We hear it all the time, chronic stress is the cause of this disease, this condition and yet you can’t seem to get around it. According to the American Psychological Association, the most common sources of stress in the U.S. include concerns about “the future of our nation,” money and work. How do you avoid any of that?
One way of reducing chronic stress is through exercise. Regular exercise is one of the easiest ways to reduce stress quickly and to maintain a healthy stress response system. It not only helps to relieve tension, exercise supports the body’s ability to resist future stress and flush used and excess stress hormones. And yet, for many, exercise is one of the hardest habits to create.
The Nature Of Stress
When your brain perceives a threat, your hypothalamus sends a message through your pituitary gland to your adrenal glands to primarily release three stress hormones; epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol.
Hormones are chemical messengers that direct and coordinate activities throughout your body.
What your brain can perceive as threats may be confusing. You may intellectually understand the difference between a tiger chasing you and the aggravation of being late stuck in traffic. However, your body and subconscious brain do not.
You respond to stress the same way, regardless if your life is in actual danger or not. Therefore, it’s important to know how to respond to stress intelligently, reduce stress and practice activities that help to metabolize and release stress hormones. Stress hormones that stay in the body for longer than needed can do a lot of damage on your tissues and eventually cause real dysfunction leading to disease and even death.
Epinephrine is classified as both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. Like hormones, neurotransmitters are also chemical messengers. These messengers carry, boost, and balance signals between neurons, or nerve cells, and other cells in the body. They can affect many physical and psychological functions including heart rate, sleep, appetite, mood, and fear. You have billions of neurotransmitter molecules working to assist brain function and manage everything from breathing, the beating of your heart and to your ability to learn and concentrate.
Epinephrine’s role is to signal activities that provide your body with an energy boost for an immediate response. When epinephrine is released, your body goes into high alert and is more capable of addressing or avoiding threats.
Responses to epinephrine include:
- Increased blood sugar level to provide cells immediate access to energy
- Increased heart rate to circulate blood and oxygen in support of needed strength, agility, cognitive function and sensory systems
- Increases blood pressure to move more blood
- Blood is redirected to major muscle groups, including the heart and lungs
- Relaxes respiratory muscle tissue and dilates airways to improve oxygen intake
- Reduces pain reception
- Redirects resources away from digestion, the immune system and other immediate non-survival activities
Along with epinephrine, norepinephrine is released by the adrenal glands, and some from your brain. Norepinephrine, also classified as a neurotransmitter and a hormone, is responsible for directing activities that increase alertness and your ability to sense. It wakes you up, helps you focus and be more aware of your surroundings.
There is a lot of overlap between epinephrine and norepinephrine, and it’s believed that norepinephrine may act as a backup. It’s also longer lasting than epinephrine and can take anywhere from a half hour after the threat has passed to a couple of days depending on the degree of the threat.
Like epinephrine, norepinephrine directs your body to:
- Increase oxygen to the brain so you can think faster and clearer.
- Increase your heart rate to pump more blood, faster
- Increase blood sugar for immediate energy for cells, particularly muscle tissue
- Increase respiratory rate to deliver more oxygen, faster
And decreases metabolic processes that are not required for immediate survival such as digestion, tissue repair, detoxification and immune function.
The other hormone that is most often associated with stress is cortisol. Cortisol is also produced and released by your adrenal glands. It’s not released immediately like epinephrine and norepinephrine. There are a couple more steps before it is released, and its role is to support the other two hormones over a longer period of time as the threat continues.
For instance, when your boss stomps into the office in a bad mood, that can trigger your immediate stress response. The workload, and the feeling of pressure caused by the event that sticks with you requires a more long-term solution to stress – in comes cortisol. Remember, your body doesn’t know the difference between physical, emotional, real or perceived threats. It will respond to all threats the same, regardless if they are life-threatening or not.
In survival mode, cortisol acts like a pain reliever, is an anti-inflammatory and helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure. It also helps to decrease non-critical processes such as reproduction, immunity, digestion, and tissue repair.
However, if you dwell on a problem and allow it to consume your thoughts, cortisol continues to be released. It continues to respond to the threat overtime. This continued release of cortisol continues to:
- Suppress your immune system
- Increase your blood pressure and heart rate
- Raise your blood sugar
- Decreases your sex drive
If you consider what cortisol does, you can see how long-term stress can lead to:
- Digestive dysfunction
- Heart disease
- Sleep issues
- Memory and cognitive dysfunction
And is a major factor for weight gain because of raised blood sugar and a continued signal for immediate energy requirements which triggers the release of insulin and prompts the storage of fat.
Other Hormones and Neurotransmitters
The three hormones discussed above are not the only players. No hormone or neurotransmitter acts alone. Insulin’s role in the stress response has already been alluded to, but there are others to include your sex hormones; estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. And you may be aware of dopamine and serotonin as two major neurotransmitters associated with mood and how you handle stress.
What To Focus On For A Healthy Stress Response
Having so many players involved is one reason why you do not want to focus on a single hormone. Instead you want to support your body’s natural ability to regulate your hormones and neurotransmitters.
First, you want to learn how to respond to stress instead of reacting, and to learn how to let it go. Not to ignore it, but to really let it go.
Second, you want to eat well and support healthy hormone production and tissue repair, which is necessary if you experience a lot of stress. This requires healthy fats, high-quality protein and nutrient dense carbohydrates – preferably in the form of vegetables. You want to avoid diets that cause you stress, noticeably alter your mood toward the negative, or avoids any of these three macronutrients.
Avoid restricting calories as well, your body goes into crisis mode when you restrict more calories than you need to function for your daily activities. If your goal is to lose weight, it’s best to eat well and avoid processed foods and added sugars. If you struggle with eating well, you may want to check out the article on My Best New Health “Secret.”
Basically, your body will tend to be less stressed on a balanced diet that provides you with the resources it needs to meet your energy needs and the nutrients it needs to thrive.
Third, make sleep a priority. Poor sleep habits are guaranteed to make your stress hormones rise. When you’re not getting proper sleep, you are not properly detoxing naturally, you limit your body’s ability to perform repair functions, and your brain doesn’t get to wash out the waste byproducts from the day’s activities.
This can leave you feeling foggy, unable to concentrate, and without the energy you need to handle the day-to-day let alone any stressful surprises that pop up.
Make sure you give yourself 7-9 hours of time to sleep every night, and practice good sleep hygiene. Get into a routine and go to bed the same time every night, avoid electronics before bed – don’t take them to bed with you, set the thermostat down to the low 60s, and make any other arrangements you need to ensure you can sleep well.
Finally, move your body. Remember, this is the easiest way to reduce stress, quickly.
Your body is meant to move. It doesn’t do well staying in one position all day or doing repetitive tasks. Inactivity alone can create stress in your body compounded by structural imbalances.
And you want to support your body’s ability to metabolize stress hormones, or use them, and then flush them from your body. A healthy diet that has adequate amounts of fiber, being well hydrated and avoiding substances that require your liver to work hard is a great place to start. But, this is one area exercise can really help too.
Exercise and Your Stress Response Health
Initially exercise does stimulate the release of cortisol, because your body perceives exercise as a form of stress. However, the more often you exercise and the better shape you’re in, the less cortisol is released both when you exercise and when you’re under other forms of stress.
From a psychological perspective, exercise can improve your body image, self-esteem, self-confidence which have been shown to reduce stress as well.
And just taking a break, changing your scenery, and taking deep breathes while getting in a little exercise can help you shift your nervous system from flight, fight or freeze to relax and repair mode.
Exercise also supports the metabolization of stress hormones, so they can be flushed from your system, and it triggers the release of natural stress-relieving compounds called endorphins, making you feel calmer.
Additionally, exercise can increase your stamina, make you more efficient and energetic, so that you feel less overwhelmed by the stresses you do face. And when you move your body, your basal ganglia are put to work, which helps to shift your brain’s focus.
The Basal Ganglia
The Basal ganglia are a group of neurons that are associated with various functions such as eye movement, learning habits, cognition and voluntary motor movements. The basal ganglia also play a part with your emotions, but the more movement you participate in, the more your brain, the basal ganglia, has to focus to ensure you are physically safe.
The safer you feel, the less stress hormones your body will release into your system. And when you're brain is focused on keeping your physically safe in your movement, it doesn't spend as much energy thinking about outside threats, especially emotional or perceived threats.
Don’t Over Exercise
It’s best to avoid over-exercising though if you are experiencing chronic stress, fatigue or feel especially sluggish after exercise. Feeling sluggish and fatigued after a cool down is an indicator that you are exercising too hard and can strain your stress response system.
The bottom line is, if you consistently move your body and exercise you will experience not only a reduction in your current stress levels, but also an enhanced ability to cope with stress in the future.
If you recognize your stress is higher than it should be, or you want it to be, and you’re having a difficult time reducing it, I invite you to contact me.
Together, we can develop a strategy or two to help you practice daily stress relieving techniques as well as how to get more movement and exercise into your routine in a way you can stick with. It’s not about doing something once in a while, it’s about consistency.
I realize it can be hard to get started. I’m just like you. When I’m out of the routine of exercise, it’s hard for me to get back into the routine too. And it’s tough to get past the initial discomfort that can occur when you start using your body more. But not only is it rewarding once you do have routine movement in your life, it is necessary.
No one can do it for you. You have to take responsibility for getting it done, but I can help.
I have a condition, fibromyalgia, that can make it really tough to get going again once you fall out of consistent exercise. That’s why I know I can help. If I can do it, so can you…and I learned a few tricks to help get it done.
I have set aside time to meet with women like yourself who want to take charge of their stress levels, who want to support their body’s natural hormonal rhythms, and who know they need some extra support for feeling like themselves again.
If you’re interested in this, click on the button below and fill out the health questionnaire. Once you click Submit, you can schedule an appointment that is convenient for you.
You can feel like yourself again and feel confident in your body, supporting it naturally so you can get on with your life feeling like yourself – with a lot less chronic stress.
Your partner in health,
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