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Your Body on Stress: The “Fight or Flight” Disease

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

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Daily Stress or Chronic Stress?

Stress comes in several flavours. The kind you feel before a presentation or exam is called acute stress. Your heart might race, you get a little fidgety, your palms become sweaty, and you have “butterflies in your stomach.”

While perhaps unpleasant, a little of this stress can actually make you more alert, focused, and resilient to life’s many demands.

But there’s another kind of stress that sticks around far beyond its benefits, called chronic stress. In fact, this low-key stress, creates far-reaching damage, destroying lives, bodies, and minds.

Stress and Your Adrenal Glands

Your adrenal glands play a massive role in your body’s stress response. These small, triangular-shaped glands sit atop your kidneys and produce hormones that regulate metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, and stress response.

Adrenal glands respond to signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (both in the brain) to produce hormones including cortisol, your body’s primary stress hormone. “Nearly every facet of good health is a product of the delicate balance of these hormones,” says Christianson.

Among its duties, cortisol suppresses inflammation, regulates blood pressure and blood sugar, controls the sleep/wake cycle, and provides your body an energy boost when you experience a stressful situation.

This hormone benefits you… but only when your stress response keeps cortisol in check.

The Fight-or-Flight Response to Stress

When you experience acute stress and your adrenal glands kick into high gear — is part of what scientists call “fight-or-flight.” This response occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically. Fight or flight primes your body to either deal with a threat or run to safety.

Walter Cannon coined the term “fight-or-flight” in the 1920s, noting how the body mobilizeswhen it perceives a threat. Hans Selye later incorporated it as the first part of general adaptation syndrome, which theorizes the stress response.

Selye defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand upon it.” By non-specific, he meant any response — real or imagined — that creates stress.

That fight-or-flight response can serve you in the short term when you, say, have to make a speech or take an exam. It can protect you during a potentially dangerous situation like when you enter your home late at night and feel an imminent threat.

That stress response kicks in regardless of whether the threat is real or perceived. In other words, whether an intruder attacks you or you simply feel they will, your body responds the same way.

And that’s where “fight-or-flight” could inhibit rather than serve you. Maybe you’re afraid of heights, but have to travel by airplane for a business trip or perhaps you want to approach a stranger for a date. In those situations, the adrenal response didn’t really serve you, and can even become a phobia.

Regardless, that fight-or-flight response should do its job and then simmer down. When that response sticks around beyond its potential usefulness, your adrenals can become burned out by over-secreting stress hormones like cortisol, sort of like leaving an engine running on an idling car can drain gasoline.

Adrenal Fatigue

Elevated cortisol levels — when this hormone stays high when it should taper — creates widespread damage. IT can damage cognitive function, lower immune function, increase weight gain, increase your risk for depression, lower life expectancy, and decrease your mental resilience.

Many life incidents can trigger this type of stress. The death of a loved one, losing a job, loneliness, or relationship problems can all trigger this lingering, festering, recurring type of stress.

Untreated chronic stress can result in serious health conditions including:

  • Anxiety

  • Insomnia

  • Muscle pain

  • High blood pressure

  • A weakened immune system

  • Heart disease

  • Depression

  • Obesity

Your overworked adrenals can’t compensate for chronic stress, leading to what some scientists call adrenal burnout or adrenal fatigue.

In Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, James Wilson, ND, DC, Ph.D., says that adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms, known as a “syndrome.”  Among those symptoms, he says, include:

  • Feeling unwell

  • Having “gray” feelings

  • Blood sugar imbalances

  • Allergies

  • Arthritic pain

  • Decreased immune response

  • Increased fears, anxiety and, depression

  • Difficulty concentrating and other cognitive dysfunctions

  • More premenstrual tension

  • Increased difficulty during menopause

Among its damage, Wilson says adrenal fatigue reduces productivity, happiness, health, and a long life.

Natural Ways to Keep your Adrenals Healthy

Everyone experiences major life stressors. Some people manage them well and become resilient in the face of life’s adversities. For others, those stressors can impact adrenal health, which subsequently affects overall health.

With the right skills, you can learn to be mentally and physically strong in the face of whatever life throws your way. To do that requires an individual approach, but a few diet and lifestyle factors can help support adrenal health and reduce stress’s impact.

Adrenal problems sometimes require working with a healthcare professional. At the same time, these seven strategies can optimize your adrenals and better cope with the inevitable stressors life sends your way.

1. Eat the right foods. Our Advanced Plan provides the right nutrients you need to support adrenal health, balance blood sugar levels, and effectively manage stress. Along with moderate protein and plenty of healthy fat, this plan includes plenty of nutrient-rich carbohydrates that optimize adrenal function.

2. Optimize sleep. Sleep quality and stress levels go hand in hand. When you toss and turn or don’t get enough sleep, even small things are more likely to stress you out the following day and overwork your adrenal glands. To recover from adrenal fatigue, Wilson recommends going to bed before 10:00 p.m. and sleeping in until 9:00 a.m. whenever possible. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, consider a sleep and mood supplement.

3. Get the right exercise. Over-exercise or working out too long, can create mood imbalances, higher susceptibility to illness, and much more. The alternative is to work out smarter, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) provides that formula. According to Alan Christianson, ND, in The Adrenal Rest Diet, HIIT can be especially helpful for adrenal health. (He recommends keeping workouts to morning hours so you don’t disrupt afternoon or evening cortisol levels.) Our Max T3program provides an effective, full-body workout that optimizes adrenal function and dial down stress in just 12 minutes. Please note: for some people, even 12 minutes of intense exercise might put stress on the adrenals. Work with your healthcare practitioner for alternatives as you optimize adrenal function. Consider lower-intensity options in the meantime, such as yoga.

4. Find something that calms and centers you. Stress management is a necessity, not a luxury. We aren’t supposed to always be “on,” and being constantly busy can take its toll on your adrenal glands and stress levels. Find something that de-stresses you and do it regularly. That might include meditation, deep breathing, yoga, laughing with your best friend, or spending time in nature.

5. Reduce your exposure to environmental toxins. Everything from the air you breathe to the cosmetics you use bombards your body with toxins, which can trigger or exacerbate inflammation and adversely impact your adrenal glands. You can’t eliminate these toxins, but you can reduce their impact. The Environmental Work Group (EWG) provides excellent guides to manage environmental toxins:

The least- and most-pesticide ridden produce: Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™Beauty products: Skin Deep®Cleaning products: Guide to Healthy Cleaning

6. Take the right nutrients. While your healthcare practitioner might include additional supplements to support adrenal health and manage stress levels, these can provide an excellent foundation:

Vitamin C. Wilson says this of all vitamins and minerals involved in adrenal metabolism, vitamin C is perhaps most important. The more cortisol your adrenals make, the more vitamin C they require.

B complex. Chronic stress depletes B vitamins like crazy. Taking a B complex supplement can optimize levels to support adrenal health.

Magnesium. This underrated mineral has a calming effect. Low levels of magnesium can contribute to various types of stress including physical stress.

Vitamin D. This vitamin — actually a hormone — supports adrenal health and so much more. Gut health plays a vital (and often overlooked) role in stress management. Vitamin D can help: Researchers find deficiencies can adversely impact gut flora. Look for a supplement that combines vitamin D with probiotics, the friendly flora that can also support an ideal gut environment.

Omega-3 fatty acids. Among their benefits, these anti-inflammatory fatty acids can help manage mental stress and your adrenal response.Talk with your healthcare professional about additional supplements that support the adrenals specifically based on your condition.

7. Visit your chiropractor. Chiropractic care can reduce muscle tension, optimize spinal alignment, provide relaxation techniques, and develop a customized protocol that addresses your specific needs. Stress and tension can cause your spine to move. An adjustment can help your spine restore function to your body, potentially increasing energy levels and leaving you feeling less stressed.

Managing your stress levels can have a profound effect on optimizing adrenal function, maintaining peace of mind, and reducing your risk for numerous diseases. A little stress can be healthy, but your body was never meant to cope with constant, low-grade stress.

Work with your healthcare practitioner to help you better manage stress and reduce its cumulative impact on your adrenals and overall health.

Please discuss with your healthcare practitioner about specific strategies to address your unique health conditions or concerns. Never modify any medications or other medical advice without your healthcare practitioner’s consent.

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