It should not come as a surprise that the current environment in which most of us live or work, is stressful, ultimately contributing to poor physical and mental health. Whether it is financial stress, the stress of caring for an ill family member, the demands of parenting, or high expectations placed upon us from our work place, we consistently are in a ‘fight or flight’ mode.
I have always prided myself of handling stress fairly well and paid close attention to not letting outside influences affect my health. I lost control of all of that when my son was diagnosed with cancer.
Suddenly, the stress was unbearable. I would find myself weak and dizzy, depend on caffeine to compensate for my sleepless nights. My demeanor was less pleasant; I had no energy and absolutely no sex drive. This naturally began to impact my marriage. It wasn’t until I recognized the importance of caring for myself, that I started to heal, both physically and mentally. I got back on top of my diet, increasing fat intake, decreasing caffeine and incorporating detox, essential oils and daily exercise.
Did you know that chronic stress suppresses energy production and ultimately can lead to chronic disease-whether that is mental illness, autoimmune disease, infertility, cancer, and alcoholism?
How can we keep from disease when we know that much of the time we cannot change the scope of our environment or responsibilities? An unhealthy stress response is not triggered by what happens in life, it is how our body is prepared to respond to what happens. Stress is a natural reaction to an event, whether it is environmental, physical or emotional. If we provide our body with the raw materials it needs to function at optimal levels, we will be able to manage stressful situations in a healthy way. Specifically, by eating a nutrient dense, properly prepared diet, we can enable our body to better handle stress and in turn, protect ourselves from chronic disease.
We have two important glands in our body called adrenal glands. They are primarily responsible for releasing hormones in response to stress. Our adrenal glands are the size of a walnut, the weight of a grape and they sit on top of our kidneys. These glands secrete more than 50 hormones, including our sex hormones, hormones that normalize blood sugar, hormones that respond to stress and maintain our immune system’s inflammatory response. “The adrenals are known as the glands of stress,” writes James Wilson in his book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. “It is their job to enable your body to deal with stress from every possible source, ranging from injury and disease to work and relationship problems. Your resiliency, energy, endurance and your very life all depend on their proper functioning.”
When we are under stress, our system goes into what is called ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is when our adrenals release the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, which rapidly prepare our body to swing into action in response to the present stress.
As part of this response, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your digestion slows, and your body becomes ready to face a potential threat or challenge. You may be wondering why this would be a problem, if after all these glands are designed to handle stress, right? Well, our bodies were designed to be exposed to stress similar to what our Paleolithic ancestors experienced. They experienced ‘fight or flight’ on an occasional basis while hunting for their food, or fighting off intruders. Ironically, although our adrenal glands are in large part to help us cope with stress, too much of it is actually what causes their function to break down.
After years of such stress, the end results are damaged adrenals. The overall production of their many hormones is too low, and the amounts produced don't function as they should. This disturbed function is reflected all around the body. We notice our health declining. Our personality is unpleasant because our disposition is irritable. Our libido has significantly decreased, we experience terrible allergies, depend on caffeine to keep us going, we notice an increased time to recover from illness, mild depression and chronic fatigue. These are just some of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue, which if not addressed can lead to chronic disease.
So what exactly can we do to minimize the effect of stress on our health? In clinical practice, I would see clients who were suffering from severe stress, experience healing with dietary and lifestyle changes. The well being of our adrenals depends in large measure upon what we eat. Therefore, it is quite possible to improve our disposition, increase our energy and change our health for the better by selecting the foods we eat carefully. For example, when you eat sugar and refined carbohydrates, your body turns them into glucose once digested. An overabundance of glucose in our system places our body into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Our body recognizes too much glucose as a stress, therefore putting the adrenals to work in order to respond to the stress. If we look at our modern diet it is full of ‘glucose.’ We often consume fast food, refined carbohydrates, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, etc.
It would then be fair to say that simply removing sugar and refined carbohydrates from our diet can significantly improve the amount of stress our body has to deal with.
A diet consisting of healthy fats, good quality proteins and non-starchy carbohydrates will help support our adrenal function and overall health. One of the most important foods for our adrenal glands is healthy fat. Eating healthy fats coming from grass fed and pastured animals, nuts and seeds as well as tropical oils such as coconut oil, feeds our adrenal glands the nutrients it needs to maintain function. Fats are also the preferred source of energy for the body. Our cells, organs and hormones are made of fat. In fact, our sex hormones, which are secreted by the adrenal glands, are made from cholesterol. Without healthy fats we are unable to make estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, ultimately leading to low libido and infertility. We also need good quality fat to help slow the absorption of glucose in the system, therefore taking some of the ‘stress’ away from the adrenals in regulating blood sugar.
It is also important to be consistent about eating, eating three meals a day and snack in between if necessary. Letting ourselves get to the point of extreme hunger, which nutritionally is considered a state of ‘low blood sugar,’ will put our system into unnecessary stress. Aside from eating a nutrient dense diet, high in healthy fats and low in refined sugar, I also advise practicing regular detox. Here is a great post about 4 detox methods to implement. Prayer and meditation are very powerful tools to use against stress. Taking 10 minutes in the morning to start your day in the presence of God and setting your intentions for the day will help you choose joy and practice thanksgiving. I personally enjoy yoga, it gives me an hour a day to be quiet, get some exercise and reflect on my intentions.
Essential oils can be very helpful for adrenal health. In fact, Basil, Rosemary, Clove and Elevation are all therapeutic oils known to bring balance to our adrenal glands. I would recommend using 2 drops of each oil and rubbing over the adrenal glands and bottoms of feet two times per day.
Lastly, I would encourage each and everyone of us to take a moment to reflect on what we have to be thankful for. In this last year of 'stress' that I have lived out, I have found that taking a deep breath, and living life 15 minutes at a time has allowed me to be thankful for the good and not dwell on the bad, worry over the long to do list, or the unpaid bills. So much of our physical health is in our own hands. We have the choice to be happy, we have the choice to eat healthy and we have the choice to continue educating ourselves on ways to live longer, healthier and happier lives. #choosejoy