Stress. It is ubiquitous in this modern age, so much so that most of us consider it inevitable. However, our relationship with stress over the last hundred years or so is vastly different from our relationship with it for the vast majority of our evolution as a species.
For most of our time on this Earth, stress was a punctuated, limited experience. The saber-tooth tiger chased us, we ran away and once safe in our cave, we could rest, relax and repair wounds, tissue damage and even metabolic damaged incurred on our getaway.
Unfortunately, nowadays that ‘rest, relax and repair’ phase never comes and so the damage builds and builds. Even if we don’t feel ‘stressed,’ our bodies may be experiencing stress. Though most of us associate ‘stress’ with psychoemotional stressors, we can experience ill effects from physical stressors too- and the body does not distinguish between physical and mental stresses.
So what are some ‘hidden’ sources of physical stress that might be contributing to your overall stress and slowly eroding away your health?
1. Food intolerances. Intolerances are different immunologically than a true food ‘allergy’ so the symptoms can be a lot more subtle. Headaches, fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, and other chronic conditions can be symptoms of a gut being assaulted regularly by foods it doesn’t tolerate. Since the majority of the your immune system resides in your gut, this can create imbalances that can set the stage for autoimmune disease.
2. Poor sleep. Not just a lack of sleep, which most of us have experienced as a stress, but a lack of quality, restorative sleep. Sleep apnea is an all-to-common manifestations of this. If your body is not getting enough oxygen and alarms are constantly going off in your brain to wake up and breathe, you can be in bed ‘sleeping’ for 8-10 hours and still be tired and fatigued throughout the day. Another thing that can negatively impact your sleep quality is electromagnetic radiation from any electronics. Current evidence suggests that EMR disrupts the circadian rhythms that govern our sleep-wake cycles deep in a part of the brain called the pineal gland. Set your phone to ‘airplane mode,’ turn off the wireless router and unplug whatever electronics you can at night. They draw a small current even if plugged, but ‘off.’ Put all bedroom electronics on a power strip so you only have to unplug one thing to kill the electricity to them all at night.
3. Nutrient deficiencies. Most of us have moved away from eating nutrient-dense whole foods for most of our calorie intake. Modern farming practices can often deplete the soil of important minerals like magnesium and selenium and because of this, even organic produce may not be as nutrient dense as the food our grandparents ate. Additionally, in trying to digest process foods, our bodies are often depleted of more vitamins and minerals that we receive from the food itself. In dealing with increased stress, we use up our stores of B vitamins, Vitamin C and magnesium.
4. Blood sugar imbalances. Have you ever experienced the feeling of being ‘hangry,’ when you are so hungry your mood tanks and you get mad at everyone and everything until you get something to eat? Or have you ever had that afternoon ‘food coma’ where all you want to do about an hour after lunch is take a nap? These are symptoms that your blood sugar is unbalanced. One way that your body deals with low blood sugar is to secrete cortisol, our stress hormone, which mobilizes stored glucose from the liver in order to make it available to brain cells. Though this is a key survival adaptation, particularly in times where food is scarce, when this leads to elevated cortisol levels on a daily basis, it can suppress the immune system and lead to problems regulating our inflammatory response.
5. Sex hormone imbalances. Cortisol is made primarily from progesterone, but can be made from estrogen, testosterone and DHEA as well. Poor libido, changes in menstrual cycles, changes in PMS, infertility and erectile dysfunction may all have their route cause in stress that robs of us of our sex hormone balance.
6. Exercise. Bet you didn’t see that one coming? Exercise is a stress, usually a good one. But too much, too frequently, especially ‘cardio,’ can overtax the adrenals and result in overproduction of cortisol. In a healthy person, this is not problematic, in fact, it helps the body be better prepared for future stresses, but if you have a chronic health condition, or any one of the hidden sources of stress listed above, it may useful to reevaluate what kind of exercise you are doing and for how long. Strength training workouts are less ‘stressful’ to the adrenal glands then long steady-state cardio workouts. Additionally, short, high-intensity interval workouts appear to be less taxing on the adrenals glands than a steady-state cardio workout as well. If a patient is suffering from stress from too much of the wrong kind of exercise, I will also recommend moving more and exercising less. Focus on things like walking, playing outdoors, standing instead of sitting, gardening, etc.- activities that are fun, can be fit into your daily routine (as opposed to having to carve out extra time in an already hectic schedule to go to the gym) and move your body in new and novels ways, instead of the repetitive motion of most cardio exercises.