“Stress” is anything that challenges the body.
Conversely, anything that challenges the body is a form of stress.
This is a powerful statement and one that guides me in my practice as a naturopathic doctor. Whenever a new patient comes to me, regardless of their reason for seeking my help, I look at their symptoms from the perspective of stress.
I’m not sure when I started doing that—I think it started before I even become a naturopathic doctor. I remember when, as a child, my mom would say, “He is just stressed,” when my dad was in a grumpy mood. Perhaps that was the start. Or perhaps it was when, as a midwifery student, I researched women in labor who had a prior history of abuse and saw that, while a certain amount of stress is necessary for the human body to have a baby, too much stress causes the body’s processes to stop functioning optimally. Or then again, maybe it was noticing how my own exposure to stress during naturopathic medical school while also training to be a midwife, attending births at night, and taking classes during the day impacted my health.
Whenever it started, at some point along the way I began seeing everything and everyone based on how the stress we are exposed to affects our bodies, and in highly individualized ways. And not just emotional stress, but physical stresses too. In fact, anything that challenges our bodies or requires a response or adaptation from our bodies—everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe, and even the number of hours we sleep, requires our bodies to respond or adapt and is therefore a stress.
How we respond to that stress is crucial to how much it influences our health, and therein lies something that makes stress so fascinating, and our response to it so individual – our genetics influence how our bodies respond to stress, as does our early childhood exposure to stress, and stress throughout our lives, each day. These elements, when added together, create our own “fingerprint” of stress exposure which results in and explains the unique set of symptoms that we have in our body and mind.
Seeing How Stress Affects the Body
There are four major systems in the body that are affected by stress: Our hormones, digestion, immune system, and nervous system. Our genetics, as well as our ‘stress fingerprint,’ plays a huge part in which of these areas are affected and how. It could be that just one of them is affected first, then, as time goes on, others begin to experience imbalances as well and, as a result, get thrown off-track. Then symptoms start to develop, and a vicious cycle ensues that involves adrenal distress, leaky gut and carbohydrate metabolism issues. You can read more about these three “problem networks” here.
When we see how these systems and issues are interconnected, then the identification of the problem also becomes the solution. If we simply address each of the systems and each aspects of the vicious cycle, then the body will be able to heal.
Identifying Stress and Opportunities to Reduce It
Stress is a part of life but we are not stuck with it. We have many tools available to help us address stress and support our bodies to recover, restore, and rebalance. We can find those tools by looking at the types of potential stresses that we have a choice about.
There are many potential stresses that we may not have any influence over such as financial commitments, taking care of children and family members, and work responsibilities—but there are many we can control if we choose to. The food we eat, for example, is up to us. We can choose to eat foods that increase stress in our bodies, such as sugar, gluten, or processed foods—or we can choose foods that decrease stress, like veggies, fruits, and healthy proteins and fats. Another example is sleep. Choosing a schedule that allows for plenty of sleep and addressing sleep issues when they arise is another way we can reduce our exposure to stress.
It is when we realize that our exposure to stresses—big and small, emotional and physical—is what determines our health and that our health is in our own hands that we discover that we are a major determiner of our health simply based on the choices we make each day.
Do you choose to exercise? If you have an injury, you may need to modify your exercise plan, but you can usually find some way of exercising that counts and doesn’t cause more pain.
Do you choose to take breaks, listen to music, or spend time outdoors? In elementary school, these activities are built into the day, but what about when we are adults—who makes the schedule then? Are you choosing in each moment to do what is most supportive of your health? These two simple choices alone can have a huge influence on your exposure to stress and your health and wellbeing. I call them ‘stress remedies’.
Your Health is in Your Hands
Ultimately, it is how we both reduce (rather than eliminate) our stress exposure and how we support our bodies to recover from stress that determines how our genes play out. Every day in my practice, as I help patients overcome their struggles with life’s stresses—from infections, to toxins, to emotional trauma, and simply modern overwhelm—I see that it is possible to improve one’s health by giving the body what it needs.
In the next few articles, I’m going to be sharing more about my approach to wellness and strategies for improving your ‘stress radar’.
In the meantime, if you’d like to join me on this journey of discovering more about how stress affects your health, you could start by taking this brief online quiz, which will help you to evaluate how much stress is affecting your health. Once you have taken the quiz, I will include you in 7 days of free email tips to help you integrate stress reducing strategies into your life.
If you are ready to take big steps to reduce the amount of stress that is bombarding your body each day, then you might consider either my 7-day or 21-day Stress Remedy Program, which include meal plans, a protein shake, and support for changing your relationship to stress to that of mastery.
To learn more about how stress affects health, I think you’ll love reading my book, The Stress Remedy. On the other hand, if you are simply looking for information on how choosing “stress remedies” can help your body recover from stress, then I recommend my 30-page ebook, Stress Remedies. And finally, if you are struggling with getting the amount of sleep you know you need in order to keep up with the amount of stress in your life, be sure to sign up to be notified when my newest book is ready, Insomnia: A Natural Guide to Better Sleep.
Naturopathic doctors are your best guides on this journey because we were trained from the get-go about how stress affects health and how to support patients to make lifestyle changes that reduce stress and improve health. I encourage you to find a naturopathic doctor to support you on your path to wellness, and if you’d like to choose me, I am more than happy to be your partner in wellness. Some patients have shared that it is because I am willing to “get in the sandbox” with them that they feel it has made a difference to have me on their health team. If you’d like to learn more about how I do that and to read about a consultation package that provides the time and information we need to get started, check out my Total Wellness Package here.
I look forward to sharing more of my insights about stress and to learning together with you. To sign up for my free e-newsletter, click here.
Guidance for practitioners:
- Connect with your patients on a human level. We are all human after all, and by connecting in that way it offers a greater possibility for your patients to learn from themselves, not just from you.
- When you sit down with patients to listen to their story, try thinking about it from the perspective of stress. How did the particular stresses this person was exposed to affect their body, and how then can you support their body to heal?
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