How many times have you caught yourself answering the question “How are things?” with the answer “Busy, crazy busy!” It has become a common answer in our modern world. People are always rushing around, trying to squeeze everything on the to-do list into one day and feeling like there is never enough time to get it all done. Being completely booked, in demand every hour of the day can make us feel efficient and needed but it can also quickly turn into feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
When we talk about stress, we often consider events like death, divorce, sudden job loss and other significant events as being the most stressful. Physical and emotional stress can be both pleasant or unpleasant, the difference being how the event affects us. Having a baby, running a marathon, getting married, getting a new job..all of these events are exciting but can also bring a new level of stress to our lives.
Our stress response, also known as “fight or flight”, is an ancient biochemical message that is a lifesaving mechanism controlled by our adrenal glands. When we are in an emergency situation (bear chasing us in the woods, swerving in traffic to avoid an accident) our cortisol levels increase, helping the body to survive by increasing our muscle contraction, our heart rate, our breathing..essentially making us ready to deal with the threat. After the threat passes, our body is supposed to return to a normal resting state. The trouble nowadays is that our modern lifestyle is constantly triggering the stress response even when we are not in danger, telling the body that the bear is around the corner so stay alert! These days it is unlikely that we are about to get eaten but meeting deadlines, caring for children or elderly parents, trying to pay the bills on time etc. all make the body react the same way.
Medical research suggests that up to 90 percent of all illness and disease is stress-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stress is a driving factor in unhealthy weight gain (due to stress coping behaviors like overeating but also hormone changes that gives us that “spare tire” weight gain), early aging, heart disease and cancer. Increase cortisol affects our immune systems, raises our blood sugar, disrupts our sleep cycles and can trigger other hormonal difficulties (menopause, PMS, erectile dysfunction).
The early signs of chronically elevated cortisol can look pretty good in the beginning. Often these people can tackle nearly anything and still have room on their plate for more. Overstimulated, restless, they often seemed “wired” and enjoy the highs of things like intense exercise and deadlines. Over time, the cortisol hormones can’t keep up with the intense demand and symptoms of being “wired but tired” start to happen. People feel exhausted in the day, but still spend hours trying to fall asleep at night. And when they do drop off, they wake up in the middle of the night with a racing mind and a pounding heart. Guess what comes next? Just plain tired. Can’t get enough sleep, enough coffee, no interest in anything except the couch. Most of the time these patients come to us because there is nothing wrong with their blood tests but they know they aren’t depressed. They are simply exhausted, the adrenals glands have left on vacation and taken all of the cortisol with them.
So now what? It’s easy to understand how we get to this place, especially after years of good and bad stressors. Both men and women are equally affected but usually women are quicker to seek help. Since the cortisol levels affect other hormones most women will notice a connection to their female hormones, affecting PMS, fertility or menopause. Most men feel a lack of vigor, a decreased interest in sex and often start to become “grumpy old men” before their time.
Start correcting these stress related issues by addressing the stresses in your life. We can’t just escape from family and work related pressures but we can change how we handle them. Start by setting up more reasonable expectations for yourself and others and ask for help. Assess your priorities and then eliminate the tasks that you don’t enjoy or are not absolutely essential. A lot of our “busyness” is often self-imposed. For example, when I found myself mindlessly surfing a high school associate’s Facebook vacation pictures and realized that it wasn’t relaxing but simply contributing to my “I’m so busy working on the computer today” feeling I literally had to step away from the computer. Try not to fill your day with tasks like checking texts, emails, Facebook (sorry Facebook!) when you have a busy work day ahead of you.
Give yourself an unscheduled hour every weekday and don’t fill it with busy work. Lie down on the couch, pet the dog, read a book or use the time to do something healthy for yourself like cook a good meal or go for a walk. And, right now, put down this article and look around you for 30 seconds and take a few deep breaths. We live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Take some time to explore the Okanagan, dip your toes in the lake, climb a hill and take in the view. The reason we live here is for the lifestyle so allow yourself time to enjoy it.
Have you recognized yourself in any of these descriptions? There are so many ways we can start to change the way we handle stress in our lives but there are also many natural options to help correct the imbalances that stress has caused in our health. Address your stress issues and start to repair the cortisol imbalances today with lifestyle, nutrition, herbal and natural hormonal support. You can get off the path of exhaustion and burn-out with proper medical support and healthy stress reduction techniques.