You know the feeling…your heart rate picks up, your shoulders creep toward your ears, your temper shortens…
For most people, this stress sensation is a regular part of life. It’s just something we live with, and it’s only gotten worse in the last year. However, most people also know that chronic stress isn’t great for your health. But is there anything we can do about it?
Fortunately, the answer is a resounding YES! Once we understand how stress affects our health, there is a lot we can do to minimize its impact. Let’s get into it!
6 Ways Stress Impacts Your Health
I did a deep dive on how prolonged stress depletes your adrenal glands in this video and the long-term effects, but here is a summary.
1. Systemic Inflammation & Suppressed Immune Function
This one was in the news a lot last year, but it can be a bit confusing. Initially, stress ramps up your immune system and inflammatory response to help fight off threats. This eventually leads to chronic inflammation if you remain stressed for long periods of time.
Your body counteracts this by suppressing your immune system to about 40 to 70% below baseline, leaving you vulnerable to infection. What’s worse, when the next stressor comes around, your immune system goes right back on high alert.
This inflammatory rollercoaster increases the risk that your immune system will overreact and attack your own body, which is what triggers or worsens an autoimmune disease.
2. Decreased Thyroid Function
Chronic stress can decrease thyroid hormone production, reduce the conversion of thyroid hormones to their active state, keep them bound in your bloodstream, and contribute to thyroid hormone resistance. This leads to classic hypothyroid symptoms, such as weight gain and hair loss, and is why stress is a common underlying cause of thyroid fatigue.
3. Hormone Imbalances
Your endocrine system is one big, interconnected web regulating stress hormones, sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone), and thyroid hormones. When there is a disruption in one area, there’s a ripple effect in the others. For example, elevated stress decreases progesterone levels, which can lead to estrogen dominance.
4. Gut Microbiome Imbalances
Your gut microbiome is made up of trillions (with a T!) of microbes that help you digest and absorb the nutrients from your food, regulate metabolism and mood, and make up nearly 80% of your immune system. For optimal health, you want a thriving microbiome with as much microbial diversity as possible.
Unfortunately, there is a cyclical connection between stress and your microbiome where stress decreases gut flora diversity and low microbial diversity increases stress. This can lead to SIBO, Candida overgrowth, leaky gut, and many other issues.
5. Blood Sugar Spikes
Stress signals your body to produce extra blood sugar for a boost of energy. This is helpful if you’re foraging for food, not so much if you have a big work presentation. It causes erratic spikes in energy, drives up insulin levels, and increases your risk for insulin resistance and diabetes.
6. Weight Gain
Right after a stressful event, cortisol increases your appetite while slowing your metabolism in order to replenish your energy stores. Because insulin is also elevated during stress, these excess calories are more likely to be stored as belly fat. The inflammation caused by stress is also a major driver of weight gain.
How to Protect Yourself Against Chronic Stress
Now that you know why combatting chronic stress is so important, let’s focus on what you can do about it!
1. Audit Your Stressors
For an entire week, take note of any anytime you are stressed write down what’s causing it. If you’re dreading an upcoming social obligation, write it down. When you wake up worrying in the middle of the night, take note of what’s on your mind.
Once you’ve identified your stressors and how frequently they’re popping into your mind, determine what you can eliminate. What activities or tasks can you let go of, outsource, or simplify? Are there toxic relationships that need boundaries?
You won’t be able to eliminate all sources of stress, but every little bit helps! You may also find that each individual stressor is less overwhelming when your overall load is lighter.
2. Practice CONSISTENT Stress Relief
Since stress can’t be completely erased, the next best thing is to relieve it regularly. One big yoga retreat a year isn’t going to cut it!
Find stress relief outlets that you enjoy and are a good fit for your schedule so you can practice them consistently. This may look like a daily meditation and a monthly Zoom get-together with loved ones. Or it might be a daily run, Saturday morning hikes, and a monthly deep tissue massage. There’s no right or wrong way, just do what works for you!
If massage is a form of stress relief that works for you, we are thrilled to announce that we now offer massage therapy services in our New Hampshire clinic! To celebrate, your first massage session is 25% off and includes a free infrared sauna session!
3. Eat a Colorful Diet of Real Foods
Stress depletes your body, so it is important to refuel it with essential vitamins, minerals, and a healthy balance of carbs, fats, and protein. Try to avoid junk and snack foods that provide a quick hit of sugar or fat without any meaningful nutrients. They may make you feel better in the moment, but will leave you feeling sluggish down the road.
Prioritize a wide array of colorful fruits and vegetables, which are packed with antioxidants to combat the inflammation caused by stress. To replenish your gut microbiome, try incorporating flax and chia seeds, fermented foods, and apple cider vinegar for an extra boost.
4. Support Your Adrenals
You may also find adaptogenic herbs, such as ashwagandha, ginseng, holy basil, and rhodiola helpful for easing exhaustion and burnout caused by stress. They have been used for centuries to help the body respond to internal and external stressors.
I do not consider these to be a standalone solution to replace the lifestyle strategies above. Instead, I use an adaptogenic supplement called Adrenal Protect in my clinic as one of the many tools in my toolbox for helping patients restore an optimal stress response.
Just because stress has become the norm doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be proactive about relieving it! Making time for yourself and finding ways to recharge aren’t an extravagance, they are an essential part of wellness.
Grand Opening Special: 25% Off Massage + Free Infrared Sauna Session
We are thrilled to now offer massage therapy services in our New Hampshire wellness clinic and we’re celebrating with a relaxing and restorative offer you can’t resist!
Right now, when you sign up for your first massage you will get 25% off plus a FREE 30-minute infrared sauna session!
About the Author: Dr. Seth Osgood is a Doctor of Nursing Practice, Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner and Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) Certified Practitioner. Dr. Osgood received his post-graduate training in Functional Medicine through the IFM and from working with Dr. Amy Myers. He has helped people from around the world improve their health utilizing a Functional Medicine approach.
Want to work with Dr. Osgood and the GrassRoots team? Become a patient in our West Lebanon, New Hampshire Functional Medicine clinic, our Burlington, Vermont Functional Medicine clinic, or our Austin, Texas Functional Medicine clinic!