Updated: Jun 5, 2020
It’s that time for new year’s resolution or as I like to say,
New Year's Intentions.
What’s in your anti-stress toolbox this new year?
It better not be booze, candy, pie, and cannabis. Santa is watching! Self-soothing is great, just with the right tools that won’t cause damage to your body.
I was recently chatting with a client about her intention to lose 20 pounds. She’s going to drink some sort of shake that shakes off all the weight. But she’s also very stressed having just adopted her husband's grandson. I offered her an idea that if the shake approach doesn’t work this time (she's done this before), to take the anti-stress approach, which looks like spa days, massage, sitting with tea. This will help her shed the pounds without the yo-yoing effect of a fad diet.
Stress is a very hot topic these days. There is “good stress” and there is “bad stress.” I think it’s safe to say the spectrum of stress is colorful, not unlike everything else! If you put on your yin-yang sunglasses, nothing is simply black and white. For example, think about the stress your body goes through when you’re playing a physical game of soccer. That was fun and I’d do it every week! Compare that to the stress of sitting all day at the office on your computer, eight hours a day, five days a week, typing and clicking high on coffee with little to no breaks. That, my workaholic friend, is the “bad stress.”
A stressor is defined as “any actual or potential disturbance of an individual’s environment due to real or perceived noxious stimuli.”(1) So a stressor could be at the very least a potential change that may be harmful. Sounds like anticipatory anxiety to me. The stress response of your body is complex, but the general idea is you adapt by way of a myriad chemical processes. The better you adapt to changes in your environment, the more resilient you become.
Resilience is a key indicator of health.
The major stress system of the body is the HPA axis, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The HPA axis drops signals from the brain to the adrenal glands, atop the kidneys, triggering a release of cortisol. Cortisol then travels through the body to various organs causing a dump of sugar into the blood while keeping the body in high alert. I like to call this type of vigilant energy, “stress energy.”
Here’s a short story about cortisol from my medical school professor:
He was a surgeon, and like most surgeons, he said, who work long hours in stressful life or death situations, have large bellies from all the cortisol they release. This extra fat surrounds the visceral organs. When you see this in cadaver lab, it's quite shocking. Apparently, this surgeon wasn’t cut out for the job!
On the extreme end, too much cortisol can cause Cushing syndrome, which presents physiologically as “moon facies,” “buffalo hump,” muscle weakness, diabetes (due to high blood sugar), delayed healing, and basically all the words you’d hate to hear as a patient. Moon facies and buffalo hump refer to the extra fat that’s deposited in the face and at the base of the neck on your back. I’m not saying if you’re stressed all the time, this is going to happen to you, because this is a very imbalanced picture. But, now you know. If you are stressed all the time and you find yourself with a buffalo hump, find yourself a Naturopathic physician.
Side Note: A more common cause of Cushing Syndrome is steroid use, which may surprise you. By steroids I’m talking about the drugs you take for pain, inflammation, arthritis, asthma, etc. Steroids act similarly to cortisol.
Fun Fact: Hydrocortisone is used for pain and inflammation but ironically delays healing. Check out the stupendous side effects on Medscape.
Although day to day stress might not give you a buffalo hump, there is mounting evidence suggesting stress negatively impacts cognition, learning, memory, the immune system, cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, and endocrine system.(4) While stress might make you more resilient, if we are unable to recover and/or adapt to life’s stressors, we become imbalanced.
The way you decompress will be personal. To name a few universal practices: forest bathing, breathing exercises, and meditation. If you’re the type who finds self-worth in being busy and is stressed as a consequence, allow this awareness of what stress does to your body be a gentle reminder of what truly matters, your health!
May 2020 be a year of resilience!
Cool, J., & Zappetti, D. (2019). The physiology of stress. In Medical Student Well-Being (pp. 1-15). Springer, Cham.
Thau, L., & Sharma, S. (2019). Physiology, Cortisol. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.
Mukherjee, S., Samajdar, S. S., & Tripathi, S. K. (2019). Glucocorticoids and Cushing Syndrome: A Tale of Three Cases. Asian Journal of Pharmaceutical and Health Sciences, 9(1).
Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Reivew.” EXCLI Journal, 2017, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.17179/excli2017-480.
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