Is your stress response chronically elevated? It could be adrenal fatigue. We’ll tell you more about how to quiet your stress response and heal your adrenals below.
What is the most common response to stress?
I don’t know a mom that wouldn’t rate her stress level as “high.” In our fast, be-it-all, do-it-all world, we are left with limitless decisions and tasks despite our limited resources. Families are overburdened and overwhelmed in epidemic numbers.
Is this how we were meant to live? Why are we so stressed? Is there something we can do about it?
What are the stages of stress response?
Most of us notice we have stress but don’t know the stages of stress which are actually quite distinct. If you understand the stages any stressor follows, you can learn how to control and manage your stress responses to lower your overall stress.
Stage 1: Recognizing a potential stressor event.
Any outside occurrence can be perceived as a potential stressor. This comes in many forms and happens thousands of times in the course of one day. We get the mail, drive, cook, work, clean, and go throughout our daily lives. Any out of the ordinary happening or unexpected event triggers our consciousness to consider if this is a threat or stressor.
This is where habits can be helpful. Good habits help you make fewer decisions and free up your time and mental resources to make decisions on more important tasks. For some, this means making a weekly schedule of your tasks can decrease your overall stress levels.
Stage 2: Evaluating the potential stressor event.
Once a potential stressor is recognized, we begin to evaluate if it’s truly a stressor to our personal resources. What is a stressor to one person, is not to another. Our subconscious asks these two questions: is this a threat to me, and do I have the resources to meet this demand?
If we feel that the event could be a threat, or that we do not have the resources to handle it, we begin the physical and mental stress process. This event is labeled as a stressor, and even if it’s not significantly draining, we will treat it as such. This is why some individuals can handle a significantly stressful event and others are upset over an unexpected $4.50 bill.
Stage 3: The body prepares for the stress response.
If an event is labeled a potential stressor, the body begins to respond by firing up the nervous response to meet the stressor’s demands. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), also called the fight-or-flight response, prepares the body for extra physical demands and possibly a battle or quick escape.
The SNS signals the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis, to create and use more energy (ATP) because of the incoming event. This system communicates to the adrenals (small organs located above the kidney) to produce more cortisol, the hormone responsible for generating energy in our body.
While energy moves to our limbs and brain to physically and mentally prepare, it is moved away from our internal organs such as our digestive and immune systems, emotions, and sexual behavior.
Stage 4: The body acts on the stress response.
In this final stage of stress, the body prepares for the attack or flee. Pupils dilate, the heart rate increases, perspiration and breathing increases, blood clotting factors are sent to the appendages, and the blood moves from the internal organs to the limbs and brain.
Stage 5: The body perceives the threat as over, and scales back.
After the stressor’s demands are perceived as met, our parasympathetic system begins to take back over and lessen the effects of the sympathetic system. The parasympathetic system sends out messages to lower stress hormones, move the energy back to the digestive system and internal organs, rest, and to regenerate new energy for storage. It focuses on the long term, versus the short term of the SNS, survival.
Run or eat? Your “fight-or-flight” and “rest-and-digest” instincts
Why is the body’s response to stress called the fight or flight response? Because back in our non-modern days, we needed this type of reaction to stressors. Most of our serious threats were environmental and physical, and we needed to be able to act quickly to fight or run away from our enemy.
Today, not so much. The enemy is our busy schedule, rude boss, unruly toddlers, financial struggles, and on and on. Our stressors are more long term rather than short-term, and our SNS is activated for way too long. This wreaks havoc on our digestion, immune system, emotions, sexual health, and energy levels.
The vagus nerve and your stress response
When the parasympathetic system is employed, the vagus nerve is stimulated to send signals of relaxation, peace, and calmness to your body. When your vagus nerve is impaired, those messages aren’t sending.
Luckily, you can stimulate the nerve yourself to encourage the body to lessen your stress levels. Though there are a number of herbs which can help, simple relaxation techniques like mediation, prayer, laughter, and music or silence can make a huge difference in our vagal health.
How to improve your stress response
First, begin with managing your beginning stages of response. You don’t need to perceive every event as a threat. Mantras such as “I have all I need,” “God is my strength,” & “This too shall pass,” will create a baseline of peace and strength in your world, eventually reminding even your subconscious that it doesn’t need to jump on every possible stressor.
Work on developing a solid foundation of a good schedule, concrete community and help, financial stability, and self-awareness (via journaling, meditation, etc).
Then, implement these steps to lessen your stress response.
- Mindfulness – simply being aware of yourself, your response to events, and being present in the moment elevates your mindfulness. Being aware of the Four Agreements, as penned by Don Miguel Ruiz, can also help in your relations to yourself and others: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best.
- Deep and slow breathing – slowing your breathing can slow down your stress response and activate your parasympathetic system. Try 5 or 10 long breaths that fill your lungs all the way to your belly, clearing your mind and focusing on one object in front of you.
- Sole water – imbalanced minerals play a huge role in adrenal health. If you have consistently been stressed, you may be depleted. Sipping sole water can rejuvenate your mineral levels and increase your energy, creating a more positive stress response. Learn how to make sole water here.
- Adaptogenic herbs – in addition to a balanced, whole foods diet, adaptogenic herbs such as maca, ashwaganda, ginseng, holy basil, rosemary, milk thistle, and some mushrooms and can help your body cope with stress. Learn how to make your own adaptogenic herbal remedy here.
- Give back and connect – volunteering at a friend’s home, local shelter, or charity will broaden your perspective on your life’s stressors and teach you how to cope with new situations. Realizing there’s a world apart from our struggles can send huge ripples of change through our view of our own stress.
The Adrenals 101
If you have been undergoing chronic stress, your adrenals may actually have sustained some damage. Your adrenal system may be overactive, or underactive after years of stressful burdens. If you are consistently short-tempered, have a very low sex drive, don’t enjoy social engagements, do not sleep well, have a consistently high heart rate or high blood pressure, it may be time to give your adrenals some additional support.
Supporting your adrenals
Cortisol is the primary hormone that helps us adapt and handle stress in our day to day lives. Yes, it’s that important. And unfortunately, it can become low producing or get thrown off its daily rhythm leading to major issues for your mental, emotional, and physical health.
Test your adrenals via a four-point (four different times of the day, see below) saliva test and consider supplementing for the lows (adrenal cortex extract) and highs (zinc and/or holy basil). We like this supplement and this supplement of adrenal cortex. Of course, if you know your farmer, you can also ask for the adrenal glands and desiccate them yourself.
To build up your thyroid and adrenal health, you need a solid supply of iron. It’s important to get your iron tested before working on healing your adrenals (see test below in Additional Resources). To improve iron levels, work on healing your gut, detoxing your liver, and getting enough natural iron. Consider taking desiccated liver capsules.
Selenium is an important cofactor to thyroid hormone production. Selenium must be optimal for your thyroid and adrenals to function properly, as selenium prevents iodine from attacking the thyroid cells. You can consider a supplement like this one, or eating Brazil nuts, which contain high levels of selenium.
As of the 1990’s, salt and other processed foods are no longer required to contain iodine. It was replaced by its not-so-healthy friend bromine, which works against iodine in the body and actually makes other toxins, like fluoride, stick in the body.
Originally derived from the sea, iodine is also found in cranberries, strawberries, kale, and seaweed. Kelp is one of the best natural sources, though most of us need more than kelp to supplement our low iodine levels.
In fact, the RDA is about .003% of the amount most iodine researchers say we need today. Iodine (with selenium) is needed to produce enough thyroid hormones, which in turn generate good ol’ ATP (energy) in your body.
Iodine deficiency looks like lack of energy, thinning hair and eyebrows, brain fog, fatigue, low immunity, and breast tenderness and cysts.
See testing, supplementation, and dosing suggestions in the Additional Resources section below, and be sure to read our full post on iodine supplementation here.
There is hope! You may not need therapy or medication to manage chronic low or even high levels of stress. You can change your stress response with a little of self-awareness and some help from a few natural supplements.
How do you handle daily stress in your life?