Stress... the real silent killer
Lets dive into stress and how long term stress affects us.
Stress is a normal physical and psychological response to challenging or demanding circumstances. When a person experiences stress, their body activates a "fight or flight" response, releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which prepares the body to respond to a perceived threat. This response can help a person to handle short-term stressors, such as meeting a deadline or dealing with a difficult situation.
However, when stress is chronic and long-term, it can have negative impacts on both physical and mental health. Chronic stress can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and digestive issues, as well as psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression, and insomnia. It can also weaken the immune system, increase the risk of heart disease, and contribute to other chronic health conditions.
There are many different stressors that can cause stress, including work, financial worries, relationship problems, health concerns, and major life changes. It is important to find healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress, such as exercise, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and seeking support from friends and family. And for some of the us the pandemic caused stress that you may still be living with.
We know that having stress is a normal part of life. And cortisol is naturally occurring hormone in the body.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It is part of the body's "fight or flight" response, which prepares the body to deal with perceived threats. Cortisol helps the body to manage stress by increasing blood sugar levels, suppressing the immune system, and promoting the release of stored energy from fat and muscle tissue. Cortisol also plays a role in regulating blood pressure, electrolyte balance, and inflammation.
In short-term stress situations, cortisol is essential for maintaining the body's normal physiological function.
But what happens when that cortisol runs unchecked for a long time? Chronically high cortisol levels can have a number of negative impacts on the body, including:
Suppressed immune system: Cortisol suppresses the immune system, which can lead to an increased risk of infections and other illnesses.
Decreased bone density: Chronic cortisol exposure can lead to a reduction in bone density, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
Increased abdominal fat: Cortisol can increase the storage of fat in the abdominal area, which is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and other health problems.
Decreased muscle mass: Cortisol can increase the breakdown of muscle mass, which can lead to a decrease in muscle strength and function.
Increased anxiety and depression: Chronic cortisol exposure has been linked to an increased risk of anxiety and depression, as well as other mood disorders.
Decreased memory and cognitive function: Cortisol has been shown to impact memory and cognitive function, which may contribute to age-related declines in brain function.
Impairment of insulin sensitivity: Cortisol can impair insulin sensitivity, which can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The adrenal glands use progesterone as a precursor molecule to produce cortisol. Progesterone is converted into a steroid hormone called pregnenolone, which is then converted into other steroid hormones, including cortisol. This process is part of the normal functioning of the adrenal glands and occurs in response to stress or other physiological stimuli.
However, prolonged periods of elevated cortisol levels can affect the balance of hormones in the body, including the levels of progesterone. In these cases, the adrenal glands may increase their production of cortisol at the expense of other hormones, including progesterone. This can lead to decreased progesterone levels, which can over time be a cause of Estrogen dominance.
What causes prolonged high stress? There are several factors that can contribute to high cortisol levels in the body, including:
Chronic stress: This is one of the main contributors to elevated cortisol levels. When the body perceives a threat, it triggers the "fight or flight" response, which leads to the release of cortisol. If the stress is prolonged or chronic, cortisol levels can remain elevated for an extended period of time. And yes, excessive exercise can be a stressor.
Poor sleep: Sleep plays an important role in regulating cortisol levels. Lack of sleep, irregular sleep patterns, or poor sleep quality can disrupt the normal circadian rhythm of cortisol release, leading to high cortisol levels.
Poor diet: A diet high in processed foods, sugar, and caffeine can contribute to elevated cortisol levels. Chronically low in calories will have just as significant negative impact. A diet of adequate calories that is high in nutrient-dense whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, can help regulate cortisol levels.
Chronic illness: Chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders, can contribute to high cortisol levels.
Certain medications: Certain medications, such as glucocorticoids, can also lead to elevated cortisol levels.
So what else can you do to lower and help manage cortisol?
The Vagus Nerve.
What is the Vagus Nerve? The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, extending from the brainstem to the abdomen. It is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body's "rest and digest" response. The vagus nerve helps to regulate many of the body's physiological functions, including heart rate, digestion, and immune system function.
The vagus nerve plays a role in controlling heart rate and blood pressure, slowing down the heart rate and lowering blood pressure when the body is at rest. It also helps to regulate digestive function, promoting the release of digestive enzymes and slowing down the contraction of the muscles in the digestive tract. The vagus nerve also plays a role in the regulation of the immune system, helping to modulate inflammation and immunity.
Chronic stress negatively impacts the vagus nerve and can lead to decreased activation of the vagus nerve. Leaving you unable to access the parasympathetic nervous system(. This is your rest and digest nervous system. (This is the system we need to activate to help calm down cortisol production.) without the vagus nerve activating like it should, leaves you in the sympathetic nervous system - the fight or flight mode.
So we need to increase vagal tone in order to help regulate the nervous system and the production of cortisol.
There are several activities that can help to increase vagal tone, or the activity of the vagus nerve, which can improve overall well-being and health:
Deep breathing: Controlled, slow, and deep breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.
Meditation and mindfulness: Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, can help to reduce stress and increase vagal tone.
Exercise: Regular physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, can increase vagal tone and promote overall well-being.
Cold exposure: Cold exposure, such as taking a cold shower, can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.
Humming or singing: The act of humming or singing can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.
Massage: Gentle massages, especially those that stimulate the neck and jaw, can increase vagal tone.
Yoga and stretching: Certain yoga poses and stretching exercises, especially those that focus on the neck and jaw, can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone.
The more you can increase your vagal tone, you better your body becomes at regulating cortisol.
Of course we have stress management techniques! We’ve listed out several below, but that is by no means ALL of the stress management techniques!
1.Mindfulness and meditation: Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, can help to reduce stress and improve well-being.
2.Relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization, can help to reduce stress and improve relaxation.
3.Time management: Prioritizing tasks and managing time effectively can help to reduce stress and improve work-life balance.
4.Sleep: Getting adequate sleep can help to reduce stress and improve overall health.
5.Journaling; journaling is a form of self-expression that has been shown to have a positive impact on stress and overall well-being. This can occur in several ways:
Improved self-awareness: Journaling can help to increase self-awareness by allowing you to reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This can help to reduce stress by improving your understanding of your emotional responses to stressors.
Release of emotions: Journaling provides an outlet for expressing emotions, which can help to reduce stress and improve overall well-being by reducing feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.
Improved problem-solving skills: Journaling can help to improve problem-solving skills by allowing you to identify patterns and clarify your thoughts and feelings. This can help to reduce stress and improve overall well-being by reducing anxiety and improving decision-making.
Increased gratitude: Journaling can help to increase gratitude by allowing you to reflect on the positive aspects of your life. This can help to reduce stress and improve overall well-being by reducing negative thoughts and emotions.
Improved sleep: Journaling before bed can help to reduce stress and improve sleep quality by allowing you to release any lingering thoughts or emotions from the day.
6. A Healthy diet: Consuming a balanced diet that is rich in nutrients can help to reduce stress and improve overall health by providing the nutrients that your body needs to function optimally. What we choose to put into our body can fuel it and provide the nutrients necessary for it to function as it should.
7. Social support: Spending time with friends and family, or engaging in community activities, can help to reduce stress and improve social connections. Post pandemic, this may look different to you than it used to. Technology can allow us to stay connected and socially interact with those we care about if a physical visit isn’t feasible.
8.Setting healthy boundaries; takes practice and can be challenging, but it is an important aspect of reducing stress and improving overall well-being. Boundary setting involves clearly defining and communicating what is acceptable and unacceptable in your relationships and interactions with others. By establishing boundaries, you can reduce stress and improve your overall quality of life in several ways:
Better control over your time and energy: Setting boundaries helps you to better control your time and energy, allowing you to prioritize the things that are most important to you and reduce stress.
Improved relationships: By setting boundaries, you can improve communication and reduce conflicts in your relationships, which can help to reduce stress and improve overall well-being.
Increased self-esteem: Setting boundaries and communicating your needs effectively can increase your self-esteem and sense of control over your life, reducing stress and improving overall well-being.
Improved boundaries with technology: Setting boundaries with technology, such as setting specific times to check email or social media, can help to reduce stress and improve work-life balance.
Increased personal space: Setting boundaries around personal space can help to reduce stress and improve overall well-being by providing a sense of security and privacy.
9.Counseling or therapy: Talking to a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, can help to reduce stress and improve well-being. I know getting into a professional can be a challenge at time. There are online resources such as Cerebral and Better Help. These can be a more affordable option and they can get you some support right away instead of having to wait weeks or months to see an in-person Therapist.
But you’ll see here that many of these practices for stress management overlap with the practices for increasing vagal tone. If we improve vagal tone, we improve stress response.
Make sure you check out our stress management module in our community for more tips and techniques to help you manage stress.
If you found some value in this guide, I’d love to know! Feel free to drop me a message!