Stress Makes You a Mess

The kids just missed the bus and now you have to get them to school. Traffic is moving so slowly, you know there's no way you will make it to work on time. When you finally do get to the office your boss, who is not half as smart as you are, makes some snide remark about your being late. As you sit down to the challenge of the day's work, you can feel the tightness in your neck, the knot in your shoulders and a slight headache coming on. It's 8:17 Monday morning!

Most of us instinctively know that stress drains our energy and saps our emotional well being. Stress can even lead to depression. Statistics show that an estimated 90 percent of doctors' office visits involve complaints where stress plays a role. But the relationship of stress to the occasional tension headache or sleepless night does not end there. We now know there is a proven association between stress and heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and certain cancers. In this sense, stress is our number one killer.

Scientists have identified a direct link between stress and aging. A study done in 2004 concluded, "Chronic stress appears to hasten the shriveling of the tips of the genes inside cells, which shortens their life span and speeds the body's deterioration..." This study provided an explanation of what occurs on a cellular level and why stress ages us. It shed light on the association and interactions between physical illness, premature aging and psychological stress.

We are programmed for stress. It is in our biology. Mother Nature saw to it that the cave man had an advantage when running from the tiger if blood flow was shunted to major muscle groups. The biological and biochemical processes that begin in the brain and spread through most body systems under stressful conditions include a release of the hormones adrenalin and cortisol. Heart rate speeds up, digestion slows down and breathing accelerates because autonomic nervous system functions are activated in order to prepare the body for action. This is referred to as the "fight or flight" response.

Although the cave man knew only that he needed to run for his life, today scientists can tell us that these responses include changes in the adrenal and thyroid glands, neurotransmitter systems, digestive system and cardiovascular system. During acute stress, the body is supplied with a burst of energy that can be life saving. Stress is a normal adaptive reaction to a perceived threat.

The very biological changes that could help the cave man outrun his predator or climb a tree quickly as a means of escape are the same mechanisms that harm us in modern times because our bodies are now producing hormones that nature intended to be produced only in times of emergency. This constant "low grade" state of alarm is detrimental to health. Consistent and chronic stress can take its toll on overall wellbeing by translating into feelings of being "burned out". Other signs of overstress are moodiness and depression, having low grade aches and pains, having difficulty relaxing or having problems sleeping. The feeling of being "wired but tired" is not comfortable.

Stress is both a causative and aggravating factor in major diseases as well. Its association with heart disease is a given. Long term stress causes arterial walls to thicken so that blood flow and oxygen transported to the heart are reduced. This can also be a cause of high blood pressure, platelet aggregation and thrombus formation. Stress makes the immune system less effective. It decreases the activity of natural killer cells. A less than functional immune system can leave the body more susceptible to everything from the common cold to cancer.

Technology has changed our lives but not always for the better. Because of computers, cell phones and I-pads, there is very little "down time". Even watching the news and viewing war and famine in far off lands can be stressful. Movies and television expose us to violence that other generations did not experience on a daily basis. Chronic and insidious stress keeps cortisol levels higher than they should be. These levels may increase ten times above normal levels due to the interactions of hormones. Some of the consequences of this imbalance may result in increased insulin resistance leading to Type 2 diabetes, catabolism of muscle and the accumulation of belly fat. Cortisol helps the body access fats and carbohydrates to fuel the energy needed for the fight or flight response. Stress can even affect fertility by having a negative effect on the quality of sperm and by reducing testosterone levels.

Osteoporosis, the loss of bone, at first glance does not seem like a disease that would have any connection to cortisol levels and stress. Yet, because one hormone orchestrates the function of others, there are significant interactions. Excess cortisol creates a biologicai cascade that taxes other glands resulting in bone loss. Even minerals are affected.


Stress consumes large amounts of calcium, also contributing to osteoporosis. Another mineral, magnesium, becomes depleted in times of stress. Magnesium helps convert blood sugar to energy. A magnesium deficiency can lead to vasoconstriction, platelet aggregation, arrhythmias and damage to the heart. Chromium, also involved in blood sugar and body fat storage, can work to blunt cortisol levels. Zinc, selenium, potassium and copper are all involved with cortisol regulation. The chemical reactions that take place on a cellular level that involve these nutrients and others are at the very core of our health.

Cortisol is not a "bad guy". Small doses of this vital hormone actually have some very significant benefits. We need it for that quick burst of energy for survival reasons. It helps heighten memory function, lower sensitivity to pain, and even increase immunity. Cortisol improves digestion and eases inflammation and pain. Ironically, when balanced, it serves as an anti stress hormone and helps the body to respond to stress. It is not cortisol that is the problem, it is the way we live our lives. The constant release of cortisol on an ongoing basis due to the pressures of modern life is the cause of the problem.

We need cortisol to be balanced. When levels are too high all the good things that cortisol does is negated. Bodily changes are noticeable when levels are too high. Binging on salt and sugar, but especially salt, is one indication that levels are too high. Digestive problems, allergies, a swollen face, hair loss from the top of the head, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, eczema, psoriasis, loss of libido, low blood pressure and weight issues are all signs that cortisol is out of range.

Everyone is "programmed" differently in their perceptions as to what is stressful. Stress responses can manifest themselves quite differently depending on the person. Because of our unique biological differences, cortisol secretions can vary significantly in individuals. One person's motivation can be someone else's stress. Integrating stress management into one's life can certainly help regain health. Some tried and true techniques involve meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises and bio feed-back.

Other tension taming approaches that have proven helpful include:

  • Getting 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night

  • Including exercise in your life, but not over-exercising

  • Removing toxic chemicals, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, soda and caffeine from the diet

  • Keeping sugar intake to a minimum

  • Eating a balanced diet including lean protein, healthy fats, and low glycemic carbohydrates

  • Include fun and downtime into your life

  • Giving the body proper nutrients to repair adrenal glands and keep stress hormones balanced.

  • Vitamin C is essential to restoring and repairing "burned out" adrenals. The highest concentration of vitamin C in the body is in the adrenal glands. Vitamin B5, pantothenic acid, helps in adrenal recovery. Licorice tea has also proven effective in soothing stress reactions.

GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid that is manufactured in brain cells. It is responsible for increased production of alpha waves which are related to a relaxed and focused mental state. Because GABA regulates the rhythmic flow of electrical impulses in the brain, sufficient amounts support a relaxed mood and a sense of emotional well being. The absence of the right amount of GABA may be the cause of headaches, palpitations, low sex drive and blood pressure problems. Supplementation has been shown to support healthy cortisol levels.

L-Theanine is another amino acid with the ability to relax the mind without causing drowsiness. It has been shown to inhibit excitatory neurotransmission and increase alpha wave activity.

Magnesium, mentioned earlier, is often referred to as the relaxation mineral and is found in the brain, muscles and bones. It assists in the transmission of nerve impulses and may play a role in improving mood.

Inositol, L-Taurine and L-Tyrosine have also been shown to be neuroprotective. They may help support better mood, memory and feelings of well being.

When life feels like a constant burden and all passion and purpose seem like memories of the past, it may very well be that your adrenals have flat lined. You may be functioning, going to work and even fulfilling family responsibilities. But, when those feelings of well being and inner joy are gone, it's time to make the lifestyle changes necessary to manage life so that Stress does Not Make You a Mess!