In Part I of this quick look at chronic stress we answered the questions: “what exactly is cortisol?” and “what exactly is stress?” In Part II of The More You Stress, The More You Wilt, we’ll discuss what chronic stress can do to a healthy human and ways to rid yourself of its toxicity.
Despite the boom in “stress-reducing” and “time-saving” devices like iPhones, DVRs, fast food and that electric stimulation thing you put on your stomach to get “six pack abs” by just sitting and doing nothing, we are more chronically stressed than in any time in history. We are designed to handle stress. We are not designed to be exposed to stress ALL DAY, EVERY DAY.
We wake up in an exhausted state to an alarm [stress], eat a breakfast of pancakes, orange juice and margarine [stress], drive in traffic to work [stress], sit at a desk and stare at a computer screen all day [stress], drive home in traffic [stress], watch TV all night [stress], eat a typical, high-carb dinner [stress], then go to bed way too late [stress]. And we wake up and do it all over again. See anything peculiar about all of those things? Yeah -- they’re all self-inflicted and things you could avoid if you REALLY WANTED TO.
Healthy stress is a lot like cutting your finger. In a healthy body, the healing process snaps into action, heals the finger, gets it back to normal (homeostasis) and shuts down. But chronic stress is like cutting your finger, then in the middle of the healing process, taking a knife and cutting it in the same place, then again, then again, and again...and never getting back to homeostasis so your body is in a state of inflammation ALL THE TIME.
In my opinion, the greatest cause of over-stress in today’s society is the food we’re eating. Grains, sugars, vegetable oils, chemicals, food dyes and other “non-human” foods that so many of us eat everyday are not meant for our bodies to use and cause incredible levels of continuous stress in our bodies. Eating those things every now and then would have a much lesser effect.
One of the keys to a healthy existence is regulating stress and minimizing your exposure to it.
When our bodies are exposed to chronic stress for long periods (via too much exercise, too little sleep, too much worrying, etc), our brains start to pay the price. Neuroplasticity and Long Term Potentiation begin to decline --- wait, wait...say what, Rogers? Another way to say that is -- chronic stress begins to hurt your brain and can affect learning, memory and behaviour.
The brain is designed to focus intently on whatever it is that’s causing the stress. When this happens for long periods of time, the bodily functions that are slightly ignored during a healthy stress situation begin to really suffer the consequences -- leading to digestive issues, osteoporosis, memory loss, trouble focusing on important tasks, and high glucose levels. And if you don’t know why elevated glucose is bad, read this.
Managing cortisol (or stress) begins with understanding what makes it release too much and what keeps it present in healthy amounts and at the right times (like when you actually need it). Here’s a short list of things that make cortisol pump out of your adrenal gland -- in other words, here are things that oxidize that avocado that we left sitting out on the kitchen counter causing it to turn brown and rancid:
- sleep deprivation (something I'm currently experiencing with a newborn)
- Intense or prolonged physical exertion
- Severe trauma or stressful events
- Excess fat tissue
- Severe calorie restriction
Each one of these things on their own can potentially over-stress the body. Put them in combination with each other and you’re playing with a sure-fire recipe for some serious health problems.
And being overstressed is a downward spiral into the depths of achiness, sickness, and demise.
Let’s say you’re carrying around excess fat which we just learned causes stress, so you over-exercise and starve yourself because you think that spending a high intense hour on the exercise bike and not eating is the key to health, so you’re super tired, but you’re not getting good sleep because you’re starving at 10:30 at night and eat a bunch of crackers and peanut butter, which is causing you to sleep bad, which further adds to your stress and leads to elevated blood glucose levels which … see where this is going? Yeah -- it’s not good.
Cortisol also contributes to insulin resistance in skeletal muscle. It has been shown to contribute to infertility. It increases blood pressure.
Cushing’s disease is a disorder in which the body pumps too much cortisol into the bloodstream. Here are the symptoms of Cushing’s:
- rapid weight gain
- moodiness, irritability, or depression
- muscle and bone weakness
- memory and attention dysfunction
- sleep disorders
So even if you don’t have Cushing’s Disease, these are things that chronic stress does to the body.
But what about things you can do to maintain healthy cortisol levels? That’s a more fun list -- do something off of this list everyday:
- petting dogs -- seriously
- good sleep
- healthy, human exercise (moving slow, lifting heavy, stretching)
- positive attitude
- maintaining normal insulin levels by eating human foods
All of those things have been shown to reduce or limit cortisol production. Getting adequate amounts of Omega 3 oils and avoiding excess Omega 6s are also helpful in maintaining healthy cortisol levels. Omega 6s are found in grains, grain-fed meats, grain-fed dairy, vegetable oils like cottonseed oil, canola oil, soybean oil, and corn oil.
All those things listed in those bullet points above fall under the Four Pillars of the Simply Human Lifestyle, too! Remember that I’m not saying that we need to avoid stress at all costs -- HEALTHY LEVELS OF STRESS ARE GOOD -- it’s the chronic, continuous exposure that is so costly to our overall well-being.
Chronic or toxic stress doesn’t kill you overnight. It’s a long, daunting, drawn out process. Because of that, I believe the body allows it to happen because the effects sometimes don’t show up until well after our reproductive years.
If chronic stress had a major impact on us in adolescents or in our reproductive years, we would probably not be doing all the things that cause stress. Our genes would FORCE us to do non stressful things like eat human food and get good sleep because the gene that wanted to eat bad stuff, not sleep enough, drink cokes all day, and workout 25 hours a week wouldn’t be passed on because you’d be dead. But the way it’s set up -- all those things don’t actually kill you until later in life so we’re forced to deal with them or pay the long-term consequences. I choose to deal with them by trying NOT to deal with them.
WRAPPING IT UP
Here’s how I look at it. When we come out of the womb (which we all do) that’s us as avocados being cut in half. The key to a long healthy life is to avoid all of the elements that try to turn us brown and smelly in a very short time. Avoiding chronic stress is the equivalent of us being put in a sealed baggie and placed in the freezer. We’re still going to oxidize and turn brown, but it’ll just take much longer and we will actually enjoy the time we are all given on this planet.
And like the small flower, we will wilt if not put in a healthy environment, and once that little plant gets too sick and brown, no amount of sunshine or water will bring it back -- there IS a point of no return. Everybody has one -- they're just not all in the same place. Following the guidelines and pillars of the Simply Human Lifestyle will get you in that sealed bag and in a cold, ice box of some kind. We can all get there -- all you have to do is want to go.