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The Impacts of Stress on Your Health and How to Mitigate It

How does poor sleep and elevated stress impact our health ? And what are some tools to help mitigate the effects of toxic stress ?

So often I hear patients say “things get worse for me when I become run down”. We intuitively know this happens. It may be that chronic conditions such as eczema or autoimmune disease flare up or IBS symptoms become exacerbated. Whatever the specific symptoms are for a patient, it is common to see them worsen during times of stress, poor diet and interrupted sleep. This is usually when we are not looking after ourselves the best we can and the wheels begin to fall off.

Whilst we have all been witness to the impact of stress and poor sleep and diet on our immune fighting capacity, we now know more scientifically why this occurs. During periods of heightened stress the body increases chemicals such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, glutamate and cortisol which are all designed to increase our awareness and capacity for action (in the short term). Physically this equates to increased heart rate and muscle contraction, altered pH and microbiome within the gut and even shrinkage in part of the brain. Mentally, we can experience racing thoughts, poor memory and word recall, altered decision making and decreased capacity for developing novel solutions to problems. All this combines to take us away from our state of homeostasis and peak performance.

Not all stress is bad. Acute stress can work in our favour and help us rise the occasion for example during a job interview or sporting grand final. After the event is over however, the body needs to return to balance and if fails to do this, or the stress stimulus remains, then it becomes toxic for the body and mind. This can impact many areas of our lives beyond our health and personal wellbeing and affect our careers, social lives and relationships with others.

So, what can we do to ensure our stress response does not turn toxic.

For me, there is no one tool that mitigates the risk posed by toxic stress. I believe that having an armoury of tools to draw upon is the most effective approach. This can look different from person to person.

Going back to basics is always a good option. This starts with making the decision to eat well. Once you become mindful of your food choices ( in its simplest form – regular meals, protein at every meal, minimal refined sugars and lots of colourful fruit and vegetables ) you already start to feel more in control. Having solid boundaries around alcohol will also help. Another basic to consider is routine around sleep and not going to bed with a busy head. This means mobile phone on airport mode and away from your head at night ( or better still out of the room ) . Vocalising a positive sleep statement before bed, to speak to your subconscious mind, can give it the ok to turn off for the night. We know that melatonin has multiple positive impacts on the immune and nervous systems. So, good quality sleep will help regulate those chemicals that have been elevated during the fight or flight stress response. Moving your body and engaging in some form of exercise is another basic that can help burn off the increased chemistry associated with stress. Even brisk walking around the neighbourhood for 20 minutes, 4 times a week can help support the body in normalising stress hormones and reverting to homeostasis.

Beyond the basics, the are other tools you can consider to reduce the impact of toxic stress such as meditation, yoga, enjoying nature and getting adequate sunlight. Simple breathing exercises such as inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 7 counts for just two minutes at a time can help reduce blood pressure. Sticking to a routine can also help you feel more organised and in control. Breaking jobs down to smaller tasks encourages you to see a roadmap out of your current state. I also find writing concerns and worries down on a piece of paper, so you can see them, takes the issues out your head ( where they can become limitless ) and onto a finite landscape helps improve perspective and reduce the feeling of anxiety. Acknowledging and celebrating small gains also helps as does spending time with friends and family, especially those who make you laugh.

Depending on the symptoms, a Naturopath may support a patient during times of stress using a variety of nutritional and herbal medicines. There are a wide range of herbal medicines available to support the stress response depending on the presentation. Some herbs are indicated during times of acute stress whilst others are best indicated when long term stress has left a patient exhausted and depleted. Specific nutrients that promote the production of GABA can encourage a healthy sleep cycle and reduce nervous excitability. A Naturopath can help you understand what nutrients and foods may be best indicated for you and they will support you in creating an armoury of tools that work for you to help get on top of stress and its impact on your health and well being.

It is so important to ask for help if you are struggling. Seeking the support of your GP or a counsellor who is trained in mental health care is integral. You are not alone and asking for support will help you get back on track and overcome the impact of stress.

If you would like more information from a naturopathic point of view please contact Kathleen Mcfarlane.