Most of us are rushing around, trying to squeeze everything on the to-do list into one day and feeling like there is never enough time to get it all done. Being completely booked, in demand every hour of the day, can make us feel efficient and needed but it can also quickly turn into feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
When we talk about stress, we often consider events like death, divorce, sudden job loss and other significant events as being the most stressful. However, physical and emotional stress can be both pleasant or unpleasant, the difference being how the event affects us. Having a baby, training at the gym, starting a new job: all of these events are exciting but can also bring a new level of stress to our lives.
Our stress response, also known as “fight or flight,” is an ancient biochemical message that is a lifesaving mechanism controlled by our adrenal glands. When we are in an emergency situation (bear chasing us in the woods, swerving in traffic to avoid an accident) our cortisol levels increase, helping the body to survive by increasing our muscle contraction, our heart rate, our breathing; essentially making us ready to deal with the threat. After the threat passes, our body is supposed to return to a normal resting state. Nowadays our modern lifestyle is constantly triggering the stress response even when we are not in danger, telling the body that the bear is around the corner, so stay alert! These days it is unlikely that we are about to get eaten by a bear but meeting deadlines, caring for children or elderly parents, trying to pay the bills on time all trigger the stress response.
Stress is a driving factor in unhealthy weight gain (due to stress coping behaviors like overeating but also hormone changes that produce a “spare tire” weight gain), early aging, heart disease and cancer. Increase cortisol affects our immune systems, raises our blood sugar, disrupts our sleep cycles and can trigger other hormonal difficulties (menopause, PMS, erectile dysfunction).
High cortisol individuals are often overstimulated, restless, and enjoy the highs of things like intense exercise and deadlines. Over time, the cortisol hormones can’t keep up with the intense demand, and symptoms of being “wired but tired” start to happen. People feel exhausted during the day, but still spend hours trying to fall asleep at night. When they do drop off, they wake up in the middle of the night with a racing mind and a pounding heart. Guess what comes next? Just plain tired. Can’t get enough sleep, enough coffee, no interest in anything except the couch. Most of the time these patients come to our clinic because there is nothing wrong with their blood tests but they know they aren’t depressed. They are simply exhausted, their adrenal glands depleted, and they continue to suffer from a variety of common but debilitating symptoms.
Checking your adrenal function is usually done with a saliva test. Blood work only rules out adrenal diseases like Cushing’s or Addison’s disease. Testing can be great but there are also many ways to start repairing the adrenals. Take time for yourself and focus on less “busy” in your life. We can’t escape from family and work demands but we can change how we respond and how we unwind. When I find myself mindlessly surfing a friend’s holiday photos on Facebook I have to give myself a mental shake and realize that this is contributing to my sense of being “busy” but isn’t a necessity in my day.
Find ways to unwind that work for you. Electronics are fun but still keep the brain busy sorting stimuli; books, moderate exercise, cooking, playing board games, walking the dog are great ways to simplify your day and slow down the pace. Repairing the adrenals with nutrition, herbal medicines, balancing other hormones and finding helpful stress reduction techniques are a great place to start flipping the switch from “fight and flight” to “rest and relaxation.” By working with your physicians to repair the stress response it is possible to recover a healthy adrenal gland.
Dr. Shelby Entner is a naturopathic physician at Vero Health Naturopathic Care in Vernon.