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Are You Always Stressed?

Are you always stressed.jpgIn today's society, overflowing with regular demands and pressures, stress is commonplace. While stress can be helpful (termed eustress), if it is too high or remains elevated for too long it can have detrimental effects throughout the whole body.

Excess stress levels can damage every part of the body including the brain, heart, lungs, and digestive tract. That is why many physical and mental conditions are associated with stress. In fact, one of the greatest risks for heart disease is not high cholesterol (despite what drug companies tell you), but excessive, prolonged stress.

How does the stress response work?

Our stress response all starts in the brain. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that responds to stressful situations and releases a hormone called corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone then reaches another part of the brain called the pituitary gland, which then releases another hormone called adrenocorticotrophic releasing hormone (ACTH). ACTH then moves to a part of the body called the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are then responsible for releasing adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is the fast-acting stress hormone. Cortisol, however, can remain in the body for a fair amount of time and can eventually cause damage throughout the whole body. This process in the body is called the HPA axis (H = hypothalamus; P = Pituitary; A = Adrenals) and is also often referred to as the 'fight or flight stress response.'

What are the dangers associated with too much stress?

Stress is certainly not always bad and is actually an important part of our survival response. Imagine never getting stressed about things. Nothing would get done! And you will be the first person to get eaten by that big ferocious lion! The problem is nowadays, many people's stress response is turned on too often (or too intensely). Their HPA axis is too reactive, and this can lead to problems. Our bodies are just not designed to withstand this much stress hormone.

Unfortunately, for some people, they are born with a very sensitive stress response (or HPA axis). This means that small triggers can set off this process. For others, long-term demands at work or school, family stresses, financial problems, social pressures and health problems can sensitise our stress response. This can lead to poor sleep, depression, headaches, muscle pain and fatigue. A hyperactive stress response is also associated with numerous medical conditions such as heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, skin conditions, and even numerous cancers. For some people, a prolonged stressed response can overwhelm the HPA axis eventually leading to a lowered stress hormone production (remember we need stress hormones to function properly). Lowered stress hormones are often associated with chronic pain conditions, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Some anxiety disorders and types of depression are also associated with a lowered stress response.

How do you reduce the stress response?

    • 1. Minimise stresses in your life. While it is not possible to avoid all demands in life, if you are stressed all the time it will be useful to evaluate your life. Are there situations or people you should be avoiding? How can you reduce some of the pressures in your life? Do you really need that shiny red Ferrari or those name brand clothes?

    • 2. Learn to relax. This is easier said than done, particularly for people with a reactive stress response. However, it is possible to learn relaxation. It just takes practice. Find some good relaxation CDs, attend a meditation group or see a mental health professional for support.

    • 3. Eat regularly. While stress can increase cortisol (our stress hormone), going a long time without food also does this. If you are suffering from too much stress, then look at your diet. Eat every three to four hours and consume good, wholesome foods. The best meals are those containing a combination of natural, unprocessed complex carbohydrate, lean protein and healthy fats.

    • 4. Get good-quality sleep. Our body needs to sleep. Make sure you have a good sleep routine. Poor sleep will trigger the stress response. 

    • 5. Exercise regularly. While exercise initially increases the stress response, after a few hours it eventually lowers stress hormones.

    • 6. Take stress-lowering nutrients. There a number of high-quality nutrients that have been found to regulate the stress response and normalise cortisol levels. One nutrient backed up by solid clinical research is theanine. This is an amino acid from green tea which lowers cortisol levels and increases alpha waves in the brain. Alpha waves are associated with calmness and usually induced during meditation exercises. Rhodiola rosea is an herb that is also backed by good clinical research. It can lower stress levels and improves stress-related fatigue. The problem is that there a many poor-quality Rhodiola products out there so we recommendonly using high-quality rhodiola products, particularly those containing a European form of Rhodiola used in clinical research studies.

  • 7. Seek professional support. If you are suffering from chronic stress levels and feel you are unable to cope, seek support from a qualified mental health professional such as a clinical psychologist.