Each of us responds to the stressors in our lives in our own unique way. As a women’s health care nurse practitioner who employs a functional medicine approach and has helped thousands of women with hormone issues over the past 20 years, I have frequently seen long-term, unremitting stress cause many health issues for women. In this article you will learn how to recover from stress and get control of your health.
Recover from Stress
Since prehistoric times, our bodies have been designed to respond to brief periods of intense stress with long periods of rest and recovery in between. For example, a cavewoman might need to run from a lion to survive and then have weeks to recover from the scary event before another animal came around to hunt her! While few of us have to survive lion attacks today, there are loads of other stressors that contribute to our health issues on a daily basis!
The human body’s stress response system includes endocrine glands that make up the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). These regulate our flight-or-fight-or-faint response, which is needed in times of immediate danger.
The adrenal glands, key players in stress hormone production, release hormones such as cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), along with epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. This short-term hormone release is vital to our survival. However, stress that is not relieved causes a continuous release of cortisol and adrenaline into the blood stream and can be damaging to the body.
Over time, high levels of cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, weaken your immune system and even cause muscle wasting. In healthy conditions, cortisol is released in response to stress and DHEA is released then to counterbalance the cortisol.
Signs of too much stress/HPA axis dysfunction
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Fatigue (especially difficulty getting out of bed in the morning)
- Salt and sugar cravings
- Joint and muscle aches and pains
- Feelings of “tired and wired”
- Sleep disturbances
- Low blood pressure
- Low sex drive
- Thyroid imbalances
- Dizziness upon standing
- Shakiness if you skip a meal
- Hair loss
- Falling asleep when you don’t want to
(reading or watching TV)
- Feeling weary and irritable most of the time
Three stages of HPA axis dysfunction
Stage 1: Alarm Phase (hyper-cortisol) — in this stage, one feels “tired but wired” and restless with high cortisol output and inadequate signaling to turn it off. Persons in this phase may have occasional sleeplessness and appear high strung, agitated or anxious.
Stage 2: Resistance Phase (hypo-cortisol) — may be the result of ongoing acute stress or years of mild stress without balancing rest and relaxation. Lab tests may show erratic patterns of cortisol and reduced levels of DHEA with symptoms of fatigue.
Stage 3: Exhaustion Phase (hypo-cortisol) — usually associated with many symptoms such as severe fatigue, insomnia, depression, hormonal imbalances, pain and inflammation.
A skilled health care provider can help you recover from stress in whatever stage of HPA dysfunction you are in by listening to your symptoms, seeking to understand your lifestyle and nutritional status and offering saliva testing to detect if you have an imbalance in your cortisol and DHEA levels.
Recognize that your adrenal glands are not the underlying cause — they are just caught in the crossfire. The best treatment is to address the root cause: stress. I encourage my patients to identify their daily stressors and take back their health by establishing a healthy daily routine, including:
- Getting at least eight hours of refreshing sleep (go to bed by 10 p.m.)
- Learning to say “no” when you have reached your limit
- Eating a protein-rich breakfast (containing 20-25 grams of protein) before 10 a.m.
- Doing something relaxing daily (yoga, prayer, reading, walking, taking a warm bath, etc.)
- Not over-exercising; keep your heart rate under 90 beats per minute until your fatigue is lifted
- Eating a healthy, low glycemic diet (i.e., consume nuts or nut butter with fruit)
- Avoiding foods that cause any adverse reaction (wheat and dairy are common inflammatory foods)
- Avoiding excess alcohol and sugar (both are toxic and inflammatory)
- Considering supplementation with high-quality vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fats, vitamin C and pharmacy-grade adaptogenic herbs
The bottom line is if the HPA axis is required to work overtime, cortisol and DHEA levels will eventually become imbalanced along with other systems in your body. Seek care from a health care professional who is skilled at assessing your specific stage of HPA dysfunction and other hormone imbalances, and who can help you determine what actions to take to improve your health and recover from stress.
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