What is stress & why it’s important
Most of us are probably very familiar with this term. ‘I’m stressed’, ‘this is so stressful’, ‘I need to reduce my stress levels’, etc.. When we experience this feeling of stress, our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol from a couple of small glands called the adrenals. Cortisol helps us react quickly by dilating our pupils, increasing circulation & blood pressure and keeps sugar in our blood for energy to act in an instant. We often refer to these reactions as the ‘fight or flight response’. Basically it’s the opposite of rest & relaxation.
The truth is, however, stress is a normal occurrence in day-to-day living. Our bodies have been primed to deal with acute stress (like running from a bear for a few minutes), but they don’t do well with constant daily stressors (for example: traffic on the way to work, quarterly review meeting with your boss, arguing with your partner at home, staying up late to finish a presentation for the following day).
Our modern lives have amped up our stress levels which has left people tired, unable to sleep, moody & gaining weight even by eating less. This is probably the most common reason why a patient will come into my office to see me. Coffee is no longer the solution.
If you stop for a moment and think about your stress levels (0=no stress, 10= extremely stressed), is your number greater than a 5/10 on most days? Even if you’re feeling less stress recently, have you experienced a period of high stress in the past? A few months or years of ongoing stress can take its toll on the body several years later. Here’s how to find out how well your body is managing:
The one test you should run
Cortisol testing is one of the best ways to understand your body’s response to stress. Although you can measure it in the blood, saliva has been shown to be a more accurate means of checking cortisol levels in recent years.
It’s also important to note that cortisol levels vary throughout the day. Some of us are tired when we wake up, others crash around 3pm. Taking 4 samples of cortisol within a 24 hr period gives the best indicator of how well your adrenal glands are managing.
What the results mean
This can mean 2 things: first, you aren’t under much stress at all (very rare!), or second, your body is in the ‘adaptation’ phase of adrenal fatigue. This means you feel ok overall, but you don’t find you feel as good as you once did. Most patients that I see with these levels are under a moderate amount of stress but it’s still early on enough for your body to cope with the increased demand. If you don’t start to manage the stress at this stage your cortisol levels will eventually drop and lead to the exhaustion phase.
This usually occurs when your body has been under significant stress for some time. Otherwise known at the ‘exhaustion’ phase of adrenal fatigue, your body just can’t keep up with the go-go-go way of daily life.
This is the first stage of high stress. You may feel good overall, but things like sleep and weight may start to become an issue. Many people report feeling ‘wired but tired’. This is the easiest time to treat and correct your adrenal issues (though many people don’t think they have a problem with their adrenal glands)
What to do next
Are you curious about your cortisol levels? Work with your naturopathic or functional medicine doctor to get this hormone tested! Depending on what your results are, the course of treatment will vary. Once your adrenals are balanced you can look forward to a better mood, balanced weight, more energy and slower aging (who doesn’t want these??).
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