Digestion and nutrient assimilation ONLY happen in this branch of the nervous system. So if you only pop in here and there when you remember to take a deep breath, that's the only time you are actually turning on your digestion. Newsflash: that's not nearly enough. Your digestion should be on well before you eat, while you eat, and a couple hours after as well. But if you are rushing around, thinking about something stressful, or watching a stress-inducing tv show while you eat, FORGET ABOUT IT.
You don't even have to be consciously stressed while eating, it is actually very common to experience ongoing IBS like symptoms during a season of your life that is very hard. I had a client experience MAJOR digestive symptoms for a full 8 months while her husband was deployed in Iraq. She was obviously struggling with his absence, but it wasn't like it was an everyday panic attack kind of situation. Either way, no amount of dietary changes or supplements solved it until her husband returned home and her symptoms magically disappeared.
Coincidence? I think not.
Prolonged stress can cause a physical change in the microbiome, infections in your large intestine, and increase your chances of developing an overgrowth like SIBO or Candida.
Use my tips for stopping your stress response in it's tracks below, and you'll be in a much better place to digest, assimilate, and utilize all that wonderful foodyou're eating.
*If you are experiencing digestive symptoms, I have a FULL comprehensive post about all the protocols I use for Gut healing in detail, including stress reduction, over HERE.
When your stress level is high, it sets off a hormone cascade that results in immune dysregulation, and can ultimately lead to autoimmune conditions and inflammation.
Autoimmune conditions happen when your immune system becomes a little, well, confused (yup..thats the medical term for it) and starts attacking your own body as if it was a foreign invader.
Where it is attacking characterizes the disease: Ulcerative Colitis is in the Colon, Rheumatoid Arthritis is in the joints, etc. The tricky thing is, once your immune system has become dysregulated enough to attack itself in one area, it can just as easily attack another, which is why it is very common for patients to develop multiple autoimmune conditions over time.
It is no secret that the incidences of autoimmune cases have more than tripled in the last decade (it's up to1 in 5 people now), and a higher reported stress level across the board plays a BIG role in that. When your body is overloaded with cortisol (your main stress hormone) on a consistent basis, it is unable to function optimally. At first, this looks like being the unlucky friend during flu season, but over time can progress to much more serious immune dysfunction like autoimmune conditions and cancer-related pathology.
One of the most common autoimmune conditions linked to stress for women is Hashimoto's Thyroiditis. It is the autoimmune form of Hypothyroidism (Yes, That guy again). As a matter of fact, the MAJORITY of hypothyroid cases are actually Hashimotos. *This is why I ALWAYS advise my clients to get a FULL thyroid panel, including antibodies, when they go to their doctor to rule out whether autoimmunity is causing their thyroid symptoms.
You know what is the most common trigger for autoimmune conditions to surface?
If you guessed stress..... YOU'RE RIGHT.
Good job, girl.
3.Lowered female sex hormone production→ Infertility
I don't need to go into crazy detail about this because I talk ALOT about this in my hormone and fertility posts.
But essentially, the reason why stress robs you of your fertility is a process called the "Pregnenolone Steal"...Cute name. Not so cute in your body.
This refers to the recalibration of hormone materials your body goes through when you are under stress. Heres the basics of it: Sympathetic Nervous System is activated--> Your body stops making estrogen and Progesterone and uses those materials instead to keep up with the demand of making stress hormones--> over prolonged period, your production of female sex hormones falls behind--> levels drop below what is necessary to ovulate, menstruate regularly, or conceive a child.
This is such a common phenomena there is a condition labeled "Hypothalamic Amenorrhea" which is basically where a woman loses her period for an extended amount of time PURELY due to how much stress she is under. I had it for 2 years in the heat of my restrictive dieting, overexercising, pit of negative body image season of my life.
If you experience menstrual irregularities, have lost your period with no change in meds or supplements, or are having trouble conceiving, it is ABSOLUTELY worth evaluating your stress levels.
When you are stressed, your body gets depleted of critical micronutrients at an alarming rate. Minerals which are often already low in patients with anxiety or depression. Magnesium, B vitamins, and zinc are all minerals and vitamins that are CRUCIAL for healthy neurotransmitter function and happen to be the first to be used up in a stressed state.
This is why I usually recommend supplementing with Magnesium Glycinate if you struggle AT ALL with anxiety/depression, and supplementing with B vitamins in periods of your life where you are undergoing a lot of stress.
Also, not to state the obvious, but the last thing the doctor ordered for a woman experiencing major anxiety is to stress more.... Environment plays a CRITICAL role in mental health, and learning how to cope in a way that stops stress in its tracks will do wonders for your state of mind.
What are such ways of coping? THANKS FOR ASKING.
Here are tried and true PRACTICAL ways to halt activation of your stress response and immediately turn on your Rest and Digest mode.
When it comes to simple, yet effective, stress hacks, you CAN'T beat deep breathing. Research shows that breathing patterns are indicative of your nervous system branch activity: shallow fast breaths in a STRESSED state, deep slow breaths in a relaxed state. Not only are they indicative, but are also CAUSAL. Meaning you can INITIATE a response in your body depending on what kind of breathing you engage in.
This is excellent news. If you want to activate your Parasympathetic nervous system when you feel you are getting stressed, in traffic, or even just watching T.V, BREATHE like you would in that state. Center your mind and take 5-10 deep, SLOW breaths. Boom, you just stopped your Stress response from wreaking havoc on your body.
2. Get out in Nature
Studies have shown that exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, but lowers your blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and stress hormones.
Exposing yourself on a regular basis to beauty in nature, especially in times of high stress, is an excellent habit to keep your spirits high and your stress hormones low.
Okay, I may make enemies with my fellow weightlifters out there, but Yoga is my NUMBER ONE FORM OF RECOMMENDED MOVEMENT. Over any other type of physical activity or movement, yoga consistently takes the cake, here's why:
It is the most accessible: you can get free yoga videos on youtube and practice in your pjs!
It is a culture based on moving with your breath, therefore accomplishing tip number one
It is excellent, EXCELLENT, for women recovering from body image issues. Yoga is designed to connect you to your body in a very mindful way, and doing a daily meditation like that can work wonders for body disconnection.
The slow, physical stretching is amazing for your lymphatic system, muscle tension, and flexibility.
It forces you to CALM DOWN--there are COUNTLESS studies praising the benefits of yoga for health conditions, hypertension, chronic illness, and reduction of biological stress markers.
You don't have to give up your barbells and live on your yoga mat to reap the benefits of a yoga practice. I actually incorporate yoga into my life less as exercise and more as my meditation practice. A couple times a week, when I can find the time, I pull out my mat at home and pick a free flow on youtube to complete. It's really that simple. Search "stress relieving yoga" on youtube and you've got COUNTLESS options there.
4. Speak Positive/encouraging thoughts OUTLOUD
Our mind can be a nasty place, especially when we let it run wild. In times of anxiety or worry, it is extremely helpful to LITERALLY speak truth and encouragement to yourself to counter act the lies and negativity your mind is feeding you.
Struggling with feeling not good enough, not pretty enough, unloveable? SPEAK DAILY AFFIRMATIONS. The thought patterns that developed in your mind to put you down are NOT innate, they were DEVELOPED. We were all born loving ourself and our body. Somewhere between then and now, from media, society, family members, boyfriends, etc, we've been told were are not lovable just the way we are. It's time to undo that, through purposeful rewiring of our beliefs and thought patterns.
My favorite way to do this is to have a mantra. Some of my past ones include : 'You are stunning, imaginative, and fearless' and 'you are loved deeply and unknowingly'. Cheesy? Probably. Effective? Definitely. Repeat this mantra to yourself in the mirror 5-10 times right when you wake up, and however much you can throughout the day. Pretty soon you will start stepping into the truths you are speaking to yourself, and THAT is where the magic happens.
Laughter relaxes the entire body, boosts the immune system, triggers the release of endorphins, is protective against heart disease, diffuses anger and irritation, and is seen to be protective for those with terminal illness like Cancer.
Laughing physically stimulates your vagus nerve and turns on your parasympathetic nervous system. It doesn't matter what you're laughing at, as long as you're giggling! Meet with your best friend, turn on a funny movie, or start a tickle fight...whatever you choose, LAUGH LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT.
Humans are relational creatures by nature: Human touch increases a hormone called Oxytocin, our "feel good" hormone. It is elevated after sex, hugs, snuggles, or even holding hands. This hormone works as the antithesis to Cortisol.
That is why in hard times, a long hug from a loved one can feel like a saving grace.
7. Say no
This is a daily practice that quickly turns in a life practice. If you are living a life categorized by stress, it is time to make NO your new favorite word.
Toxic relationships? NO
Extending energy to things not high on your priority list? NO
Taking on other peoples dysfunction and burdens as your own? NO
Abandoning self care to give more of your tired self to others? NO
Attending social events not because you want to but because you feel obligated to? NO
Internalizing society's unrealistic Beauty standard as your lifes goal ? HELL NO
No is a complete sentence. It requires no explanations or excuses to others. Throw it out like confetti and feel your shoulders get lighter and lighter with every step.
Stressful events are a part of life….. There is no escaping it. However, how we RESPOND to said events is actually what is going to influence our physiology and consequential hormonal health.
Stress management is the most important component of a healthy, vibrant life. It is also the most underrated and overlooked component of our physical/emotional suffering. When I work with clients, before we even touch food or exercise, I dig into their emotional and mental health. Cultivating joy and relinquishing stress is not just necessary to healing, it is the FOUNDATION from which healing takes place.
If you need someone to help guide you down this road, and cheerlead you every step of the way,contact meto see if we'd be a good fit. I am quite the encouragement expert;)