It is impossible to remove all stressors from our everyday lives. A stressor could be anything that causes a disturbance in our balance – environmental toxins, heat or cold, surgery or illness, even a strong emotional reaction.
The stressors can be different for different people and can vary within the same person. When we manage to counteract the stress successfully our internal environment remains within normal physiological limits. (1)
When the stress is extreme or long-lasting it elicits the stress response, a sequence of bodily changes that can progress through 3 stages. (1)
The 3 Stages of the Stress Response
Stage 1 Alarm or the fight-or-flight response
This is the shortest stage of the stress response and in this stage, the body is mobilized for immediate physical activity. Oxygen and glucose are pumped up into the brain, skeletal muscles, and heart to support the body in warding off the danger. The usual reactions we see at this stage are a result of a normal physiological response from cortisol pumped up in high amount by our adrenal glands and they are:
Elevated blood sugar
Elevated blood pressure
Increase of heart and respiratory rate
Increased metabolism at cellular level
It is important to know that once the danger is removed the body returns to its normal functions. We can enter and go out of this phase for years and this can feel normal to us.
Stage 2 Resistance stage
This stage compared to the previous one lasts longer and it helps the body continue fighting a stressor longer after the alarm stage has ended. This is the stage where the body has built up a tolerance to cortisol and has functionally adapted to chronic stress. (2) This is where people feel ‘wired’ or ‘tired and wired’. The changes in physiology and metabolism we see at this stage are:
Elevated blood lipids
Breakdown of skeletal muscle
Elevated blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C
It is good to know that in the resistance stage people start noticing a fluctuation in energy throughout the day, as well as mood swings, insomnia, fatigue, decreased sex drive, unexplained weight loss or weight gain. Often people reach out for more coffee, alcohol, sleeping pills or over-the-counter calming herbs or supplements.
Stage 3 The burnout or the exhaustion stage
When the body fails to combat the stressor in the resistance stage its resources become so depleted that health starts to decline significantly. Normal functioning becomes challenging and it is imperative to reach out for help to a health-care professional. The signs and symptoms in this stage include:
Severe fatigue regardless of the amount of sleep
Low blood pressure
Frequent infections, including colds and flu
The stress-gut connection
When we are calm, when our muscles are relaxed when we breathe deeply and are free of worries we are in a parasympathetic mode. Vice versa, when we are anxious, angry, breathe shallowly and quickly, our heart races and our muscles are tensed, our sympathetic nervous system is dominant.
Digestion is a parasympathetic process, so we need to be in a relaxed and calm state in order to digest food. As a culture, we are sympathetically stressed. In times of stress, the body will focus all its energy on the stages of the stress response and as a result, the digestion might become seriously downregulated. Stress impacts saliva production, hydrochloric acid production, the pH of the stomach, the peristalsis and gut motility since they are parasympathetic driven processes. Undigested foods wreak havoc on the whole digestive system and they can lead to gut dysbiosis, inflammation and intestinal permeability or leaky gut. (3)(4)
10 Strategies to help you handle your chronic stress – set boundaries and increase resilience
1. Get enough sleep and make daily choices that support good night’s sleep – this is one of the most important things you can do for your mind and body and it can play a huge role in improving your digestion. It is good to set aside 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.
2. Engage in regular daily mild and moderate activity – this can be any type of movement throughout the day. Any type of exercise you enjoy will do.
3. Develop a mindfulness practice – you can try meditation or deep breathing. They help your body relax, put your mind at ease and bring you in a parasympathetic mode.
4. Engage in fun activities, go out in nature, play and laugh – try to set aside every day some time to do something you enjoy and love. Walks in nature can be very relaxing for our minds.
5. Connect with friends, family and loved ones – physical and emotional connections have an important calming effect on the mind and body. You can also spend some time with your pet.
6. Learn to say NO to extra draining commitments – practice saying no. This will help you free more time for the things you enjoy in life.
7. Make sure that you are not taking on more commitments than you need to and can manage to handle – reconsider your goals and priorities and think about what you can change
8. Avoid negative people that create stress in your life – set boundaries and try to surround yourself with people you like to be with
9. Ask for help from close friends and family when overwhelmed – this will help you relieve some of the burdens you have put on yourself
10. Work on strategies that reduce physical and mental stress at work – this can be anything from doing some deep breathing, stretching throughout the day, to discussing the options of a more flexible schedule
1.Tortora G, Derrickson B, Introduction to the Human Body, Wiley, 2015
2 Ballantyne S, Paleo Principles, Victory Belt Publishing, 2017
3.Nutritional Therapy Association (2019), Digestive Module Study Guide, Olympia, WA