Why our stress response is completely out of date
Don’t get me wrong, our bodies are completely miraculous machines but they are rather slow at evolving or looking at it another way, our way of life is just progressing too fast for it to keep up.
This is very apparent when it comes to our stress response. Our bodies are still working on hunter-gatherer stress, stress that was life threatening, a sabre-toothed tiger, woolly mammoth or crazy club wielding caveman. In this situation we would have had to fight or run away in order to survive. This meant that our heart rate and blood pressure increased, our blood sugar levels went up in order to give us the energy for fighting or flighting and our blood thickened just in case we got injured so that we did not bleed to death. All of these reactions are totally appropriate in this type of situation, which occurred sporadically not on a daily basis like current stress. Our modern day stresses are much more chronic, that constant whirr of jobs to do and just not enough time to do them. Even though it might feel life threatening that you are late for a meeting or you have to pick up the phone to have a challenging phone call, or you are worrying about a child, these are not things that are going to threaten your very existence. If you throw into the pot that the body cannot differentiate between a stressful thought and reality then we really are in trouble.
So why is this chronic activation of our stress response so detrimental? Well, apart from it putting an extra strain on our heart and blood vessels due to increased pressure, thickening our blood so that it is more likely to clot and increasing our blood sugar levels so we are more likely to gain weight with an increased risk for diabetes, when we are running the stress response all of our housekeeping jobs in the body get put on the back burner. It is not important for you to digest the spinach omelette that you had for breakfast when you are about to be eaten/attacked, neither is it important for your body to deal with the infection in your big toe, so the immune system gets suppressed. In addition, your liver’s ability to detox is no longer a priority (something that is absolutely vital in our current toxic environment) and neither is all the regeneration and repair that happens constantly to all cells in our body. Our entire gut lining is renewed every four days – perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many people who are stressed experience digestive issues along with the fact that we do not produce enough stomach acid and digestive enzymes to break our food down when we are stressed.
So, looking more closely at what happens in our body when we are in fight/flight mode, one of the key organs that produces this stress response are the adrenals glands, which produce adrenalin for your heart lurching nearly run over by a bus moment, but for the chronic stress that we experience, the adrenals produce cortisol and the main job of cortisol is to keep our blood sugar levels up so that we have enough energy to cope with daily life. If our body perceives that our environment is a tad on the threatening side it means that the adrenals are being asked to produce more cortisol than is sustainable. Eventually the adrenals start to show signs of fatigue and can’t produce enough cortisol to keep our blood sugar levels up to give us enough energy. When our adrenals start to show signs of fatigue the types of symptoms that we might experience are that hangry, dizzy, shaky feeling if we don’t eat regularly, that feeling of just having to put our heads on the desk post lunch for a quick snooze or having to peel ourselves off the mattress in the morning and have a coffee to give us a kick start. Possibly the worst effect of adrenal fatigue is that it affects our sleep quality (the one thing that is so incredibly restorative) and often people will wake in the night because there is not enough cortisol in the system to keep our blood sugar levels even – uncontrolled falling blood sugar levels are perceived as a threat to the body, so stress hormones are produced which can wake us up, and if we wake on stress hormones our brain will kick in and we are likely to lie there with thoughts whirring through our minds and no chance of us getting back off to sleep.
When we run the stress response on a very regular basis, the body (because its priority is to keep us alive and out of danger) will become very efficient at switching on our fight/flight response just in case there is a sabre toothed tiger around the corner at any point. This means that we often find ourselves over-reacting to events that in the past, we would have been quite calm about. The priority in this situation is to work on making the body feel safe. In my experience there are many people who have had trauma from childhood, not necessarily big trauma like sexual/physical/mental abuse or an accident but more chronic trauma where a child just does not feel safe – perhaps they were bullied at school or had an overbearing sibling or a stressed parent who was not able to provide a safe and secure environment. Any of these experiences can create an over-reactive stress response because the body has learnt to be constantly on the alert.
Reprogramming an over-zealous stress response takes time and can involve a myriad of different approaches. In my experience talking therapies are usually not the answer because this stress is being held in the right hand side of the brain – when we are talking in a therapy situation, 99 times out of 100 we will be operating from the left hand, logical, practical side of the brain and we do not access the memories (stored in the right hand side of the brain) that are hard wired triggers to our feeling of danger. Therapies like Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing and Trauma Release Exercise, can all help to release trauma that is held in the body.
In addition, stimulating the vagus nerve can help to calm the system. The vagus nerve controls the majority of the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is otherwise known as the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system and by stimulating the vagus nerve we can help to produce a relaxed state in the body. Natural ways to do this are to hum, sing, chant, gargle, or laugh, also exposing ourselves to cold temperatures can switch off the fight/flight response. Either take a cold shower or if this is too hardcore, start with splashing your face with very cold water. In addition, meditation and yoga are very effective often because they are encouraging people to focus on their breathing. I find that 90% of my clients are not breathing properly – if we run our stress response too much our breathing tends to be shallow and up in the chest rather than deep slow breaths down into the diaphragm. If you lie on your back with your hands on your tummy and practise filling the balloon, it means that you have a good lungful of air to do a long slow out breath. When we extend our out breath, it helps to switch the body into parasympathetic mode.
Another factor that can help to calm the body is keeping our blood sugar levels even – if we are eating a diet that spikes our blood sugar levels, like refined, quick release carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, rice, sugary cakes and biscuits and stimulants like coffee and alcohol), there will inevitably be a blood sugar slump further down the line. Whenever this happens, the adrenals have to produce cortisol to bring our blood sugar levels back up – excess cortisol in the blood stream gives the body the message that all is not well – we are in a potentially dangerous situation. My two rules for keeping blood sugar levels even are, only eating small amounts of wholegrain carbohydrates (as nutty and seedy as you can find) and making sure that every time you eat whether it is a meal or a snack that there is a protein content to it – it does not have to be a large amount of protein but just a little bit will slow the digestive process which means that the sugar release from whatever you are eating is slower, so you will not spike your blood sugar levels. Nuts and seeds are a great snack to have in a bag with you to keep your fuel levels even.
This is a brief overview of how to deal with stress which can be a very complex and challenging issue to unravel, but I find that it can help to remember that stress is only in the eye of the beholder – you can have two people in exactly the same situation, one of the them is wired on the ceiling and the other is a zen god/dess. In the words of the wonderful Jon Kabat-Zin
“You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf”
Kate Chaytor-Norris is a Nutritional Therapist who has made it her mission to empower people to heal themselves. She trained at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition and has been practising for the past ten years. Kate is also trained in Health Kinesiology, Nutrigenomics, counselling and PSYCH-K®. She lives in Yorkshire with her husband and three children. You can get find out more and get in touch with Kate via her website.
Kate has poured a lifetime of experience and expertise into her recent book, I Wish My Doctor Had Told Me This. It is a comprehensive guide to improving and maintaining your health, focusing on the nutritional, physical and mental strategies to navigate our non-stop modern world.
Kate says “I wrote this book to empower people to take their health into their own hands, to help people to understand that sick bodies are reacting only to an imbalance in the environment. It gives a detailed explanation of those imbalances and what can we do to change them. Our bodies, when they produce symptoms, are communicating with us – telling us that all is not well. This book will help you to decipher what your body is trying to say.”