Changes in our lives can cause stress such as pandemics, marriages, death of a loved one, new baby, moving, new job, etc. The last two years have certainly not been an easy one for many people and we have all dealt with our fair share of emotional stress in reaction to all the events that have occurred in the world.
Even though it may have been emotional stress, this can manifest into physical ailments on our body if we don’t find ways to cope and deal with the stressor and eventually lead to feelings of burnout.
WHY? Emotional and physical stressors trigger the same stress response in our bodies. The stress response helps to keep us motivated and get things done to tackle the stress. If the stressor is persistent and continuously activating our stress axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis), this can lead to a host of illnesses and symptoms like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and weight gain, depression, anxiety, lack of motivation and drive, chronic inflammation and autoimmune conditions. It can also alter our sex hormones and affect our thyroid hormones.
Some symptoms like stress-related hair loss, heavier bleeding or a change in your menstrual cycle and period may not occur immediately at the time of the stressor but within 3 months after the stressful situation first occurred because it sometimes takes our hormones three months to adjust to the stressful situation and respond to the domino effects of increased cortisol. Other symptoms like anxiety, night sweats, bloating, gas and a change in digestive function can occur within hours, days or weeks of the stressor. This is because the sympathetic nervous system that gets activated at the onset of the stressor and releases adrenaline (epinephrine).
Don’t think cortisol is all bad though. We need cortisol to keep us going, to maintain our blood sugar, and keep inflammation in check. Our circadian rhythm operates on the rise and fall of cortisol and melatonin at opposite times so we don’t want to burn out the production axis. Read more about the impact of cortisol on our body!
This response to a continuous stressor is termed General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) as coined by Hans Selye, MD. It is composed of three stages as outlined below. Which stage are you at these days?
Stage 1 - The Alarm Reaction
This is akin to first finding about this pandemic and the lockdown announcement. It is how the body immediately responds to the stressor by releasing adrenaline via sympathetic activation. Adrenaline lasts a short period and decreases. If the stressor persists for a little longer, cortisol will begin to be released.
Signs and symptoms from the release of adrenaline are:
- Achy muscles and joints
- Loss of appetite – sympathetic activation decreases blood flow to your gut and reduces stomach acid so you feel more bloated, gassy and have a decreased appetite
- Palpitations, anxiety, restlessness
- High blood pressure, rapid pulse
Stage 2 - The Resistance Stage
If the stressor persists, you enter this stage and produce cortisol. Adrenaline decreases and the stage 1 symptoms may disappear. Cortisol remains above normal and over time, this can lead to high cortisol resulting in changes to blood sugar, increased blood pressure, hormone changes such as increased estrogen or sluggish thyroid function. DHEA can be decreased along with melatonin. ACTH secretion from the pituitary can become blunted as well.
Some possible signs that you are in this stage:
- Feeling tired but wired
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Restless sleep and waking up around 3-4am consistently for no reason
- 2pm crashes
- High blood pressure
- Abdominal weight gain
- Anxiety or low mood
- Low libido
- Women may have menstrual cycle changes
- Skin changes like eczema or acne
Stage 3 - The Exhaustion A.K.A Burnout Stage
We aren’t meant to live with a constant stressor that lasts 2+ years (such as this pandemic situation) and eventually, if we don’t find a way to manage the stressor, we will lose the ability to stay in the resistance phase because our adrenals will not be able to maintain cortisol production. At this point, adrenaline goes up and we can start to see those stage 1 symptoms like rapid heart rate, palpitations, anxiety, sweating, hot flashes, night sweats again. Because of the lack of cortisol (which can suppress inflammation), we can see more inflammatory conditions, aches and pains, and/or autoimmune conditions develop. DHEA can also be low at this stage.
Possible signs you are in stage 3:
- Waking up tired and struggle to get going in the day
- Low energy all day with small energy peaks
- Feeling like you could sleep all day
- Joint pain and body aches worse on waking
- Stuffy nose, sore throat, feeling inflamed in the morning but might get better as the day goes on
- Feeling depressed or anxious
- Brain fog
- Low libido
Ways to Cope and Manage the Stress
This helps decrease the overwhelm and prevents a a long-term increase of cortisol. This can be:
- Counselling sessions
- Anything for self-care and something to look forward to for unwinding
- Addressing acute stressors as they show up such as acting on a health sign/symptom when it shows up and booking that doctor’s appointment so that it doesn't persist and occupy your mind worrying about it
- Social time with family and/or friends can also relieve stress because you have the ability to talk through things and release it from your mind.
- Journaling is another great option release your frustrations onto paper
Adrenal Support Options
If you just can’t shake the stress and the relief is only short-term, support to modulate your cortisol levels and support your adrenal glands is important. This can be in the form of:
- Nutrients to support your adrenal glands via oral supplements or IV treatments (100% absorption into your body)
- Dietary and lifestyle coaching to help preserve your cortisol levels and increase the length of the resistance phase
- Herbal adaptogenic support using herbs like rhodiola, licorice root, ginseng, ashwagandha, maca, reishi, chaga, and/or holy basil. While these herbal preparations are widely available at health stores, I highly recommend you work with a regulated naturopathic doctor or professional trained in the use and prescription of herbal products to pick the right herb and supplement for you. Why? Some adaptogenic herbs increase cortisol and some decrease it and so there are different herbs for phase 2 and phase 3 support and you want to take the right one so you don’t worsen your symptoms.
- If you feel your sex hormones or thyroid is off, speak to a naturopathic doctor about natural recommendations for supporting these hormones.
- Functional testing options are also available to get objective values on your hormones and adrenal function.
- Massage and acupuncture treatments which can move you into the parasympathetic "rest and digest" mode and lower your cortisol levels
Are you struggling to identify which stage you are in or feel like you have signs from both stages? Click the button below, book a naturopathic assessment and let's work together to figure out where you are at and how we can support you with a variety of natural treatment recommendations.