We’re all exposed to stress. It’s part of life. Death, divorce, marriage (positive stress counts, too!), having a baby, working too long and hard, not sleeping enough, chugging coffee, hours-long commutes, falling off track on eating well, too much sugar, too many stimulants, pain and inflammation.
Stress is inevitable. But it’s how you handle it that makes a difference. I work with many people who have chronic, unabated stress that has piled up and had a cumulative effect in the end, leading to some serious fatigue and hormone imbalance. Once I’ve helped them address adrenal fatigue and overcome the hormone imbalance and digestive woes that can result from chronic stress, the question I get is, “How can I prevent this from happening again?”
Recently I went through a very stressful period that included the death of a parent, an injury, and a number of other stressors along the way. At times, I thought to myself, “How am I going to get through this period and keep my business intact?” Because I own and run my business, I cannot take paid time off. I felt drained and saw bad behaviors cropping up: drinking too much wine to cope; eating foods I normally won’t eat because they don’t serve me well; eating too much sugar; drinking too much coffee; exercising too much for stress relief. I felt anxious, off balance, stressed and inflamed from poor diet and lifestyle choices. My back and shoulders ached. I had gone through this many years ago while working full time and attending school at the same time, and I really burned myself out. I experienced panic attacks and severe adrenal fatigue and hormone imbalance as a result. I didn’t want to go through that again.
Our bodies are incredibly adept at getting us through stressful periods. Our adrenals secrete more cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, to keep us alert and able to handle additional stress. This is a normal, healthy stress response. But when stress runs chronic and unchecked, and cortisol remains elevated as a result, hormone imbalances and inflammation can occur as a result. Symptoms start to crop up. You may feel wired yet tired, anxious, depressed, have trouble sleeping, or crave sugar. Many of my clients start to feel exhausted, yet they power on, chugging coffee and skimping on sleep, not listening to their bodies because they have too many commitments. I understand that, believe me, but they end up ruining their health in the end, and is that worth it?
So here is the critical turning point. You have a choice. If you feel yourself going down the stress path, or you know you have a stressful period ahead of you, or you’re in the thick of it right now, there are ways to support yourself and your health so you come out the other side with your health intact. Here are my strategies.
How to Support Yourself through Stress
- SLEEP. This is my single biggest recommendation. Above all, try and get 8 hours of sleep, and take a nap if you are working late hours. Make sleep your top priority. Chronic lack of sleep is one way to crash and burn, and your body perceives sleep deprivation as a stress. If you have a tendency toward stress-induced insomnia, here are some sleep strategies to help. Finally, try this nutraceutical to help you get some sleep during stress if nothing else is working.
- Say no. Don’t overcommit. Your responsibility to first to yourself to stay healthy, then to your family. Honor those first. It’s ok to say no.
- Adrenal support. I recommend taking adaptogenic herbs during stressful periods. They’ll help support a healthy stress response so you won’t burn out your adrenals and suffer from the bad side effects of high cortisol. I like the GAIA all herbal formula, or this one is a combo of herbs and nutrients that works great.
- Self care: Take some time out for yourself at some point, even if you are working 80 hour weeks. Get a massage. Get acupuncture. Spend 20 minutes at a day spa. Anything to relax and restore. Get out in the sun for 15 minutes every day. If you can, schedule a day or a half day to unplug completely to refresh your mind and infuse yourself with good thoughts.
- Meditation, deep breathing to relax your sympathetic nervous system and mitigate the fight-or-flight response that comes with stress. Count 7 breaths in and 8 breaths out. Repeat. We tend toward shallow breathing and tightness during stress, and this exercise helps relaxation and oxygenation.
- Moderate exercise: Get some activity if possible, but don’t overdo it. Try some yoga or a walk or even some interval training to burn off excess cortisol.
- Pay attention to your diet: it’s easy to throw in the towel and stop focusing on eating good food if you’re in the middle of a crisis or work is imploding. But this is the time to focus on supporting yourself as best you can with good nutrition. You have an increased need for protein, B vitamins, and minerals during stressful times, so get plenty of organic animal protein. If your appetite is suffering (I tend to lose my appetite completely during stressful times), stick to easy-to-digest foods like smoothies, bone broth, and cooked root veggies. Make the crock pot your friend, or eat from the hot bar at Whole Foods if you don’t have time to cook. Try not to skip meals so your blood sugar stays stable. Stress causes a rise in cortisol, which raises blood sugar, so that’s one reason you may have sugar or carb cravings during stress. If you want to plow through a bag of potato chips, think about alternatives that are higher in good nutrients: make some sweet potato chips with coconut oil and plenty of sea salt. Indulge in some dark chocolate, which boosts mood.
- Don’t overdo the sugar and booze: It’s easy to reach for cookies or wine to dull out stress or pain. Don’t make a habit of repeatedly overdoing it. It’ll make you feel worse, and the sugar and booze hangovers deplete you of B vitamins, which are especially important to help your body adapt to stress. Alcohol can increase anxiety and worsen the stress on your body.
- Listen to your body: If you need to slow down or be alone, try to honor that. Obviously during stressful periods of work this may not be possible, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, try a walk alone or do some journaling to reconnect with yourself.
- Support good digestion. When you’re under stress, your body diverts energy away from involuntary processes like digestion. Cortisol surges can trigger diarrhea. So, chewing thoroughly, eating slowly and mindfully, and taking a probiotic and a digestive enzyme can help support digestion and absorption.
- Essential oils can help! I relied heavily on my oils during both the death in my family and my injury. I used lavender to help sleep, peace & calming (a blend of calming oils), stress away (a blend specifically designed for stress), and valor (a blend designed to boost courage and well-being). Inhaling or diffusing the oils creates immediate calm and wellbeing and boosts immune function.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.