“I will breathe. I will think of solutions. I will not let my worry control me. I will not let my stress level break me. I will simply breathe and it will be okay because I don’t quit.” – Shane McClendon
Stress! It seems to be a rampant struggle in our world today. For so many, they deal with it almost daily. Our lives have become much busier and filled with multiple obligations, bills, activities and ever-increasing work responsibilities that it’s a normal response to feel overwhelmed. Our bodies are physiologically designed to withstand acute stress from time to time. Swerving to avoid a car crash, studying for an exam, finishing a project at work by the deadline, giving an important presentation or running from a mountain lion or a bear on a hiking trail. (Hopefully not that last one!) Chronic stress over many years, on the other hand, is catastrophic to our bodies and results in a variety of symptoms. Our bodies are always “speaking” to us telling us what’s going on. “Something’s not right and I’m definitely out of balance” it whispers to us. If we continue to ignore our bodies, it gets our attention later with more blatant symptoms. These symptoms may take months to years to fully develop. The long-term effects of stress adversely affects how our bodies are supposed to function properly. In some cases, this can lead to chronic illnesses if left untreated.
Listed below are common symptoms that indicate our bodies are overworked and need a much-needed respite from stress.
- Chronic abdominal pain, heartburn and gastric or duodenal ulcers
- Change in bowel movement regularity – looser stools, diarrhea or in some cases constipation
- Headaches, muscle and body aches
- Chronic anxiety and/or panic attacks
- Depressed mood related to change in hormones, neurotransmitters, fatigue, poor sleep, unhealthy food choices and more.
- Overreactive, anger, irritability and outbursts
- Increased emotional sensitivity and crying
- Ongoing fatigue, either in the morning or crash in the afternoon or early evening – all worsened by ongoing stress
- Weakened immune system and increased risk of infections
- Increased heart rate, palpitations; in extreme cases, chest pain
- Eyelid and muscle twitching
- Sleep disturbances and other circadian rhythm disorders with trouble falling and/or staying asleep
- Hair loss and hair turning gray prematurely
- Skin thinning, especially the face and around the eyes leading to dark circles
- Weight gain, especially more abdominal fat
- Irregular menstrual periods – either skipping monthly periods, early or delayed
- Earlier onset of perimenopausal/menopausal symptoms and early Andro-pause (male hormone decline) symptoms
- Decreased or non-existent libido or sex drive
- Blood sugar dysregulation: hyper or hypo glycemia, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes
- Increased sensitivity to light, sounds and smells
- Increased blood pressure or in some cases extremely low blood pressure as in adrenal fatigue
- Metabolic Syndrome: a combination of conditions including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess abdominal and waist fat, elevated cholesterol or triglycerides and therefore increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
- Lab test results will show elevated cortisol (for a short time, then severely low cortisol after years of chronic stress). Will also demonstrate elevated glucose, triglycerides, LDL Cholesterol – the potentially harmful atherosclerotic lipid. And may also indicate reduced reproductive hormones like progesterone, estrogen, DHEA and testosterone.
As you can see, stress significantly affects the entire body! What can we do to help alleviate these stressful symptoms? So many excellent healing choices that we can make are listed below.
Oxygen is essential for survival. When we are stressed, we tend to engage in shallow breathing. Practicing mindfulness based slow deep breathes can not only saturate our brain and other vital organs with oxygen, it also shifts away from the adrenaline/cortisol driven sympathetic nervous system (“Fight or Flight” response) to the calming parasympathetic nervous system – which helps us feel relaxed and a sense of peace. Try this very simple, quick and effective exercise anytime, anywhere. Find a quiet place to retreat if possible. Practice this until it becomes a positive habit. This is really effective!
- Slowly inhale for a count of four.
- Hold for a count of four
- Slowly exhale for a count of four
- Wait for a count of four.
- Repeat this process several times until you feel a sense of serenity.
Binaural beats, if you have heard of them, go far beyond just simple musical sounds. Binaural (related to both ears) beats are a form of soundwave therapy in which the right ear and the left ear are listening to two mildly different sound frequencies and yet a third sound frequency is “created” or perceived. For example, if the left ear hears a tone at 100 Hertz and the right ear hears a tone at 110 Hertz, the binaural “beat” is the difference between the frequencies – in this case 10 Hz. The two sounds travel separately to the inferior colliculus in your brain where it attempts analyze and synchronize the sounds (brainwave entrapment). The two sounds of varying frequency are combined together (aka “interference”) into an additional tone – what’s known as “beat” at a perceived new frequency. The brain follows along at the new frequency and produces brainwaves at the same rate – 10 Hz. Many talented musicians, scientists and sound engineers understand and practice this concept and it certainly isn’t new information as it’s been listened to in the natural world for thousands of years. Fortunately, modern musical technology has made it available by creating binaural beats sounds and tracks of varying lengths that we can listen to on the radio, cell phones, TV, computers and most significantly with certain headphones for the most profound effect on our brains. Why is all of this important? Several studies have shown that listening to binaural beats and brainwave entrapment can help lower the stress and anxiety responses along with many other conditions. Certain brainwave frequencies can help us feel more alert or focused while others a greater sense of peace and rest. For example, listening to binaural beat tracks that stimulate Alpha Brainwaves (8-12 Hz), are more for feeling calm yet alert, productive and more mentally stable. Theta Brain Waves (4-8 Hz) are slower and invoke a sense of creativity, intuition, daydreaming, emotional processing and are present during meditation, prayer and spiritual awareness. Not really ideal for working as this subconscious state typically reflects the time between wakefulness and sleep. Delta Brain Waves (0.1 to 3.5 Hz) are the slowest, best for deep sleep and that’s also when we are able to access information from our unconscious mind. When listening to certain binaural beat tracks with headphones, Cortisol, an adrenal hormone and Adrenaline (Epinephrine), a neurotransmitter, both released when we are stressed, are reduced. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter produced to give us a sense of calm and well-being is enhanced. If you are trying to stay calm yet focused during a stressful workday, listen to binaural beats during the daytime to stimulate alpha brain waves. If you are having difficulty falling asleep due to overwhelming stress, listen to binaural beats that create Delta Brain Waves. You can find an abundant variety of tracks for free on YouTube.com. Simply use your smart phone and a pair of headphones or earbuds.
Food as Medicine
The most important foundation to health is making sure that you feed your body with healthy, nutritious foods. Depending on the patient and their symptoms, I typically recommend eating a Paleo Diet. Contrary to what many might presume, the Paleo Diet does not recommend mostly animal protein. The Paleo Diet emphasizes mostly vegetables, fruits, normal size serving of healthy sources of animal protein (3-6 oz). You can substitute plant protein like beans, legumes and some nuts if you are a vegetarian. The Paleo Diet also promotes plant-based fats and oils like olive, coconut, avocado, grapeseed oil and many others. And most importantly, the Paleo Diet limits ALL grains, especially gluten containing grains, that for many contributes to digestive complaints, inflammation, sluggishness, brain fog, increased body weight, glucose and lipids. Eating a healthy, balanced diet ensures glucose, cholesterol, triglyceride levels and blood pressure stay within the normal reference ranges. When our body is stressed, our blood sugar increases as our body senses we are in fight or flight mode and therefore our caloric demands increase to provide fuel for our body, including our muscles (to run from the “predator” that doesn’t exist that often in our world today. Today’s “predators” might be work, family, financial, traffic stressors and more. During chronic stress, our bodies get depleted of essential nutrients at a faster rate. Plus, we tend to crave more refined carbohydrates under periods of stress due to erratic cortisol levels. It is extremely important to give our bodies healthier sources of carbohydrates like vitamin and mineral rich fruits and vegetables, rather than breads and desserts and alcohol like so many do. Your waistline and your brain will thank you and you’ll be much happier in the long run. For more information on the Paleo Diet, visit https://thepaleodiet.com.
Move your body! Stimulate your oxygen rich blood to provide nourishment to all of your organs, including your brain, GI Tract and your adrenal glands to allow for increased production of hormones, endorphins and neurotransmitters like serotonin which allows for a sense of well-being, calm and positive mood. If possible, temporarily and physically remove yourself from the stressful situation or environment and rejuvenate your body, mind and spirit. This helps to re-focus and re-frame what you might be struggling with and assists in putting things into a different and clearer perspective. Go for a walk or bike ride right outside your home, your place of work, or a hiking trail out in nature. Walk or run along the beach, lake, river or stream. For many, the sight, sound and smell of water is exceptionally therapeutic. And as an added bonus, the calorie burning activities will lead to stronger muscles, weight loss, positive mood, deeper sleep and better relationships.
Plant Based Medicine
The Earth has such an amazing cornucopia of healing plants and herbs that are so beneficial for our organs, including those precious adrenal glands that take a hit during stress. Using evidence based herbal medicine can help heal the body in so many wonderful ways. I’ve seen it countless times with patients over the years in practice and I’ve experienced it in my own health in very positive ways. While some herbs are focused on calming the nervous and endocrine systems during times of acute stress, others are designed to be more uplifting and rejuvenating during cases of ongoing stress related fatigue. Many of these herbs are balancing and nourishing in a way that helps support the body and bring it back into better equilibrium and vigor. These plants are known as adaptogenic herbs, meaning they help your body to adapt to the stresses of life without the extremes of over-stimulation or sedation to sleep. Think of them as moderators. Uniquely based on symptoms and medical conditions, a few of my favorite herbs that I recommend to patients include the following:
- Withania somnifera (aka Ashwagandha or Indian Ginseng),
- Eleutherococcus senticosus (aka Siberian Ginseng),
- Rhodiola rosea, (aka Arctic or Golden Root)
- Lepidium meyenii (aka Maca Root or Peruvian Ginseng),
- Ocimum tenuiflorum (aka Holy Basil or Tulsi)
- Schisandra sinensis (aka Chinese Magnolia Vine).
Many of these herbs are contained within one product and provide a beautifully synergistic effect to help people adapt to life’s many stressers. Some of my most commonly recommended products are listed below and each one is carefully suggested based on the patient’s individual symptoms, medical conditions and medical history. All are available on Fullscript – an excellent online dispensary that has thousands of professional grade products used by Integrative, Functional Medicine Doctors like myself. https://us.fullscript.com/welcome/ktompkins
- A-Drenal by RLC Labs – 2 caps 1-2 times per day
- HPA Adapt by Integrative Therapeutics – 1-2 caps 1-2 times per day
- HPA Axis by Gaia Herbs – 1 cap 2-3x/day
- Phyto-ADR by Pure Encapsulations 1 cap 2-3 times per day
- Adren-All by Ortho Molecular Products – 2 caps 1-2 times per day
- Adrenotone by Designs for Health – 1 cap 2-3 times per day
For some of us when we are stressed, our sleep is one of the first things to get disrupted. Whether its trouble falling asleep due to racing thoughts and inability to calm the mind or difficulty staying asleep leading to choppy, interrupted sleep. Regardless, our circadian rhythm is out of balance and that will continue to have significant health effects if left untreated. Keep in mind that interrupted sleep could be related to a myriad of other conditions including menopause, andro-pause, blood sugar issues, excess alcohol and/or caffeine intake, chronic pain as well as psychological conditions like depression and anxiety. When we are able to get quality sleep or even a much-needed nap, our bodies are able to heal much more efficiently. Rest = Recovery and Rejuvenation! This is when our Nervous System switches to the parasympathetic mode and allows for healing of those over worked adrenal glands as well as every other organ in the body. With sleep, our brain and cognitive ability is much sharper. And when our brain is functioning optimally, it sends hormone messengers to all of our organs and allows for better production of hormones and neurotransmitters to make us feel better, happier, energized and yet calmer. What are some things that you can do to improve sleep? This will be another detailed article in itself. In a nutshell – Exercise, consume a clean, healthy diet and drink herbal non-caffeine teas in the evening, limit or avoid all caffeine sources and alcohol, meditate, pray, talk to friends, family members and a therapist, read an enjoyable book or listen to an audio book or your favorite podcast, and Journal – write or type out your innermost thoughts, dreams, goals, desires. Releasing stress (even if seemingly temporary) as frequently as you can will allow your body to relax, sleep and heal.
Therapy for your Beautiful Mind
I am a huge advocate for seeking out counseling to help you better navigate through life. Talking with a trusted and empathetic therapist can make a world of difference in helping you to perceive and respond to stressful and sometimes traumatizing situations and experiences in a healthier, positive way. Sure, you can talk with your best friend, sister, mom or coworker and that might be helpful to a certain extent. But having an educated and gifted professional with a lot of clinical experience (helping countless patients in a clinic or office setting) is going to be able to offer you far more researched healing modalities to help heal all aspects of your emotional, psychological, spiritual as well as physical health. Healing that beautiful mind is extremely therapeutic for your adrenal glands, your heart and the rest of your amazing body.
Spiritual and/or Religious Practice
Whatever your spiritual or religious beliefs are, if it resonates with your soul in way that helps you to become a better, happier and/or more peaceful person, helps you to treat others with kindness, love and respect and thereby has a powerful impact on the entire planet (acts of kindness and love spreads infinitely) then by all means, please continue to practice it. Having beliefs and faith in something magnificent and benevolent beyond yourself has the amazing potential to heal the spirit, the mind and the body. And when you are feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed or uncertain about life, repeatedly turning to a higher power for guidance and support and love can calm and heal the body in miraculous, unexpected ways.
When life hands you stressful situations to face, and it will, turn inward and practice gratitude. Verbally stating, writing down or typing out what you are grateful for can be immeasurably healing. Focus on the aspects of your life that are working well or at least are not completely falling apart at the present moment. Your health, the income that you receive from your job to provide for you and your family, the love and support of your family and friends, your home (even if temporary), the beautiful sunset, sunrise and the rain that waters our beautiful planet and random acts and words of kindness you receive from strangers. Appreciate them, love them, be thankful for them and watch your as your body and mind begin to feel more peaceful life begin to change in ways you can’t imagine. This gratitude practice will lower stress hormones faster than you can believe.
Relationships and Social Integration
When we are feeling stressed, some of us might need to be alone for a little while to decompress. While other people might feel compelled to talk to someone – a friend, a family member, a coworker – to feel heard, validated and ultimately relaxed. It has been well studied that having close relationships with people that you can depend on and trust increases not only your sense of fulfillment and happiness, it also lowers your stress hormones and helps you to adapt to stress easier. Texting someone can help to a minimal degree. Yet actually calling someone and hearing their voice or even better meeting someone in person and seeing their face substantially helps you to heal. Assuming of course that this person is willing to listen to you with empathy and provide emotional and verbal support. We are not meant to heal and thrive in isolation. We don’t. If you have the good fortune to depend on your family (and close friends) for immediate support, count your blessings. If you are unable for whatever reason, reach out and call someone or even a therapist and/or or schedule a time to meet in person. Creating new and healthy relationships as well as nurturing our existing healthy relationships can alleviate our stress response in so many beneficial ways.
Consult with a Functional Medicine Endocrinology Doctor and Get Hormone Testing
One of the most common symptoms I hear from patients is that they are stressed and/or tired all of the time. Usually it’s job related, sometimes it’s a strained relationship with a partner, family member, friend, colleague or acquaintance and sometimes it’s managing a chronic illness. Interestingly, many assume they have too much cortisol. This is not always the case. With acute stress, you will see a rise in cortisol for a period of time. However, with chronic stress over many, many years, you will see a significant drop in cortisol. And this usually lead to low energy, chronic fatigue, disturbed sleep, craving for carbohydrates, lack of ability to cope with stressful situations. Furthermore, excess, irregular or insufficient cortisol production will significantly interfere with the actions of other hormones like progesterone, estrogen, testosterone, DHEA, thyroid and insulin. Additionally, it adversely affects the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal system, the nervous system, muscular skeletal system and prematurely ages our skin, making us look older than we truly are. What can you do? Consult with a licensed Functional Medicine Endocrinology Doctor for ordering a comprehensive and detailed hormone panel. This would include the adrenal hormones, the reproductive hormones, a complete thyroid panel, as well as many other important systemic blood panels like a Comprehensive Metabolic Panel, CBC, and a detailed Lipid Panel. Evaluating the body in a holistic functional medicine approach will provide you and your doctor the right answers that you need for appropriate individualized treatment. And simply talking to an empathetic provider that spends more time with you in getting to the root cause of your symptoms is healing and stress relieving in itself.
Interested in healing those adrenal glands, having greater health and feeling better? Please schedule a 60-75 minute New Patient Appointment with Dr. Kristi or a preliminary free 15-minute meet ‘n greet consult by phone or in person at doctorkristi.com.