Stress. It’s a part of our everyday lives and the motivating force to get those things done that we don’t really want to do.
Eustress is the ‘positive’ stress that kicks us out of bed and into the shower when we are running late. It fills us with endorphins and pushes us into gear, prompting feelings of exhilaration and accomplishment.
Distress is the opposite. It makes us feel as though everything is imploding and we can’t cope with the situation. This type of stress induces anxiety and feelings of panic.
Both are part of the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response, whereby our body responds to a perceived threat by fighting, running, or completely shutting down as a means of self-preservation.
The ‘fawn’ response can also occur, where a person alters their behaviour to appease someone who is presenting as a threat, as a means of preventing imminent conflict or harm.
It gets a bad rap, but stress is an excellent signalling system for our body.
There are times when panic is a valid and necessary response, just as some essential tasks would not get done without the pressure of a deadline. How this response is regulated ultimately dictates whether a stressor is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and the overall impact it has on the body.
The Phases of Stress
Alarm - The Hormone Cascade
Regardless of our motivating factors or what has triggered stress, the body will react with the alarm phase.
If the challenge is bringing in a washing line full of dry towels just as the heavens start to open, your body is going to chemically respond the same way it would if you were being chased by a tiger.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is a key responder, stimulating catecholamine hormones that boot the body into action. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is also prompted to release hormones like cortisol.
- The pupils to dilate, allowing focus and additional light to see the threat.
- Blood to move away from digestion to the musculoskeletal system, getting ready to run or fight.
- Breathing to become rapid to increase blood oxygen and increased heart rate to push that oxygen through.
- Glucose to be produced at a faster rate, while insulin is reduced.
Resistance - The Calm Down
Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) steps in to calm the response by reducing hormones being sent into the bloodstream and countering their impact.
This sends the message to retract the pupils and stop churning through the glucose, pulling you back to balance and restoring a sense of calm.
The PNS essentially tells your body that you are going to be ok and the stress switch can be flicked off.
Exhaustion – Off-Switch Malfunction
In cases of chronic stress, the off-switch for stress can malfunction.
This happens when the SNS has gone into overdrive from consistent activation, and is no longer responding to cues from the PNS to stop.
High levels of circulating stress hormones contribute to immune dysfunction, physical and mental illness, autoimmune disease development, cardiovascular disease, blood sugar dysregulation, insomnia, and chronic fatigue.
Stress regulation is key to wellbeing, and small lifestyle changes can make a huge difference.
One of the most important factors is quality, restorative sleep.
When we think about the SNS and all of these ‘get up and go’ hormones flying through the bloodstream, it’s no real surprise that stressed-out people typically struggle with sleep.
Practises to help include
- Having a set sleep time that is maintained. This regulates the sleep/wake cycle (heavily influenced by cortisol).
- Avoid blue screen light 60 minutes before sleeping (T.V, iPad, phones).
- Avoid sugar, caffeine, and high-fat meals prior to bed to prevent extra stimulation.
- Try meditation to slow racing thoughts.
- Gentle exercise during the day can encourage increased deep sleep and REM sleep. Avoid exercising late in the evening.
The Food Factor
Food can have a big impact on stress management.
High sugar foods, like lollies, stimulate the brain in a similar way to cocaine: it gets the brain firing rapidly and the heart pounding. While this is fine in short stints, consistent activation is much like chronic stress, leading to fatigue, mineral deficiency, and suppressed immune function.
Similarly, stimulants like coffee cause peaks of cortisol – the same hormone that pops up during the alarm phase.
While the body is pretty good at rebalancing itself after a large latte or a triple scoop ice cream, it needs enough nutrients to keep working properly.
- B vitamins are crucial in regulating stress, found in leafy green veg, oats, nuts, and seeds.
- Iron and B12 from quality red meats and eggs improve oxygen movement and energy levels.
- Antioxidants from fresh fruits provide organ support, preventing overload. Sugars in fruit are not the same as isolated sugars in lollipops.
- Quality proteins are also crucial for the production of melatonin, for sleep.
- Considering that stress slows digestion, how we eat is also important.
- Chew food thoroughly and avoid distractions like TV while eating.
- Eat and drink at separate times to encourage stomach acid for food breakdown. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can reduce thirst during meal times.
- Be aware of what is in your food and try to pick foods that are really nourishing your body.
Adaptogenic herbs are perfect for regulating the stress response. Withania is a favourite to rebalance a tired, worn-out body and mind. Kiwiherb’s Calm Down combines Withania with L-Theanine, an amino-acid known from relaxation, at clinically studied doses.
Kiwiherb's Organic Valerian utilises Valerian which is a beautiful herb for relaxation, with mild sedative and hypnotic actions to help in establishing and maintaining sleep, and reducing tension and irritability.
Another champion herb is Kava, which works as a sedative, anxiolytic, and restorative. StressArrest® pairs Kava with Passionflower, also great for calming actions, and Withania, to help the stress response.
Children also experience stress, which can present as anxiety, irritability, and poor sleep. Chamomile is the ideal children’s herb to calm a worried mind and settle a nervous stomach, which is in Kiwiherb Organic Kid's Calm.
How we manage stress is the most important factor in preventing the development of exhaustion and illness and, much of the time, our stress levels are within our ability to modify.
Stress is not the bad guy it just needs to be kept in check to stay helpful instead of harmful.