Author Dr. Doni Wilson shares the top five indications that you are more stressed than you might have realized and offers advice about what you can do about it.
The effects of stress can sneak up on us and, before we know it, our bodies are responding in a way that is not so pleasant. The only way to get things back on track is to give your body what it needs.
What is the stress response?
We all have an inbuilt stress response, which is a normal and healthy thing. We need it and couldn’t survive without it. This response starts when our brain perceives something stressful – whether a major crisis or simply a change in our routine – which then triggers our body to make stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones enter our bloodstream and travel throughout the body, suppressing less urgent activities such as digestion and fighting infection in favor of creating responses that help us deal with the stress we are experiencing – increased heart rate, brain activity, and muscle contraction.
When the stress is gone, the hormones return to their usual, optimal level, and our body goes back to digesting food, preventing infections, processing thoughts and emotions, and the other usual functions.
The problem comes when we push our body’s ability to respond to stress to the max. In that situation, the stress response never completes its cycle and the body doesn’t have a chance to recover before the next rush of adrenaline and cortisol. In the short term, this might just make you feel like you’ve had a busy day. In the long run, however, your body becomes more likely to develop symptoms and health issues that could prevent you from enjoying life and being productive.
Think of a car with tires that are out of balance. The further you drive with varying amounts of pressure in the tires, the more likely it is that issues will arise – at first it might just be a bumpy ride, but eventually it could mean damage to the tires, wheels, and suspension. Similarly, when your stress response is out of balance, you are more likely to experience health issues, but the solution is not to simply suppress the symptoms but to give your body a chance to recover, which will rebalance your stress response.
Here are 5 common indications that your stress response is out of balance and what you can do to address the underlying issue:
The hormones that respond when you are stressed – cortisol and adrenaline – increase muscle tension, preparing you to respond to the stress. When stress goes on for too long, your muscles never get a chance to relax, leaving you with tight neck muscles which can cause a headache.
When you notice that your muscles have gotten stuck in stress-mode, the best thing you can do is help them to relax. You can do this by applying heat, gently stretching your neck and shoulders, and/or getting a massage.
You can also try taking magnesium – a nutrient that helps muscles to relax. Even 50 to 100 mg once or twice per day can help soften your muscles and prevent another headache (just be careful because magnesium at higher dosages can cause loose bowel movements, in which case you should lower your dose). View a product here.
You can also eat foods that are higher in magnesium: raw spinach, pumpkin seeds, avocado, mackerel, brown rice and dark chocolate.
It’s no surprise that anxiety is a common indicator of stress, but it’s not so well known that irritability is also more likely when you are frazzled. Our brain chemistry is affected by stress hormones and continued exposure to them leads to increased stimulation of the nervous system, and a higher chance of feeling irritated. Let that be a signal to you that your body and mind need a chance to rest and recover.
Sleep, 7.5 to 9 hours per night, as well as giving your brain a break during the day, can do wonders for rebalancing your stress response and your neurochemistry. Some ways of taking a break include going for a walk around the block, reading a book or article, drinking a cup of tea, meditating, and listening to music.
A nutrient that helps support the calming part of the nervous system is theanine (found in green tea), which can be taken in doses of 100 to 200 mg, even three times per day. View products containing theanine here.
Inositol (vitamin B8) is another nutrient that supports the calming part of the nervous system and is often depleted by stress. A common starting dosage is 2,000 mg once or twice per day*. Notice how your body responds and then you might increase the dose to 4,000 mg three times per day. View a product here.
If you don’t notice enough benefit by trying these things, it is best to work with a naturopathic doctor who can help you. I’m happy to help (reach me here).
When the stress response is triggered day in and day out by everything from your commute to work, travel, deadlines, skipping meals, lack of sleep, and exposure to toxins, the immune system is less and less able to protect you from infections. That’s why you are more likely to catch a cold or the flu when you are stressed, as well as other infections anywhere in the body. Susceptibility to viral infections (such as mono and herpes) and bacterial infections (such as sinus and bladder infections), also increases when you are stressed.
When you get sick, it is an important time to ask yourself if you’ve been overstressed, and what you can do to help your body return to balance. One of the best places to start is by avoiding stresses in your diet, such as sugar and alcohol, which both also lower your immune function. Then re-prioritize your schedule to ensure that you are getting enough time to sleep, exercise and choose healthy foods throughout each day. You might consider the Stress Remedy Programs (7-day or 21-day), which I designed, as a way to help you get back on track.
- Hair loss
When cortisol levels soar, they also inhibit other hormones in your body such as thyroid and ovarian hormones. When that happens, it affects your body’s signal to grow hair. So if you notice more than usual hair loss (we normally lose about 100 strands per day) from your head, then it may indicate that you’ve been stressed.
Don’t worry (that will only add to the problem). When your cortisol levels come back to optimal, your hair will get the correct signals again. Research shows that cortisol levels come down when you do yoga, meditate, spend time outdoors, journal about your feelings, and even simply enjoy time with family and friends. For more information click here.
You can read more about cortisol here, and if you are wondering what your cortisol levels are, you can do a saliva panel where we check your cortisol levels morning, noon, evening and bedtime. Contact my office so I can help you – if you are not able to come in person, we can meet by phone.
- Heart palpitations
When you are stressed, adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster, which can deplete the nutrients your heart needs to function normally; making it more likely your heart will skip a beat. For many people, even when the stress is long gone, their heart continues having palpitations – which can feel like a flutter in the chest.
These palpitations are a sign you should have your heart checked by a physician or cardiologist. Once you are sure what you are experiencing is palpitations (and not something more severe), there are nutrients you can take that will help settle your heart.
One example is CoQ10, which, in an activated form called Ubiquinol, helps your heart to get back in sync. A common dose is 100 mg once or twice per day. Magnesium is also an important nutrient for healthy heart function – see notes above about dosage and foods to choose.
Everyone experiences stress in a unique way. So while you might experience one of these 5 indications, someone else might experience stomach aches, joint pain, and/or skin rashes. What is important is that you to get to know your body so that when it starts signaling, you know to get the support it needs.
Support may come in the form of a diet change, help with sleep, reaching out to a friend or therapist, and/or getting back to your exercise routine. If you don’t feel better by implementing these steps, then it may be time to dig deeper and find out if nutrient deficiencies, food sensitivities, or imbalanced cortisol levels may be recreating the stress pattern and preventing you from recovering.
I’m here to help! If you’d like to read more about how our bodies respond to stress and receive step-by-step instructions on how to rebalance your stress response, be sure to get a copy of The Stress Remedy through my office, Amazon, Kindle or iBooks.
Becoming aware of how your body is affected by stress is simply the best way to keep yourself well and prevent health issues of all types.
What do you notice when you are stressed? Please share below.
Dr Doni Wilson
2nd May 2014
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.