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Spring 2012: Stress, Stress, Go Away
Publish date: Apr 25, 2012
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Take a few minutes to try this exercise.
Believe it or not, inside your body at this very moment, millions of cells are hard at work in response to these thoughts. Your brain is transmitting hormonal messages through your nervous system. Your heart is slowing. Your muscles are relaxing. Your breathing is deepening.
You are not consciously willing these responses. Your body is a powerfully interconnected system of unconscious triggers and responses. It is this network that makes all of us vulnerable to the effects of stress.
Hormonal Genetics at Work
Everyone has heard of the “fight or flight” response that allows the body to shift into “survival” mode during acute stress. Our heart pounds, blood flow increases, breathing grows shallow and muscles tense in anticipation of the need for self-defence.
These days, few people are required to actually run for their lives—unless that last vacation was perhaps an African safari. Still, the body reacts to all stress in the same way. When you tense up during traffic or in a board meeting, your inner systems are undergoing the same responses as if you were darting through a jungle.
Short term, a little stress can be a good thing, increasing performance and stamina. Long-term, however, stress of any kind can cause contribute to underlying hormone imbalances that influence everything from how you sleep, how you handle stress to how your body burns fat can all be attributed to stress.
A seemingly simple issue like losing weight takes on new insight when you look at it hormonally. You could be working out every day, but if you are not addressing underlying stress-induced hormonal imbalances, and of course trying to reduce those stressors, you won’t achieve your ideal figure.
The same is true for all other health conditions including heart disease and cancer. You cannot truly heal these two leading killers without understanding stress, and dealing with that stress head on.
Inside the Adrenals
The adrenals are the body’s “go to” glands. These small glands secrete stress-hormones that govern the body’s reaction to stress. The adrenals also make other hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, DHEA (known as the anti-aging hormone), and progesterone.
The effects of healthy adrenals ripple through the system, balancing blood sugars, regulating cardiovascular health and contributing to the digestive process. But because so many of us are highly stressed super-achievers—racing from work to home to the gym to family functions and finally to bed with barely a breath—the adrenals are never really given time to rest and recuperate.
Fatigued adrenals are common these days. According to a recent Health Canada survey, one-third of working women report stress from a high-strain job, compared with 20 percent of men.1 Unfortunately, when adrenals become exhausted, it is a serious concern, especially for women approaching menopausal age. After estrogen production by the ovaries and menstruation stops (menopause), the adrenals are supposed to become the prime producers of estrogen and testosterone.
Women going through menopause whose adrenals are exhausted face terrible menopausal symptoms compared to women with well-functioning adrenals. If you are approaching this time in your life, you will definitely want to reduce your personal stressors and help prepare your body for this natural transitional period by nourishing your adrenals.
Cortisol and Belly Fat
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands to help the body combat stress. But like most things in life, balance is key: too much cortisol is not a good thing.
Elevated cortisol is associated with blood sugar problems leading to prediabetes and diabetes, poor immunity, infertility and more. Cortisol also causes our fat cells to change structure and become resistant to fat loss.
In short, cortisol makes our fat cell doors slam shut and not let the fat out even when we reduce calories and exercise. That extra roll around the middle is a classic symptom of chronic stress and imbalanced hormones. And why is it that it is many women particularly in their 40s and 50s who start to accumulate stubborn belly fat? Because this is the time of life when the lifestyle habits of our 20s and 30s are catching up with us.
It is not too late to reverse the process, of course, through stress management and specific herbs and nutrients that help the body cope with stress and promote hormone balance. However, ideally, women should be watching our stress levels from as early an age as possible.
A well-researched ingredient in carob called chirositol has been involved in more than 30 studies at the Virginia Medical School over the past 25 years. Research on chirositol has shown excellent results for conditions related to elevated cortisol and blood sugar imbalances, including type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) as well as for weight loss, particularly belly fat.
One of the first signs of diabetes is skin tags and chirositol by normalizing blood sugar can make skin tags a thing of the past. Chirositol stimulates insulin activity, helping to regulate glucose (blood sugar) storage or push glucose into cells, which in turn helps to normalize blood sugar levels. At the same time, it will not cause low blood sugar in those with normal blood sugar levels.
Interestingly, in women, chirositol also reduces excess male hormones that contribute to acne and malepattern facial hair growth such as on the upper lip or under the chin, and improves irregular ovulation or menstruation.
Stress, PMS and Infertility
The hormone-disrupting effects of stress are not reserved for one age group. Just think of all the teenagers who suffer with menstrual irregularities, acne and PMS, then recall the ups and downs of your own school years. The correlation is no coincidence.
A recent study in the Journal of Women’s Health examined the relationship between perceived stress and PMS symptoms, including crying, cramping, and pain. After adjusting for age, education, smoking habits, and weight/height ratio, high stress was associated with PMS symptoms, both psychological and physical, of increased severity.
The researchers concluded that “stress reduction programs may be an effective, non-pharmaceutical treatment for physical and psychological symptom relief.”2
Another telling study on the effect of stress in relation to infertility was recently reported in online in the journal Fertility and Sterility. This was the first study of its kind to document, among women without a history of fertility problems, the truth of the long-held suspicion amongst scientists that stress reduces a woman’s chance of getting pregnant.
Almost 300 women between the ages of 18 and 40 were observed for six months and their saliva monitored for a substance that the body secretes in response to physical or psychological stress. The researchers found that, yes, stress significantly reduced the probability of conception during a woman’s fertile period.3
To the one in six Canadian couples who are dealing with infertility, stress reduction is essential. I would also add that nutritional supplementation should also be adopted to reduce the underlying hormonal imbalances that contribute in many cases to fertility challenges and PMS.
Herbs and Nutrients
When it comes to addressing hormone imbalances and combating stress, a good multivitamin with minerals should be the basis of any supplement program, as nutritional deficiencies can contribute to and worsen disease.
If you are currently going through menopause and are suffering from hot flashes, nights sweats and other symptoms, then acute treatment using other herbs such as dong quai, chastetree berry, black cohosh and sage leaf should be administered.
As I mentioned above, women with exhausted adrenals due to stress have a harder transition because the adrenals are unable to produce the necessary hormones. To support your adrenals and to combat stress—not only during menopause but throughout life—herbal adaptogens are key. Adaptogens have a normalizing effect; they help promote inner balance, improve stamina, reduce the bodily effects of stress, bolster the immune system, rejuvenate the nerves, and generally contribute to mental, physical and emotional well-being.
I like the adrenal-support nutrients ashwagandha, rhodiola, suma, Siberian ginseng, and schizandra berries in a combination formula for best effect. Additional hormone-balancing nutrients, herbs and lifestyle recommendations can be found on my website.
Don’t wait until your next holiday to relax. A positive attitude, a loving family and friends, anti-stress supplements and effective stress-coping strategies will help reduce stress, balance your cortisol levels, slow aging, reverse disease, and return vibrancy to your life.
Reprinted with permission from Lorna Vanderhaeghe Health Solutions, Inc., www.hormonehelp.com.