We all experience stress at some points in our life. A little bit of stress (known as eustress) is actually quite beneficial for us. For example, feeling slightly stressed prior to an exam, important interview or sporting event actually gives us an edge and helps us perform better. However, we can experience extremely stressful periods in our life where we lose a loved one, get divorced, become bankrupt, or lose our job and this type of stress can have a major effect on our overall health. These are times I call ‘real stress’ – life changing episodes that may affect us on a long-term basis or maybe change us forever.
However, there is also what I call the ‘too busy’ stress. Women in the 21st century are stretched to the max. Prior to the advent of the contraceptive pill and changing attitudes towards females in the workplace, women were predominantly homemakers. Fast forward a few decades and women now have high pressure careers and are very much approaching an equal footing with men in the workplace. However, there is still a major expectation in society that women should also be mothers, maintaining a full family life as well as holding down a full-time job. Think about it. How many homes do you know where the father does all of the childcare, and I mean really does it – organises the kids from the time they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night? It’s usually the mum that supervises the everyday running of the kids even when they are working a full-time job. There is also the pressure that women should look a certain way. Social media is loaded with images of women with amazing six-packs, tight perky butts and the body fat of a 12-year old boy. Most of us barely have the time to cook a meal never mind get to the gym and work on the washboard abs. And housework – who does most of that in your house? The result of these changes is a bunch of over scheduled, frazzled women and hormone dysfunction is the ultimate result.
Let’s get back to that notion of ‘very busy’ stress. Say you wake up in the morning and you need to get the kids lunches prepared, but you’ve forgotten to go to the supermarket and there’s no bread left for little Suzy’s sandwiches. You jump in the car and the fuel light comes on as you drive out of the garage so you have to go fuel up before going to school, making you late for drop off and ultimately late for work. Your boss has called in sick and you’re in the middle of a big project so your work doubles for the day. You didn’t organise lunch so you need to rush out and grab a Subway. The afternoon is busy and you haven’t had time to think until it’s time to pick the kids up from day care. They’re not in the best of moods when you collect them and whine all of the way home although you need to drag them around the supermarket first to pick up supplies. You rush in the door and start cooking dinner but Suzy needs help with a school project so you need to stop half way to assist but that makes dinner late and the kids get even whinier. Your husband comes home in a mood and you have a small argument about who is tidying up the house later (you’ve done it every other night that week because he has a big project on too). You eventually get the kids to bed but you have personal admin to catch up on. You eventually sit down at 9.30pm and you don’t want to go to bed as soon as you are finished so you stay up later than you should and get to bed at 11pm. You’re up in 6 hours because you need to get to the gym. Sound familiar? There is no death of a loved one, job loss or divorce but you’re stressed to hell and experiencing a stress response.
The scenario above sounds like a normal family day for a working mum with young kids, but it’s actually having a profound effect on our hormones. When stressors come along we handle them physiologically through the release of 3 very important hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are very much the immediate reactions to stress. For example, say you have a near miss in your car and you drive off after the incident with your heart pounding, muscles tensed, sweat on the brow – that’s adrenaline. As well as an increase in heart rate, adrenaline gives you a burst of energy that helps you get out of the situation and focuses your attention on the danger at hand. When everyday long-term stressors occur, that’s when cortisol kicks in. This stress response has developed in humans over millions of years, and up until recent times it was designed as a temporary response to get us out of dangers way. Our brain would see the perceived threat of an attack by a predatory animal or by another human and kick in the cortisol response to get us on the move and out of harm’s way. The process starts with the brain noticing danger then it signals the hypothalamus area of the brain which in turn signals the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which triggers the release of cortisol from the 2 small adrenal glands, situated on top of the kidneys. The hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands are collectively known as the Hypothalamic, Pituitary and Adrenal Axis or HPA axis for short. The physiological effects of cortisol are all designed to get us on the move and give us the energy to escape or face up to the danger – this is known as fright or flight. It dumps glucose into the blood to ensure that we have enough energy to fight or flee, it suppresses the immune system and slows gut function so resources used for these systems can be redirected to other parts of the body, and heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and perspiration are increased. In prehistoric times, the stressor would be quickly resolved (or you would be eaten!), so all body systems would return to equilibrium quickly after the stressor had disappeared.
EFFECTS OF CORTISOL ON THE BODY
These days, we are much less likely to be attacked by a passing predator or aggressive human but our stress response remains the same. Lets return to the scenario of the working mum. Her HPA axis would have been under the pump all day – stressor, resolution, stressor, resolution, stressor, resolution. Exactly the same physiological responses would apply. Every time the perceived stress occurred glucose would be dumped into her blood, her gut would slow down, her immune system would suppress, her heart rate would increase, her blood pressure would increase, her muscles would become more tense and she would be perspiring on and off all day. A few quiet moments would allow her to recover but as soon as she was back on the hamster’s wheel, the same responses would occur and keep repeating throughout the day.
So how long does this go on without long term health consequences. The answer is everyone is different. Some can handle the pace for a prolonged periods of time and some feel the health effects almost immediately even after a few weeks. However, it catches up with everyone at some point. Eventually, the entire HPA axis reaches it’s limit and burnout occurs – you pretty much hit a wall because you can no longer produce the cortisol required to deal with everyday stressors. I have seen many clients in the clinic who have absolutely no idea how stressed they are. They come to me with terrible fatigue, depression, anxiety, muscle aches and pains, hair loss, persistent weight gain and a general lack of well-being and when I ask them if they are stressed they say no. However, when I ask them to describe their day, they rattle off the scenario I described above. It makes me feel exhausted just listening to them. I’ve heard the same story hundreds of times – women and men are running themselves ragged!
So how do we resolve the issue of cortisol dysfunction?
Good nutrition and supplementation can certainly help to calm down hormones and support the HPA axis. The first area I work on with any form of hormone dysfunction is blood sugar balance – when insulin is out, they’re all out. For example, imagine a night where you go out for a meal and opt for a large plate of pasta. You may also have a glass or 2 of wine with your meal and go for a tasty carb laden dessert for afters. At this point, your blood sugar is through the ceiling. There has been a big insulin response as the body sees the high glucose levels as an emergency. You head home after your meal and an hour or 2 after that you go to bed. You fall asleep quite easily (the effects of the wine), but after a couple of hours you are wide awake and everything you need to do for the next week is swirling around in your head. You’re awake and feeling a big anxious because your blood sugar has crashed due to the big insulin response and cortisol has been released to bring your blood sugar back up. The food you ate has driven you into a stress response.
There are also lots of vitamins and minerals required to keep the adrenals pumping out cortisol such as vitamin C, a wide range of B vitamins and magnesium.
However, big lifestyle changes (the really challenging ones) are the best prevention and cure. That could mean leaving a dysfunctional marriage, changing jobs, rearranging your entire social schedule, cutting back on your kid’s sports schedule (if you are over scheduled, they probably are too – it’s a personality thing!), cutting yourself off from toxic friends or family members, doing things that make you happy, insisting on relaxation time – the list is long. Whatever it’s going to take to get you back on track and off the cortisol/adrenaline/noradrenaline super-highway. These are the changes that people find incredibly challenging, especially if they are have been in the same pattern for a very long time.
The first step is to sit down for a quiet moment and think about your day. Are you always on the go? Do you take regular time outs? Is the family happy or is everyone so busy they can’t even answer that question? Are you struggling with weight, energy, motivation, and/or sleep? Do you feel well? These questions should help you identify if there is an issue. Don’t leave it until burnout occurs. You can make the changes you need to make right now.