De-Stress Your Life (Part 1)

When attempting to achieve a life of thriving, rather than merely surviving, appropriate attention must be paid to the potential detrimental effects of stress. In our society the term stress generally refers to a negatively heightened emotional state due to a specific event or overload of activities. This is known as mental stress. Physical stress on the body caused by injury, bad posture or sustained over exertion (endurance athletes) can wreak the same havoc. In order to truly understand why we should attempt to de-stress our lives, a brief overview of the physiological mechanism behind stress and its effects should be understood.

The main mechanism responsible for our body’s response to stress is called the HPA axis. This stands for Hypothalamus (part of the brain), Pituitary gland (responsible for production/storage and/or secretion of various hormones), and Adrenal glands (sit on top of the kidneys and also secrete hormones). When we become “stressed” or “wound up,” the stressful sensory input is processed in the brain and the HPA axis is activated as our body’s attempt to adapt to this heightened more demanding state. Ultimately the pathway leads to sympathetic nervous system stimulation that then stimulates the medulla of the adrenal glands, secreting nor-epinephrine and epinephrine which are the chief neurotransmitters of the previously discussed sympathetic nervous system. Remember your sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” system, so it is appropriate that it would be activated in what is perceived as a stressful situation. We’ve gone over some of the pitfalls of an overactive sympathetic nervous system in previous posts.

A critical thing happens here from the release of nor-epinephrine and epinephrine from the adrenal medulla. The sympathetic nervous system has been activated along with the release of inflammatory mediators called cytokines. This is a key part to understanding potential hazards. Not only does stress cause an inflammatory response, BUT inflammation (from injury or DIET, see where I’m going with this people? It’s all connected) can actually start the HPA axis and thus prompt and contribute to the stress response.

Now a normal inflammatory response to damage is a function of your immune system and is actually a good thing. The problem arises when there is too much inflammation. Your body knows this and in order to combat the stress induced inflammation releases a substance called cortisol in order to reduce the inflammation. It does this however, by dampening your immune system leaving us much more susceptible to infection and becoming sick. On the flip side to this, if your HPA axis is not functioning properly, this immune suppression that the cortisol is secreted to carry out may be lost. Now we have an individual with growing inflammation and an overzealous, under regulated immune response which can lead us toward numerous chronic and autoimmune diseases. The key here is to stay balanced and find that zone that works best for your particular physiology.

This has struck a particular cord with me as of late as I became frustrated that I was walking around with a runny nose and productive cough. I’ve been eating right and staying active, so what gives? Well, I was forced to look in the mirror and realize that going too hard can be just as damaging as living an overfed, sedentary life to begin with. I know most of you out there know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s a combination of work, school, exercise, kids, social life; something from the day in and day out grind has to give and unfortunately it is usually our health. This is our body trying to scream at us and tell us to ease up before even more serious damage is done.

Our bodies are designed to handle stress, but not at the sustained doses we are exposed to in modern day. Like all processes in the body, the HPA axis demonstrates what we call plasticity. This is basically a form of adaptation that can be utilized in our favor at times, but in this case works against us. Without a break or release, our stress pathway continues to fire, becoming stronger and stronger and easier and easier to be stimulated. You can now find yourself suffering from the effects of stress from normally unstressful stimuli or events, or even worse be in a constant state of HPA firing until fatigue and/or eventual death.

Without going into the actual detailed mechanisms involved in each issue, over activation of the HPA stress pathway and its partners in crime can lead to decreased immune system function, higher blood pressure, breakdown of connective tissue including the collagen in your skin (you ever notice how weathered those habitual marathoners look?), blood sugar and insulin dysfunction similar to that of a diabetic, increased body fat especially deposited around that mid-section, decreased libido and fertility, thyroid dysfunction (one of the most common diagnoses these days. Instead of prescribing synthroid maybe take a look at this pathway as the adrenal glands have been known to work opposite to the thyroid gland. Translation = overactive adrenals = underactive thyroid), osteoporosis (cortisol leaches calcium from your bones) and cardiovascular disease (the calcium leached from your bones has to go somewhere, and some gets deposited in your arteries = atherosclerosis), cortical degeneration leading to a decline in a multitude of higher functions especially memory, even insomnia. I know it seems counter-intuitive and that you should be able to pass right out if you’re constantly going hard, but this is just a perfect example of the complexity of chemical disruption that occurs when non-stop stress reigns.

Well, that was a mouthful. As always, I go into this stuff because I personally don’t sit well with being told what to do without explanation. As you can see, when we do that in today’s world we open ourselves up for all sorts of fun things. If you’re still actually reading at this point, I commend you. Next time, the focus will be on ways to de-stress and getting you closer towards thriving. But for now, take a break. I don’t want you to get all stressed out reading this.

9 responses to “De-Stress Your Life (Part 1)

  1. Good article. I know a lot of people who have thyroid issues and the number of them seems to be on the rise. I wonder if as stress factors in general continually rise if there are corresponding diagnoses that may be off kilt. I’m just sayin that if people are told they have thyroid issues they think they’ll just have to live with them as is, exercise mitigating factors, medicate, etc when really maybe they should focus on distressing…your take?

    • The key is always to address the entire picture. Looking at and attempting to treat the body as isolated compartments and individual systems is not working. Controlling your stress levels is vital for a life of wellness, thyroid function included. As stated in the article, stess can absolutely lead to your classic signs of hypothyroidism as the adrenal glands and thyroid gland tend to work in opposite manners. This is mainly due to the hormone mentioned in the post, cortisol which is secreted in abundance from your adrenal glands when stress is present. This is not to say that the dysfunction couldn’t be with the thyroid gland itself. However, you need to find someone who is trained to and will look beyond the symptoms and check for reasons of this possible thyroid dysfunction. The thyroid is very similar to the adrenal glands in that it too is part of an H-P (hypothalamus)(Pituitary gland) axis. This means there are multiple levels as which dysfuction can occur. In keeping with our holistic theme, the recognition that the thyroid is one of the most common sites for autoimmune diseases must also be taken into account. And if you read other posts on this site, we know that the theory behind autoimmune diseases is that they are the result of gut damage and inflamation (via your glutens, dairy, soy, etc.) leading to the presence of foreign proteins throughout the body, that which our body mounts an attack against. So when looking at thyroid dysfucntion, cleaning up the diet, addressing the adrenal glands as the possible cause, making sure your brain is functionally balanced (remember the start of this pathway is the hypothalamus) are amongst the top areas to be addressed before we start making some money by prescribing synthroid. Consideration must be paid to the fact that due to the interconnectedness of the body, the thyroid issues could very well stem from a nonthyroid illness.

  2. Thanks for the solid info. I think stress is leading to major stiffness, aching, and soreness in my upper back. I get muscle spasms almost daily. The spasms suck and I have to either lay down or go in a back room and straighten my back while resting my hands on my knees (back parallel to the ground) in order to take the pressure off. This has been going on for 2 years now. Do you have any recommendations or guidance? Maybe some lower back exercises to develop those muscles more? I’m at a loss.

    • Thanks for the read and interest Mr. Carter. Without examining you or knowing what type of work you do, it sounds like you may indeed have some postural and imbalance issues. You asked about lower back exercises which would be part of your core. Regardless of any issue you may be having, strengthening your core is always a good idea. Your core (abdominals/obliques/paraspinal muscles) is your foundation and weakness here can lead to other areas having to pick up the slack and become over worked and irritated. Again, without examining you this is a guess, but when you say your upper back, the classic pattern is something called upper cross syndrome. Named due to the location (your upper body) and cross pattern of overactive and underactive muscles. This is very common in our hunched forward society. The anterior transalation of your head out in front of your body and curling in of the shoulders causes certain muscles to become hypertonic or overworked and others to become inhibited or weakened. You can look up the Brugger’s postural exercises and work to strenghten your rhomboids and lower traps (think seated rows, concentrating on the motion being generated by pinching those shoulder blades together), some standing reverse flys against a door frame to stretch those pecs, etc. These are just a couple of tips to get you started. These and more exercises will soon be posted on the website. For this response we concentrated on physical stressors, but in keeping with the theme of the post, mental stress can absolutely contribute to your discomfort. Remember the stress induced HPA pathway creates inflamation which triggers pain signals to your brain. If you’ve been dealing with this condition to no avail for 2 years now, your best bet would be to be checked out and treated by a physician like myself. Other than addressing the direct area of discomfort, we look at the whole picture to see what is causing this dysfunction and dyscomfort. Get some help brother, living like that is not normal by any means.

      • Shawn Carter

        Thanks for the response doc. I’ll be looking into Brugger’s stuff and look forward to reading up on various preventative exercise regimens on your site. Thanks for getting this out there.

  3. So if your adrenals are shot from over stimulation for years and on occasion you still feels like there are tigers chasing your tail … is it possible to reboot the adrenals and bring them back to life? Eating right, exercize and breathing deep, is it enough? Is there hope for my HPA?

    • Thanks for the read and comment. And I apologize for taking longer than usual to respond. My reason for delay was that I actually attended a seminar on this HPA pathway (along with auto-immunity) this past weekend in Tampa and before I responded I wanted to provide you with the most current info. In order to attempt to fix this issue, various forms of intake questionares, history taking, exam, and possible lab testing would be done in an attempt to pinpoint the area of dysfunction. If you didn’t respond or have already tried the typical adrenal gland focused treatment (diet, B-Vitamins, SLEEP, stress control, etc.) we would want to look at the “adrenal fatigue” as being a result of some type of brain driven issue. While dysfunction can occur within the adrenals, it is more common to have an underlying brain based mechanism causing the dysfucntion (usually overdriving them, potentially to the point of fatigue). After a functional doctor like myself locates the potential CAUSE of the adrenal dysfunction we would then begin to work on that with therapy (brain balancing to calm down the sympathetic nervous system) and supplementation specific to that cause. This is a prime example with the different approach to healthcare I am so excited about. Instead of recognizing adrenal dysfunction and automatically throwing treatment directly at the adrenals, we are talking about taking the time to investigate and discover the cause of that dysfunction and attempting to normalize adrenal function by normalizing the processes that drive the adrenals.

      So to answer your question, being checked out by a functional doctor would be your best bet as everyone is different. In my next post I am going to provide more explanation and potential remedies, but in the meantime some general, non-specific recommendations would be looking into an elimination diet, taking a B-complex, avoiding caffiene, normalizing sleeping patterns (same time to bed and rise, sleep in COMPLETELY dark room), trying to be outdoors for some length of time each day (letting your brain recognize that natural day light which contributes to normalizing your cortisol rhythm), and daily exercise (even if it is just a brisk 20-30 minute).

      Issues like yours plague such a high population of our over-stressed society that it excites me that I will soon be licensed and ready to help people like you.

  4. Pingback: Hormonal? Fertility Issues? Have You Addressed the Adrenals? | Clarke Chiropractic and Wellness

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