As a continuation of last week’s theme, we will now talk about tackling this issue of stress and the havoc it can wreak on your body and life. Last week we got pretty technical with the explanations, so this week I will attempt to provide you with implementable, practical changes you can make.
I know it seems like a lot of the recommendations always seem to come back to the diet, but its importance cannot be overlooked. This is truly nature’s medicine and in an ideal world should be all we need to nourish our bodies. However, due to processing resulting in depletion, numerous sources of contamination and an overwhelming list of bad choices readily available, it is imperative that we educate and chose properly. When it comes to stress in particular, any type of food that causes inflammation can trigger or further perpetuate the previously discussed HPA pathway. We know the common culprits of gluten, dairy, soy, corn; but anyone can have an inflammatory reaction to any food. That is why it is a good idea to identify these potentially problematic foods by way of an elimination diet. There is a growing body of literature documenting people whose conditions vastly improved or were essentially eliminated due to something as simple as cutting a particular food out.
A couple of generic remedies to get you started if you think you have an issue would be to supplement with a B-complex and avoid caffeine. If you are over stressed, you have likely burned up your supply of essential B vitamins. And unfortunately for all you coffee addicts, I mean lovers out there; caffeine further activates the sympathetic nervous system and release of cortisol.
One of the products of the HPA pathway that we mentioned was cortisol. This is a necessary chemical in the proper amount, but too much or too little can be devastating to our insides. The number one cause of abnormal cortisol levels is dysglycemia or blood sugar issues. This means cut the junk food and carb heavy foods out of the routine diet. Attempt to, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” This is almost the exact opposite than most of us do all ready, as we usually go to town on dinner and even top it off with some late night sweets. Again, not what we need to be doing on a regular basis. This sends our blood sugar out of whack and thus our cortisol levels, resulting in HPA dysfunction and leading us to our next issue.
This may be one of the most underrated aspects of our health. Sleep is so essential that a lack of it is considered by many to be a potential carcinogen. Sleep has a relationship with stress similar to that of inflammation and stress. Each can disrupt the other, and once set in motion, their dysfunction feed off each other. It is not only cortisol that is involved in sleep regulation, but melatonin. These two chemicals work opposite each other and maintain what we call our circadian rhythm. This is our day and night, sleep and wake cycle. It is essential to keep this in check in order to minimize our stress. This rhythm can be primed by attaining some natural light exposure during the day. When the retinal cells are exposed to light by way of our eyes, our bodies produce the precursor to melatonin, serotonin. When the light to dark transition is registered by our eyes, an enzyme is activated that is part of the serotonin to melatonin conversion.
Too much cortisol (constant stress) actually inhibits the release of melatonin and thus our attainment of sleep. Other things that deplete our supply of melatonin include a junk food diet, birth control pills, hormone replacement therapies, and bacterial infections (H.Pylori). Ladies (and some of you self-conscious fellas) make sure to check your anti-aging crèmes. Many of these and other anti-inflammatory crèmes contain progesterone or prednisone which actually leads to lower melatonin levels and thus less satisfying sleep.
If possible, try to exercise earlier in the day. Depending on how hard you go at it, exercise will result in a release of cortisol. Our natural circadian rhythm has this high in the morning to get us going and tapering off as we get closer to bed time. This allows melatonin to rise and us to go nighty night. However, if you exercise too late and ramp those cortisol levels up, now you may be tired and wired. Physically tired, but your mind will just not shut up until the cortisol levels come back down. Add a big, carb heavy recovery meal after your p.m. workout and now you have to deal with elevated blood sugar that will keep you up as well.
Quality of sleep is just as important. In order to truly reap the benefits of sleep and provide your body with rest and release of nocturnal growth factor needed to provide repair and prep for the next day, at least 8-9 hours should be obtained. I know this seems quite unrealistic to most of us, but shooting for an extra 30-60 minutes a night may do wonders for you. You also want to make sure you are sleeping in a completely dark room. Turn the TV off, get some dark curtains, and even put your alarm clocks face down. Any type of light can disrupt your quality of sleep. There are actually proteins in your red blood cells that register light, carrying this information to your brain and blocking your night time companion, melatonin.
This is easier said than done. However, it is essential to living well. You need to take time out of your day to zone out and put things in perspective. Deep breathing. Try to peel away the layers of thought like an onion. When I was investigating some basic premises of Buddhism in 2005, a couple of tenants stuck with me that directly pertain to the issue at hand. One was to smooth your mind pond out; get rid of all the waves or ripples so that you can see things for how they truly are, including your own reflection. When our minds are clouded by scattered thoughts and worry it creates distortion in our mind or turbulence in our mind pond and a true understanding of reality can never be attained.
Another thought is that worries arise from the mind and that nothing and nobody can make you worry without your permission. This is not to say that you will not have concern or compassion for others, but when it comes to money, job, material things, etc.; these are at the root of our mental stress response. Being constantly worried by these afflictions can trigger, strengthen and sustain the HPA pathway, as well all those lovely side effects we covered last post. Do your best to keep things in perspective, realize how fortunate you are. Be prepared, but don’t worry about hypothetical future events that may or may not take place. Don’t let your thoughts contribute to any physiological destruction. Find something that works for you and make it a point to mediate, zone out, reflect, pray, whatever you want to call it each day. You may find this small amount of time set aside will keep you calm, cool and collected.
Due to all of the complicated factors that can contribute to dysfunction within this system, your best bet is to be checked out by a functional doctor trained and armed with the knowledge and tools to diagnosis and treat any potential dysfunction. What preceded this last recommendation were basic suggestions that will assist in controlling stress and the stress response, but as we all know, each one of us is different. Being different we each have different reasons for dysfunction, and respond differently to various modes of treatment.
Not sure if you may have an issue involving your HPA?
Do you notice yourself having “senior moments” forgetting or losing things or requiring lists and notes to remember things? This could be a direct indication of hippocampal dysfunction, which is broken down due to too much cortisol. Coincidentally this is also the first site of your brain to be affected in Alzheimer’s.
Do you have an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep?
Do you have difficulty waking up in the morning or not feel rested after sleep?
Do you find that you don’t recover well from physical activity?
Do you notice a drop of energy between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. each day?
Having any of these issues can indicate over activation of your stress induced HPA axis manifesting itself as a dysfunctional circadian rhythm. Sounds complicated. Scary even, but don’t fret. There is help out there and it doesn’t have to come in the form of a prescription. It takes recognizing the potentially serious consequences of this dysfunction and making your health a priority. With all of the potential pitfalls that await us each and every day, it only makes sense to do all you can to stack the deck in your favor. Seeing a functional doctor like myself for these types of issues would entail a thorough history and exam, questionnaires, basic blood work and a salivary cortisol profile. These tools could then point us in the right direction as we attempt to identify and rectify the origin of the dysfunction through therapy, supplementation and lifestyle changes. Issues like this and others can be identified early or outright prevented if we would pay our bodies the respect they deserve. It’s funny. We have no problems making sure we get the latest update on our iphones or taking our cars in for routine service, but not our own bodies. And then we wonder why they break down.
As always feel free to leave a comment, question or suggestion at the bottom of the page. Or contact me directly via the contact information also provided at the bottom of the page. You can also click the follow link to the right to receive a notification email each week with a direct link to each new post. For those of you in the Brevard County area, I invite you to stay tuned in to the weekly posts and for upcoming information regarding the opening of Clarke Chiropractic and Wellness. I look forward to working with you in the future.