The holidays are coming! Am I the only person who genuinely enjoys this time of year? I could do without the hustle, I guess, but I love the holiday cooking and sharing food and family time. If the holiday season stresses you out, take a deep breath and read why stress ruins your health and what to do about it.
I believe that chronic, unabated stress is the initial cause of imbalance in the body, and prolonged imbalance prevents your body from achieving homeostasis, eventually leading to disease. When your body’s daily jobs (like detox & immune integrity) are compromised due to hormonal and metabolic imbalances created by stress, over time, symptoms result –and may turn into chronic illness. Our bodies are not designed for chronic stress. We are built for fight or flight: when a stressful situation arises, our adrenal glands flood our system with cortisol, our main stress hormone, in preparation for a fight (or for running away– a flight). After the event ends, we can begin to relax and hormone levels drop again – dangerous situation over now!
This isn’t the case in modern life. We run in fight or flight mode on a daily basis, burning the candle at both ends, skimping on sleep and diet, without proper down time. Sitting in traffic, fighting with your spouse, not getting enough sleep, eating too much sugar– all these factors are interpreted as stress by your body. Cortisol levels rise and stay chronically high, and the body cannot keep up with the demand for the production of high levels of cortisol. You eventually burn out. You might feel over-stimulated and “wired” in the beginning phases of chronic stress due to high cortisol, or you may drink too much coffee to get an artificial high to power through stressful times. Eventually, as your adrenals burn out, you may gain weight, feel fatigue, depression, sleep difficulties, menstrual irregularities, or anxiety. Cortisol is a fat storage hormone, so when it’s artificially high, your fat burning metabolism is off, and you may start to gain fat around the midsection. Your body diverts all its energy and hormonal reserves into making cortisol to keep you going during chronic stress, so other hormone levels begin to suffer. This is one reason women experience menstrual irregularities during stressful periods.
Your adrenal glands, which produce cortisol and other hormones, are a critical factor in maintaining a healthy stress response, and they also govern your sex hormones and your immune system. You may feel run down or become more susceptible to illness or digestive issues during stressful periods. If you’re not getting enough sleep, even worse: the immune system is most active at night, between 10pm and 2am. It scavenges for abnormal cells, and liver detox is most active (removing toxins from the system). Melatonin, a powerful antioxidant, is produced at night in the dark. It’s no wonder those who work the night shift have higher rates of cancer. That’s why you feel run down when you’re low on sleep. Additionally, the body produces more cortisol to give you a boost when you’re short on sleep. High cortisol disrupts blood sugar, making you crave carbs/sugar and increases inflammation. Read: weight gain. So, get to sleep for goodness sake.
The majority of your immune system is in your gut, and high levels of cortisol can disrupt the mucosal lining of the digestive tract that keeps invaders away. This is another reason you’re more susceptible to illness (and digestive disturbance) when you’re under stress: your immune barrier is down. It’s like no firewall protection.
What to do about it? We all have stress. We all have bills to pay, families to tend to. This time of the year is the most stressful for many folks. The best advice I can give, besides getting good sleep– 8-9 hours ideally– is to make time for yourself. If you’re one of those people who works 60 hours a week and has a full social calendar or has to be doing something every minute of the day, stop it. Something has to give. If your work schedule can’t give, compromise in other areas: take 10 minutes in the AM for deep breathing to relax the central nervous system. Take a relaxing epsom salt bath at night. Get massage therapy to relieve stress. Adhere to a schedule as much as possible (rise and go to bed at the same time every day) and don’t over-exercise. Eat impeccably: too much sugar/booze/processed foods cause inflammation that raises cortisol. Take breaks during the day and go for short walks to rest the mind. We’re not designed to sit at a desk for 10 hours. Focus on organic meats, lots of veggies and leafy greens, good fats like coconut oil (anti-viral), probiotic foods for healthy digestion (raw kraut, kefir, or take a probiotic), stop the coffee and switch to green tea, and cut out sweets and booze (or save for special occasions. No, Tuesday night is not a special occasion).
This time of year particularly, pause and think about what the holidays mean. Be thankful for what you have. Ask for help before you break your neck running around trying to entertain and shop. Make lists. Prioritize. Don’t make it hard on yourself. Simple is always best.
If you’re going through a particularly stressful time, whether good or bad stress (getting a new job is great, but it’s a stress!), consider adding in some adrenal supportive herbs. I like the Gaia adrenal herbal blend that contains rhodiola, ashwaganda, holy basil, and Schisandra berry. All excellent adrenal tonics. Take extra vitamin C, used in high concentration by the adrenals, and take B vitamins, needed to maintain healthy nervous system function.
In my practice, I use saliva testing to gauge adrenal function. It reveals information about your cortisol levels/adrenal function, and I’m then able to design a customized program for my clients based on the results. It takes several months to restore adrenal function. Most critical to adrenal health is diet and lifestyle. Take it easy on yourself out there. Think positive and set a good intention this holiday season. If you start to freak out, center yourself with some deep breathing. Works better than vodka, and your body will thank you.
Read More: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky
Adrenal Fatigue: the 21st Century Stress Syndrome, by James Wilson
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.