How is stress making us sick?
It's no surprise that so many people are stressed these days. Stress is wreaking havoc on our bodies, and 75-90% of human disease is related to the activation of stress systems in our bodies. Chronic stress creates inflammation in the body which can make us sick and lead to everything from autoimmune disease, to diabetes, to heart disease. It is one of the hidden sources of inflammation in this guide. It's important to note that not all stress is bad, but the levels we are experiencing in today's modern world are creating a pro-inflammatory state in many of us.
Stress is not always something that is happening "to" us or part of our external environment. Stress can be present in the body based on our internal state; even food sensitivities can play a role, as you'll see below.
And, the problem is, many of us don't even know about this until it's too late and we are diagnosed with a disease. You know those whispers that you hear that you need to make a change to improve your health? Listen to those before they become a brick to the head.
When we perceive a threat, it engages our sympathetic nervous system or our "fight-or-flight" response. Think running away from the sabre toothed tiger where we experience a rush of cortisol and adrenalin to get away. Once we get away, our stress response turns off and we return to a more rested state. When we are rested, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system, aka our "rest and digest" system. For most of us, we don't experience life-threatening situations in everyday life. That said, the problem is that we are still experiencing stress. And what's worse? The stress is chronic and is often caused by our lifestyle factors. Stress may interfere with the body's ability to shut down its own immune response after it gets started. What this means is that once we experience stress, and the body responds by increasing inflammation in the body, this process can be hard to shut off.
Stress can look different for everyone and can be anything from a workplace where are you feel overworked and undervalued to stress over meal planning and what to cook as a parent. So, what are some ways, from a functional medicine perspective, that can help to reduce stress?
Movement: No matter the type of movement, almost any form of exercise will help to decrease your stress level. Exercise can reduce our stress hormones, and even something as simple as a quick walk can bring those stress hormones down.
Think about it, when you went for a walk last, did you come back more stressed than when you left? Probably not. Studies have shown that people who consistently practice yoga have lower levels of inflammation in the body.
Meditation: If you have heard me speak on this topic before, you know I am a HUGE proponent of meditation. The practice has changed my life. Many of my health coaching clients say things like "I can't meditate", "I keep thinking about my to do list when I close my eyes", and "I don't have time to sit around". Meditation can increase stress resilience and can lower levels of perceived stress and anxiety. Prolonged stress can change the brain, and meditation can help us to be able to take a step back from our thoughts and not turn on a stress response in the first place. No stress response (or a reduced response) then lower levels of cortisol are released and less inflammation (stress) on the body.
Certain Foods: If you have a food sensitivity, this can create stress IN the body. The body's response to food that it is sensitive to is often to "fight" that food. This is one of the reasons why identifying food sensitivities and healing leaky gut are so important in reducing levels of stress inside the body. Chronic stress inside our GI system can show up as things like abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation, but can also present as a headache, hair loss or a rash.
Focus on what you can control, not what you can't: Our bodies listen to the thoughts we tell ourselves. If we are constantly reminding ourselves that we are in a constant state of stress, our bodies will reflect that constant state of stress. While we can't control everything going on around us, we can control some things: our nutrition, level of exercise and the thoughts we tell ourselves. We can't control what is happening in the media, but we can control our consumption of media. Unfortunately, we are far more likely to have negative thoughts than positive ones (this is often referred to as a negativity bias). A tip to combat this? Try giving yourself a high-five in the mirror everyday and celebrating something good. The more you celebrate the good, the more your brain will look for "the good".
Breathwork: Related to meditation, for people that feel like they are not ready to meditate, breathwork is a great introduction to just being present. Try a box breathing method like the 4-4-4-4 (inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4) or the 4-7-8 method (inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8). Breathwork is something you can do anywhere! Think in the shower, at a stop light, before you leave the car to come into the house after work, literally anywhere! Breathwork, like meditation, can help us to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and move away from fight-or-flight and into a more relaxed state.