Believe it or not, ALL stress, no matter what type, has a similar effect on our health.
First up is the type most of us think about when we hear the word “stress:” Psychological, Emotional, & Perceived Stress. Often, this stress occurs when there is a difference between what we expected, and what is actually happening. And It’s subjective!
It DOES NOT MATTER what is going on; if it feels overwhelming to you, it is likely causing physical health problems. What’s more, you do not have to have a diagnosis or reason to justify feeling overwhelmed.
Even if you don’t feel overwhelmed, I challenge you to consider what keeps your mind running. No matter what is going on, or whether you feel it is justified, support can be incredible. I highly recommend working with a therapist, even if just for a season. We would all be better with counselors on our team.
In addition to support, it can also be helpful to address what stressors you can. This can be overwhelming, but here are some steps to start:
Lastly, remember that the goal is not just to remove your triggers, but learn how to become more RESILIENT. Below are some questions you can ask when you find yourself feeling triggered:
Moving on… Most of us know that stress can disturb our sleep, but did you know that poor sleep (along with other circadian rhythm disruptors) can be a form of stress itself?! Your Circadian Rhythm is an internal clock that is constantly running and is critical to your health. Essentially every system in your body is coordinated by your brain’s operation of this internal clock. It can even regulate certain enzyme functions based on whether your body thinks it’s day or night. In addition to the sleep-wake cycle, your circadian rhythm also plays a major role in these functions:
When your circadian rhythm becomes disrupted, it means these systems don’t operate right. And vice versa, when these systems are off, your circadian rhythm can become even more disrupted. So, not only does staying up late leave you feeling crummy, it’s actually impacting a much bigger picture.
Circadian disruption comes from a number of things, including:
Maybe, supporting your Circadian Rhythm is one of the stressors that you CAN start to tackle. While it might seem like it has no connection to your health, improving your Circadian Rhythm can make a huge difference.
Below are some ways to better support your Circadian Rhythm. But, remember the goal is never perfection! It is unlikely that you can tackle this entire list. Instead, I encourage you to think about which things make sense for you to work on and start there.
As for my fellow parents, I KNOW those late hours feel like the only alone time you have, and can be precious time with your spouse. But, do me a favor and take an audit of your night time hours… Are you using them to connect with your spouse, or to truly reset from the day? Or are you zoning out on screens for work or pleasure? I’m not saying some of that is wrong – I do it plenty! But, I encourage you to consider whether you can re-prioritize those hours, and explore what might really bring you rest, and restoration during that time.
Believe it or not, Blood Sugar Dysregulation might be the sneakiest stressor of all. Most of us have a fairly poor understanding of Blood Sugar…Would you believe that it’s my ‘healthiest’ eaters who struggle the most with Blood Sugar dysregulation? I would bet you didn’t know that at times eating carbs can actually help lower stress hormones. Your blood sugar changes often, but the frequency and intensity of fluctuations is what can be a stressor. One of the primary roles of your adrenal glands is to keep your Blood Sugar within the narrowest range possible. When your Blood Sugar is too high, your pancreas will pump out extra insulin in order to help move glucose into your cells. And, when your Blood Sugar is too low, your adrenal glands release cortisol. Cortisol then breaks down your OWN organ tissue (primarily from muscle and thymus) and converts it into glucose in order to elevate Blood Sugar levels. You see, cortisol is a survival hormone and low Blood Sugar is dangerous. In other words, there are times when eating glucose can actually LOWER CORTISOL, meaning sometimes sugar can help LOWER your STRESS hormones!
What’s more, there are SO many factors that can raise or lower your Blood Sugar beyond dietary sugar. Any of the stressors in this series can affect Blood Sugar levels along with these other common triggers:
As I explained, anything that causes stress on your body will likely cause some level of Blood Sugar dysregulation. True fact: perceived stress can spike my blood sugar higher than a bowl of ice cream!
Hopefully you also now know that sugar and carbs can even help lower stress hormones at times. Now hear me out, I am not saying to eat ALL the desserts. BUT, I see a lot of disordered mindsets around fear of sugar and carbs, and I want you to see that not only can they absolutely be a part of a very healthy lifestyle & diet, but also that extreme restriction can lead to higher stress hormones for some, especially women. The big goal is to keep your Blood Sugar as steady as possible . And to do this we minimize stress on your body. Big caveat here: Blood Sugar regulation is extremely individualized. So, what works for your friend or for me, might not work for you.
Here are some of the things I find most effective for minimizing Blood Sugar dysregulation:
Lastly is the fourth category of stress signaling triggers: Inflammatory signaling. Inflammation is a huge trigger, but one of the hardest to identify. By the time you start experiencing symptoms, inflammation could have been brewing for years. First, It’s important to remember that inflammation is not always bad! Inflammation is actually one of your body’s ways of protecting itself. But, chronic inflammation, especially when left untreated, can put incredible strain on the body. When inflammation is allowed to go unchecked, it can damage the body by creating too many pro-inflammatory cells, such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interleukins (ILs), nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB), prostaglandins, and free radicals. The chronic release of these proinflammatory molecules stimulates the HPA axis and signals a stress reaction.
There are SO many things that could be causing inflammation for you. But, here is a list of a few things that I often see contributing to chronic inflammation so that you can take audit of what might be affecting you:
Remember, inflammation is not inherently bad; in fact it’s a helpful process. Your goal is not to remove ALL inflammation, but to minimize chronic inflammation as a way of lowering stress.
There are so many ways to minimize inflammation and they are highly individualized. Perfectionism can also add to inflammation, so please do not try to take on all of these at once!
*Check back in next week for the final installment of this three part series where I will share how your brain and body respond to stress and what you can do to break the cycle.
Katherine Andrew, MPH, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Masters degree in Public Health with nearly fifteen years of experience in community public health and private nutrition counseling. Her work experience includes individual and group health counseling, interactive workshops, food systems consulting, non-profit program development and management, and safe skin care advocacy and promotion. She works with clients to identify and address health concerns, navigate food sensitivities, explore body image, plan healthy meals for themselves and their families, evaluate and improve hormone health, maximize stress management, and restore their relationship with eating so they can enjoy food and thrive. Gut health, food sensitivities, hormones, family food dynamics, and intuitive eating are a few of Katherine’s passions and specialties.
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