Managing stress is a key component of maintaining a healthy, balanced immune system. This can be an elusive thing to do because our bodies are wired to adapt to a variety of situations for short periods of time. However, we live in a world that feeds elevated cortisol.
Cortisol is the stress hormone responsible for the flight-or-flight response. Prolonged exposure to stress can start to feel “normal” to some people. Physical signs that we are experiencing stress may initially creep up on us gradually. And then they can become habits. Eventually, the physiological stress response can become an engrained negative feedback loop. Signs of stress can include:
- Feeling irritable or anxious
- Feeling more emotional than usual
- Difficulty making decisions
- Difficulty keeping track of things, misplacing things or forgetting appointments
- Change in sleep patterns, such as difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep, wanting to sleep more than usual
- Poor energy levels
- Unexplained pain
- Lack of appetite
- Craving sugar
- Craving salt
- Craving alcohol
A holistic body/ mind/ spirit approach is the most effective way to manage stress and restore balance. The two hormones most affected by high levels of stress are cortisol and serotonin. However, with prolonged exposure, stress can affect any hormone the body produces. As I said before, cortisol is the hormone responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps us stay on track and complete tasks (delay gratification). Serotonin also helps regulate the wake-sleep cycle, the digestive process, metabolism and appetite. Both cortisol and serotonin can affect mood.
Exposing yourself to 10 or 20 minutes of natural UV daylight every day can help your body regulate your wake-sleep cycle. This is really beneficial if your stress is disrupting your sleep. UV light also stimulates the body’s production of Vitamin D and Vitamin D promotes serotonin production.
There is also a popular grounding technique that involves walking barefoot in the grass. It is a romantic image associated with feeling carefree. And it really works! The Earth has a negative electrical charge that helps the body regulate the autonomic nervous system (rest and digest which is the opposite of fight-or-flight) and get in sync with its natural circadian cycle.
If you ever saw the movie “Legally Blond,” you might remember Elle Woods’ explanation as to why their client couldn’t be the murderer: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.” Endorphins, like serotonin, are released during physical activity and are both considered “happiness” hormones. So if you want to raise serotonin, start moving!
Begin with slow and easy movements so you don’t hurt yourself (you don’t need more stress!). I often recommend searching YouTube for 20-minute beginners’ yoga stretches or beginning tai chi routines that you can do in the comfort of your home. Or spend 20 – 30 minutes walking around your neighborhood. Swimming is an excellent form of exercise that puts less stress on the joints and is preferred by people with chronic pain issues. Cycling has similar benefits to swimming. You can start a routine to develop strength and endurance and then start switching up that routine with different forms of exercise. It only takes 20 – 30 minutes, 5 days a week to have a positive effect on your health and your mood.
Don’t Give In To Cravings
You don’t have to start out by turning your diet inside out to feel better. There are two big keys to begin of making changes that I have observed to be helpful. The first one is to bring more variety into your daily meals. For example, try vegetables you’ve never eaten before. Some may be a hit, while others will be a miss. But you tried! And you explored new ways of preparing food while you were at it. Or substitute milk with almond milk or rice milk. Different brands have different tastes and consistencies so some trial-and-error will be involved. Try them all before making a decision if this is a good alternative for you.
Secondly, it is so easy to eat sweets and salty snacks or indulge in excess alcohol or caffeine if they are sitting in your pantry or refrigerator. Clean all that out of your refrigerator now! Don’t buy them at the store next week or let your partner or family bring them home. This will require some boundaries that may be resisted at first. Persevere and don’t let up on the message that you are changing up your diet for the long-term health benefits.
Starting to change things up in your daily diet will make it easier down the road if bigger changes are required to achieve optimal health.
Monitor Your Thoughts
A diet isn’t just what you put in your mouth. It is also everything we take into our minds and hearts. So in combatting stress, it is important to be aware of your thoughts and what you let into your mind and thinking. Negative or violent televisions shows, movies and books will only reinforce negative patterns of fear and anxiety which increases cortisol. On the other hand, laughter really is good medicine because it increases serotonin and serotonin helps to naturally reduce stress. Whenever possible, redirect your thoughts towards happy experiences and happy memories.
A regular mindfulness, prayer or meditation practice is extremely beneficial for calming the mind and reducing cortisol because they can all calm the central nervous system. For that reason, all of these can help balance stress. Keep in mind that meditation and prayer do not have to be static activities. If sitting still makes you feel agitated, try walking a labyrinth or being outside while praying. For several years I practiced a form of open eye meditation. The process required that I sit in silence while focused on the teacher in the front of the room. It required me to actively concentrate on the process while filtering out distractions like sounds from outside or restlessness from other meditators in my peripheral vision. That concentration, in turn, quieted my mind.
Starting with the four steps I have outlined above is a good foundation for reducing your stress levels. If you do all four of these things regularly, you will have a better idea if you need additional intervention in the form of homeopathy, dietary supplements or prescription medication. As a Naturopathic Doctor, I usually recommend starting with the least invasive, most natural approach which includes the things you can do for yourself today, before moving on to more invasive or suppressive prescription medications.