What is stress?
It is a physical response that occurs in our body when we feel threatened in any way, physically or emotionally.
Physiologically, it is a series of actions in the body that are regulated by specific hormones made by the adrenal glands. These glands sit on top of the kidneys and are made up of 2 parts:
The first is the adrenal cortex located in the outer part of the gland:
- It produces hormones that are essential to life such as cortisol one of our stress hormones and aldosterone
- Role of Cortisol: Essential for the maintenance of homeostasis and maintaining life, helps regulate blood sugar, immune response, anti-inflammatory response, blood pressure, heart muscles contractions, nervous system function, fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism and keeps you awake
- Aldosterone: Plays a central role in regulating blood pressure, also helps with the conservation of sodium and potassium from the kidneys
The second is the Adrenal Medulla located on the inner part of the gland:
- It produces non-essential hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline
- Hormones from the adrenal medulla are released after the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated during times of stress
The fight or flight response is our body’s defense response to danger designed for physical threats to protect us from danger like being chased by a bear. But since it can’t tell the difference between our different kinds of stressors, it’s activated during a busy schedule, deadline, driving in traffic or bad memories of the past and treats them all the same way. This is part of our sympathetic nervous system response. In this state, adrenaline works with cortisol to increase the body’s ability for immediate energy and strength. It causes blood vessels to contract and increases heart rate to tell your brain to put out more cortisol signaling the adrenals.
Enter the HPA Axis:
- The hypothalamus releases CHR (corticotropin-releasing hormone which signals the pituitary to release ACTH, another hormone)
- The adrenals are stimulated by ACTH to produce glucocorticoids – cortisol and corticosterones (anti-inflammatory)
- The adrenals in turn, signal to suppress the hypothalamus and the pituitary to suppress glucocorticoid production once the stress hormone is activated
- The adrenals rule the roost since they are like the hinge of the process and our last resort
As you can see, stress affects so many processes in the body and since you can’t just get away from stress or ignore it, here are 5 ways to naturally reduce and help deal with stress and in turn lower your cortisol levels.
1. Shifting Your perspective
We have the ability to control our perception of things we face or have to deal with in life. It’s not always about stress itself, but how we perceive it and handle it. Think about the term, ‘You are making a mountain out of a molehill’.
Learning to understand when to let things go and stop dwelling on them is easier said than done. So ask yourself, is there something that you can do about this and if not, let it go. But if there is something you can do about it, move toward it and don’t avoid it. The quicker we can nip things in the bud, the less time we have to spend on dwelling or worrying about it, replaying the scenario over and over in our minds which is doubling the stress of it. Hence, making a mountain out of a molehill. Acknowledging these feelings and realizing they are normal and that nothing is wrong with you will also reduce their effects.
2. Spending Time in Nature
Frequently unplugging from our daily fast-paced lives, responsibilities and full schedules is a very powerful step to lowering our stress levels. The best part is that it is always available to us and we can’t cancel it out. Engaging all our senses can also put us into the present instead of living in the past or future where negative memories or fears of the unknown creep in.
3. Practice Mindfulness
This is defined as the mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It is used as a therapeutic technique.
Living in the moment lowers stress levels in particular the worry of the future and the past. Focusing on the present prevents this worrying. It also provides an opportunity to see things with a new perspective as mentioned above and in turn, you will take things less for granted. An example would be how brilliant red a burning bush is in the fall (as I am now looking out my window into my backyard).
Another level of mindfulness and considered a paradox, which I have also experienced is:
To make the most of time by losing track of it. In other words, being so engrossed in a task that you are totally absorbed. This is known as creating flow. You can’t force flow (like sleep), but you can set the stage for it to occur. You do this by setting a goal that is challenging but not unattainable so you can fire on all cylinders. There also needs to be immediate feedback as to whether you are going in the right direction so you can make corrections as you go to sustain it, keeping up the flow.
4. Deep Breathing
This practice activates our parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for “rest and digest”. This state reduces blood pressure, slows the heart rate, relaxes muscles, calms the mind, and prepares the body for resting and digesting! This is the opposite of “fight or flight”and our nervous system can only be in one of these states at a time. So being in rest and digest mode more often than fight or flight is worth striving for.
Diaphragm deep breathing is the proper way we should breathe, but stress forces our shoulders to tense and we will naturally shallow breathe with our chest instead. Practicing deep breathing the correct way will make it more efficient and send more oxygen to your cells. My favourite is called ‘Box’ breathing. This is where you inhale counting to 4, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts and then hold for 4 counts again. All 4s will form a box when completed. This will help you remember how to do it too. The best thing is that it is free and you can do it anytime. Practicing it before eating helps get you into ‘rest and digest’ mode so give it a try today!
5 Nutrition for the adrenals
Stress uses up key nutrients from our body and making sure you get enough of these on a daily basis will help give you the reserves to deal with it and recover. If you have digestive issues, you might not be absorbing all you can from what you eat so working on optimal digestion over time will ensure that. See my other videos on gut health and programs.
B vitamins especially B6, are very good ones to start supplementing if you are under chronic stress or have elevated stress levels. Some people can’t absorb this vitamin in its original forms so looking for a methylated version would be best if you aren’t sure if you can. Vitamin C and potassium are other ones our body will use up when under stress and help support the adrenals. Sodium is also needed for a lot of chemical processes in the body and helps support the adrenals. Look for Celtic sea salt or pink Himalayan ones for the best quality and to avoid toxic additives or impurities.
To see how stressed you are and if you should start doing something about it, download my free checklist called “How Stressed Are You?”. This will show you if you have high cortisol levels or low cortisol levels and offers some suggestions to support them.