What does it mean to be stressed? It can present itself in a number of ways, and is individual to each person experiencing it. We are all filled with differences and intricacies in our human
bodies and daily lives that trigger the stress, and that choose how it shows up. However, we do all have the same systems in our body that react to this stress; there are certain actions we can take to alleviate these systems, protect them, so that we can move forward in our day and live well in the long-term.
In this first part of “How to Approach Stress”, I want to start from the beginning by giving a quick lesson on the general physiological responses to stress. By understanding how stress arrives in the body, we will be able to better work alongside it.
The body’s HPA axis is our main stress response network. It consists of the hypothalamus,
pituitary gland, and adrenal glands; this axis is a complex glandular communication network
responsible for the neuroendocrine adaptation component of the stress response. The hypothalamus, located just above the brainstem with the pituitary gland, begins the cascade of this hormonal response, by stimulating the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is then told to release hormones into the bloodstream, reaching the adrenal glands, located just above the kidneys, and ultimately releasing cortisol.
Cortisol - known as the stress hormone, has a number of different actions; one of them being
inhibiting other body processes in order to focus on dealing with the stressor at hand. This is
essential in dealing with short-term stress; however, cortisol circulation can get stuck on the “on” mode in most of us, taking our body’s focus away from important processes to keep us well. Rather than this consistent level of cortisol throughout the day, it is ideal for us to be having a spike in the morning to help us properly wake, and then slowly decreasing into the end of day so we can have restful sleep.
What are some triggers to this occurring in the human body? They likely include, but are not
limited to perceived stress, sleep hygiene, and blood glucose changes.
Perceived Stress - This can be explained as the thoughts or feelings that an individual may
have about how much stress they are under at a given time and what has caused it. One of my perceived stress examples is putting certain things off throughout my week and potentially being afraid of actually getting them done.
Sleep Hygiene - When we do not listen to our body’s true circadian rhythm, the body
experiences stress. Melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, is thrown off and the brain is not able to go through its natural process of removing functional waste and toxins from the central nervous system.
Blood Glucose - Sharp changes in blood sugar levels puts stress on the body’s hormones.
When it is too high, insulin resistance occurs, and when it is too low, we are releasing cortisol
because the body is stressed that there is not enough glucose in the cells.
Next week in Part 2 of “How to Approach Stress”, we will take what we have learned in the
physiology and triggers of HPA axis dysfunction, and dive deeper in how to apply this
knowledge in our day to day. This will include implementation of different lifestyle practices,
certain foods, adaptogens, and emotional understanding. Until then, start with 3-5 deep breaths and a short walk outside. See you next week!
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