Managing Your Stress Response at the Adrenal Level
Adrenal dysfunction is a byproduct of modern living. It often goes unnoticed, but can trigger serious health problems. Our stress response is much the same as that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but our primary stressors have changed substantively since prehistoric times. Our ancestors were built to respond primarily to physical dangers, whereas most of our modern stressors are emotional issues. It is thought that sustained emotional stress causes or worsens about 85% of all of our illnesses. My daily work at the clinic bears this out.
Sustained, unrelieved stress speeds up the aging process and impairs brain function. The adrenal glands control your stress response with the hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine; therefore you need to strike back at stress at the adrenal level. Excess cortisol impairs immune function at the gut level, making you more vulnerable to infection. This is why sustained stress predisposes you to illness.
Simple things you can do to manage stress
1) Adopt good posture habits. The vast majority of the brain’s sensory input comes from the joints, making proper posture more important to overall health than most people think. Bring your shoulders back and then let them drop, so that your chest feels expanded. Hold your head up; angling your head down only when you need to lower your eyes to see.
2) Breathe consciously. Notice the air going in and out as it enters and leaves your body, and feel the rise and fall of your chest. There’s a reason we tend to tell people who are freaking out, “Just breathe!” Deep breathing actually decreases cortisol and adrenaline secretion, quickly bringing the stress response under control.
3) Get plenty of sleep. A minimum of 7 hours of sleep a night, ideally between 9 pm and 9 am, is recommended to fully replenish your system. People who don’t get enough sleep are typically irritable and find it difficult to concentrate; they are much more likely to be overwhelmed by relatively mild stressors.
4) Exercise regularly. In their book, Younger Next Year, authors Chris Crowley and Dr. Harry Lodge explain the importance of regular exercise to keep inflammation at bay and cortisol levels under control. Try to exercise 6 days a week, increasing your heart rate to twice its resting rate for at least 20 minutes each day. Weight training is also important– for building muscle mass, increasing your metabolism, and strengthening your tendons.
Supplements and herbs that help regulate the stress response
Nutritional and vitamin deficiencies are key causes of adrenal dysfunction. You should supplement your intake of vitamins C, E and B; and the minerals selenium, zinc, and magnesium. You should also include a source of Omega 3s among your daily supplements as part of a proactive approach to detoxification. Here are some recommended herbal supplements:
1) Rhodiola root: Improves cognition and audio-visual perception in people under stress, and combats the debilitating effects of stress on the body. Recommended dosage: 50-250 mg, twice daily.
2) Holy basil: Decreases cortisol production and regulates blood sugar. Recommended dose: 400-800 mg daily.
3) Theanine: An amino acid found in certain tea leaves, this herb increases brain alpha waves, functioning as a natural relaxant. Recommended dose: 50-200 mg per day.
Dietary and behavioral stress management
70-80% of your immune system cells are found along the lining of your digestive tract. Your immune response is therefore directly affected by all the foods that interact with your gut. Your habitual behaviors also have a huge influence on your stress response, either positively or negatively.
1) Eat according to the motto, “every color every day.” Eat organic foods as often as possible, and strive towards a gluten-free and dairy-free diet. Stress hormones are stimulated by a diet high in carbohydrates, so limit the highly-refined carbs in your diet as much as possible. Smaller meals more frequently make things easier on your digestive system than eating three big meals a day. Chew your food thoroughly to allow for adequate digestion.
2) Limit your sugar intake. Too much sugar can weaken your immune system and make you more easily stressed out. Sugar sources include dairy and wheat products, something most people are not aware of. The sugar you can get naturally from fresh fruits and vegetables is all your body really needs.
3) Drink plenty of water. Water flushes toxins from your system, helping to regulate your stress response, enhance your immune function, and promote overall good health. You should drink reverse-osmosis and alkaline water as much as possible. And unless you drink filtered water, your own body becomes the filter!
4) Take a time out. Given our busy lifestyles, it may seem like a waste of time, but a few sessions a week of focused relaxation can do wonders to strengthen your immune system and decrease your overall stress level. Some suggestions include meditation, yoga, and Tai-chi.
5) Drink alcohol only in moderation. The body recognizes excess alcohol as a toxin and works hard to get rid of it, as anyone who has ever suffered a hangover will tell you. In addition to liver damage, drinking in excess compromises your immune system and makes you more susceptible to stress. A single glass of wine at dinner or one beer at a cookout is fine; if you go much beyond that, you’re putting unnecessary stress on your body.
6) Do Not Smoke. Cigarette smoke contains a huge number of deadly toxins. In addition to the well-known lethal consequences of smoking—heart disease, lung cancer, COPD—the toxins in tobacco smoke build up in your system over time, predisposing you to all kinds of illnesses and causing you to have a hair-trigger stress response. Don’t buy into the myth that you need a cigarette to relax, or that there is such a thing as a “safe” amount of smoking.
These are some of the practical steps you can take to enhance your overall well-being and manage your stress response at the adrenal level. Sustained, unrelieved stress is highly debilitating, predisposing you to illness and making any illness you may already have worse. Fortunately, simple behavioral modification, positive dietary changes, and vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements can relieve a great deal of stress naturally.