Stress is a pandemic in our modern world. What was meant to be a short survival response has made its way into our everyday lives. Stress has gone from situational to chronic, and over a quarter of Canadians report feeling stressed on a daily basis. Coinciding with this increase in chronic stress, is the increase in chronic illness. The reason we see these two trends parallel each other is because, while stress is a nervous system response, it affects the whole body.
What exactly is Happening in Stress?
In stress, the brain sends hormonal signals to the adrenal glands. This promotes the sympathetic nervous system, often referred to as fight or flight. In response to sympathetic nervous system activation, adrenaline and cortisol get released into the bloodstream. The immediate effects of this are an increase in blood pressure, and heart rate. In addition to this, digestion shuts down and we begin to breakdown out stored energy in order to have the means to physically run away from the stressor.
Cortisol is secreted as long as the brain or body perceives stress.
This fight or flight response that secrets cortisol and adrenaline isn’t harmful in the short term. In the case of chronic stress though, when cortisol is constantly elevated the body is essentially stuck in a sympathetic state- trouble can begin to occur within the body.
How Does Stress Impact the Body?
There’s this idea that stress in an underlying cause or contributing factor to illness. Science and medicine show this to be true, and it’s because stress affects the body in a systemic fashion.
Simplified, here’s how stress acts on some of the major systems in the body:
Cardiovascular system: Stress causes an increase in heartrate, blood pressure and stress hormones. Together over the long-term start, this elevation in cardiac markers can damage cardiac tissue. Research shows that stress can lead to inflamed blood vessels, compromising function and increasing risk of cardiovascular events
Digestive System: Digestion requires a substantial amount of oxygen and nutrients to do its job. Usually, there is a healthy supply of blood to the GI track which delivers the needed oxygen and nutrients. When the body is in a fight or flight state, blood is shunted from digestion to the arms and legs in order to help the body physically flee from the stressor- logical or not. This results in not only digestive discomfort but also poor nutrient absorption
Endocrine: Cortisol signals the liver gets to upregulate glucose production. We store sugar in our liver and in our muscles. During stress, this sugar gets broken down so that an influx of sugar enters the blood stream. This happens again, to provide the body with the energy needed to physically escape a stressful situation. The problem arises when we constantly have elevated blood sugar due to stress. In the long run, stress is a contributing factor to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
Musculoskeletal: Muscles tense under stress. This is often an unconscious and reflexive reaction. Tense muscles from stress can prompt the onset of tension headaches and migraines. It can also exasperate chronic pain or symptoms in those with conditions such as fibromyalgia.
Immune: The adrenal glands, which are key players in the stress response, use a lot of vitamin C. Due to the amount of vitamin C needed by the adrenals in the stress response, there typically isn’t enough left over for its role in the immune system. This can leave the body susceptible to both bacterial and viral infections. Compounding on this, cortisol and the other stress hormones suppress the immune system through downregulating the production of immune cells.
Even though stress is governed by the nervous system, the effects are seen throughout the body. The impact of stress is cumulative and it manifests overtime. The interplay between stress and genetics dictates how stress shows up: ie- chronic high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, ect.
Stress modifies gene expression, but there’s no need to be stressed about being stressed. It’s been clinically shown that lifestyle, nutrition and movement habits can reduce levels of stress. It can be difficult to start a new habit while the body is constant stress. This is where supplements come in.
Certain supplements can have profound affects on the stress response. They work to reduce the physiological cascade that we talked about at the start of this article, and they can reduce how we perceive stress from a mental standpoint- targeting stress from two important angles.
Our absolute favourite stress reducing supplement stack is Lypo-Spheric® Vitamin C, Rhoziva and AOR’s Cortisol calm. Here’s why:
Stress depletes vitamin C. This depresses immune function, and decreases the antioxidant defense system in the body. Studies show that those who take vitamin C are better able to manage stress from a physical standpoint but they also perceive stress less. Lypo-Spheric® is our preferred vitamin C because it has superior absorption.
As the name suggests, cortisol calm, reduces the levels of cortisol in the body. It’s a blend of apoptogenic herbs that help to manage the negative consequences of stress. By lowering cortisol secretion, it exerts several protective effects on the body. Like vitamin C, cortisol calm has also been shown to provide mental relief from stress.
A potent, concentrated from of the adaptogenic herb Rhodiola, Rhozvia is one of the best tools natural medicine has against the stress response. In addition too stress, rhodiola as been clinically shown to reduce downstream moods associated with stress such as anger, confusion and anxiety. Caution: taking rhodiola increases every and should not be taken after 3pm!
Incorporating supplements can be a launch pad into dealing with stress. Of course, it is advisable to remove stressors where possible, and take a holistic approach to management in the long-term that includes such things as a regular exercise program and techniques such as mediation. However, when those seem like to much- we can modulate physiology through supplements to get us to a place where we feel good enough to make sustainable lifestyle switches!
Author: Lisa Kowalyk, CNP, B.Kin