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    Stress: Why Does it Happen and How to Manage it?

    Posted by: Gillian Day BHSc. Comp Med, Adv Dip Nat, AFMCP Grad

    Stress: Why Does it Happen and How to Manage it?

    Stress is a very common challenge for so many of my clients where they feel overwhelmed, under a great deal of strain and unable to cope with the daily pressures in life. These pressures then manifest as physical symptoms – e.g. bad digestion, insomnia, anxiety and so much more. Whilst we all feel stressed from time to time, so many people are living with chronic (long-term) stress. Where they are repeatedly exposed to different stressors for an extended period of time. The body’s stress response system is simply not designed to be constantly activated and when this occurs, the impact on our health and well-being can be significant.

    what do our stress glands do?

    • Help us produce optimal amounts of sex hormones – if you have too many stress hormones – you cannot have healthy sex hormones
    • Modulate, or balance our immune system and inflammatory response
    • Controls the sleep-wake cycle
    • Important in digestion – helps with CHO metabolism and pancreatic function – too many stress hormones can increase insulin production. Too much insulin in the body can increase testosterone and the risk of contracting PCOS.
    • Helps control blood pressure
    • Helps with thyroid hormone metabolism and conversion. Having too many stress hormones can suppress T4 production and weaken the conversion of T4 to active thyroid hormone, T3

    Why do we get stressed?

    When we encounter anything our body believes to be stressful, our nervous system and adrenal glands send hormonal signals such as cortisol and adrenaline to our body so we can prepare a response. The types of symptoms we feel when we are stressed; such as shallow breathing, faster heart rate, or even a nervous bowel movement are all responses designed to increase our chances of survival. This is a very primal response and is also known as ‘fight or flight’. This fight or flight response system was necessary thousands of years ago when we were faced with very immediate threats, like being eaten by a sabre tooth tiger. However, in our modern-day jungles, threats are no longer as severe. Threats may come from a work deadline, a fight with our partner, peak hour traffic, and even from foods! Modern day threats are generally more constant and they can have an extremely negative impact on our health and wellbeing. The stress response in itself is not harmful. It can actually be beneficial. However, the more intense or frequent our stressors and reactions become, the more we constantly feel on edge. This is where stress is harmful.

    The key take away here is, no matter what the stress – i.e. whether it’s a work deadline, a McDonalds Big Mac meal (yes…..this will cause your body to be stressed), or if you smoke; the stress response is the same.

    stress symptoms

    If you are feeling stressed, it is very likely that you have experienced some of the following psychological and physical changes:

    • Mood swings, feeling irritable and constantly ‘on edge’
    • Feeling short tempered, prone to anger, and generally over emotional
    • Having racing thoughts and feeling anxious
    • Constant worrying
    • Loss of concentration and focus
    • Muscular aches and pains
    • Feeling dizzy or nauseas
    • Increased heart rate/palpitations
    • Flare ups of eczema or rashes – as the immune system is compromised
    • Constant cold and flu – again as the immune system is compromised
    • Appetite fluctuations – not feeling hungry and then famished. The body shuts down digestion almost immediately when under stress, so it can focus on more important physiological functions, such as an increased heart and breathing rate to potentially prepare the body for attack. After the stressful period, the body may go into ‘recovery’ mode where appetite is increased and food cravings may take over. Unfortunately at the same time, your metabolism will slow down considerably to conserve energy and you will be more likely to store fat (particularly around the abdomen).
    • Insomnia
    • Maintenance insomnia – being able to get to sleep, but you can’t stay asleep
    • Increased blood pressure
    • Challenges with blood sugar – e.g. crashing and needing a sleep after lunch
    • Exhaustion

    These are all ‘warning’ signals that the body isn’t happy. If we don’t listen to these signals then perhaps the messages the body gives us will be louder. Conditions including;

    • Depression, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, recurring urinary tract infections (UTI’s). If you are stressed all the time; your immune system cannot function as well as it should!
    • Impotence
    • Chronic insomnia
    • Pupils generally quite large
    • Challenges with memory and all over cognitive function
    • Menopause – early onset and premature ovarian failure

    Physiologically, these messages tell us that the cells of the adrenal glands have literally run out of the building blocks to make stress hormones and homeostasis, or equilibrium in the body is lost. Can we take out all of the stress in our lives? Absolutely not. My question to clients is not; what can you do to eliminate your stress? It’s more, what can you do to help your body handle stress better?

    • Eat better?
    • Sleep better?
    • Laugh more?
    • Do nothing more?
    Can you do just 1 of these things more?

    stress management

    SAY No to

    • Alcohol
    • Sugar
    • Caffeine – in all of its beautiful shapes and forms. Nothing is more of a daily abuse for the adrenals than coffee.
    • Carbohydrates. The higher the refined CHO’s, the higher the ‘GI’ of the meal and the higher the refined oils (e.g. vegetable), the higher the cortisol. So we can see a direct relationship between food and stress!
    • Gluten as it is inflammatory in nature.

    say Yes to

    B vitamins 

    The body is unable to store B vitamins, therefore a regular daily intake is required to support optimal health. B vitamins provide the body with energy during and after a period of stress.

    Vitamin C

    Required as we store vitamin C in our adrenal glands. Vitamin C can support healthy adrenal-stress hormones, particularly healthy cortisol levels.


    Magnesium is involved in hundreds of reactions in the body. We need it for good quality sleep, to help us deal with stress, make and use energy effectively and balance hormones. However, most of us don’t get nearly enough magnesium each and every day. Our food and farming techniques have dramatically changed. Plus, manufacturing and processing of our foods all decrease the magnesium content. In addition to this, our modern lifestyles that include high stress, poor sleep, and high intensity exercise, as well as increased caffeine and sugar intake all contribute to ‘dumping’ magnesium out of the body, leaving us with low levels. For sleep, magnesium as a pill, potion, lotion or bath additive is a great place to start and may be all you need to improve your sleep cycle. Insomnia is a common symptom of magnesium insufficiency and supplementing with magnesium to maintain healthy levels of this critical mineral often leads to drifting off to sleep easier and staying asleep longer. As you can see, I’m a BIG fan and I hope you are too!

    Amino acids 

    A good quality vegan protein powder to provide all of the amino acids to build healthy adrenal hormones is required as those who are chronically stressed generally don’t digest food that well.


    The most crucial of all amino acids for the adrenals is tyrosine as it helps to build healthy adrenal hormones.

    Herbal medicine

    As a practitioner there are 3 types of protocols I am considering. Adrenal tonic such as Licorice– to restore function to the adrenals  Adrenal adaptogen such as Withania, Rhodiola. Adaptogens help us come back to balance as quickly as possible. They also have a ‘sparing’ effect – e.g. if you have low cortisol, an adaptogen can up regulate, and bring it back to normal levels. If you have high, we can down regulate and bring it back to normal levels. They will never effect the body more than required – so they’re fantastic for long term use Whole body Tonics such as Tribulus or Korean ginseng to help my clients just ‘feel’ better and start to cope better with the stress. Physiologically, whole body tonics increase the release of adaptation energy and some people can feel the effects after just 1 dose. Finally, in the most complex cases of stress, I am also thinking about the quality of sleep. Are they suffering from insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks or depression? If so, a nervine such as valerian or kava to support the autonomic nervous system. Lastly, is their immune system affected, always start with Echinacea!!

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