I recently saw Amber to address her sleep, energy and weight gain issues. Amber was a senior consultant to one of the big four banks. She had three children under the ages of eight and she worked full time. She was very conscientious about her health and made exercise a priority. She would hit the gym at 5.45am Monday to Friday and she was a smoothie, soup and salad girl. Her diet was great.
When I was reviewing her health I asked all the usual questions about stress load and how well she managed it. Amber was clear: "Stress is not a factor in my health, never has been." She said she managed stress well and it was never overwhelming. This was duly noted.
When I referred her for testing we checked her stress hormones. The results told a different story.
Amber’s morning stress hormone levels were peaking way above the reference range. On the day she had blood taken, she had not had a coffee or exercised beforehand and she did not have a needle phobia. Amber had her blood taken on a Saturday morning when she was at her most relaxed.
Yet, despite this anecdotal evidence suggesting stress was not a problem for Amber, her blood test results told a different story. On paper, her body was perceiving a big danger like standing on the edge of a cliff. Amber was not consciously registering her stress. The manifestation of her stress was insomnia, energy slumps throughout the day and weight that was sitting around her middle, affecting her ability to fit into her favourite jeans.
Stress is sneaky
Chronic stress is a big health problem that many people face today, whether they know it or not. Ongoing stress hurts your physical and mental health as well as the health of your relationships with those around you. The symptoms of stress can make life very difficult. To make matters worse, the causes of it are everywhere. Career, finances, safety, family, even our health can be a trigger.
The end results of being in an almost constant state of stress looks like this.
- Poor sleep and frequent waking
- Waking tired and feeling tired in general
- Poor concentration and focus
- Weight gain (especially around the middle)
- Mood issues such as feeling short fused, irritable, angry, anxious and/or depressed
- Diffuse hair loss (typically occurring three months after a major stressful event/injury)
- Digestive problems like excessive burping, reflux, bloating or pain that leads to nutrient deficiencies
- Recurrent respiratory infections
Now that we know what the outward signs of stress look like, what causes us to be stressed?
How stress works
Our adrenal glands are responsible for the stress response and their job is to alert us to danger. That’s right. You never know when a sabre tooth tiger is going to chase you down the street! Our brains are hardwired for that stuff.
When our body detects a stressful situation we release adrenaline to cope with it, and that’s a good thing. It makes us productive and energetic when we need to be. But it becomes a problem when we constantly release adrenaline to get us through the day, every day. That eventually leaves us exhausted and leads to the health problems listed above.
The bottom line is, adrenaline is important and helpful, but relying on it to get us through the day creates longer term problems. That’s why managing stress is so important along the journey.
Are you stressed?
Amber did not draw the connection between stress and her sleep, energy and weight gain problems. Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help you to work out if stress is affecting you.
Is my sleep a problem?
Sleep is affected when high stress levels cause a drop in melatonin. When cortisol levels are high, melatonin levels can be low, and that is why sleep is affected.
Am I irritable or short fused?
Consistently high adrenaline output depletes your feel good and reward hormones, serotonin and dopamine, by robbing you of the nutrients needed to make those neurotransmitters.
Do I get coughs and colds often?
If you are sick on a regular basis that could be because stress is suppressing your immune system. That means you create fewer white cells to fight infections.
Am I overweight?
Without getting too technical, high cortisol leads to weight gain over time because stress causes blood glucose levels to remain high. Often that weight gain is being carried around the waistline.
If you answered ‘yes’ to one or all of these questions, it could be time to consider treatment.
How to manage stress
The most obvious treatment is to remove the cause. For Amber that would mean giving up her fulfilling job and moving to a tropical island to live with her young family. But if that’s not a practical solution for you (and it was not an option for her), there is a range of other treatment options.
The do-it-yourself options include:
Ensure you are exercising most days of the week for at least 30 minutes and aim to do a combination of strength and conditioning as well as cardio exercise. Walking counts.
Begin the day with a high protein breakfast (eg, eggs) and aim to have carbohydrates later in the day to regulate cortisol.
This is just time spent doing very little to recharge and get your nervous system in ‘rest and digest’ mode.
Time away from the cause of your stress
Schedule in regular time away from work or help with caring for young children so you can get some time to yourself.
Implementing a regular meditation practice, taking time to do things you enjoy like gardening, cooking, watching movies etc all help you rebalance.
If you are already implementing many of these strategies and are still struggling to get on top of your stress load then consider some testing, including a morning blood sample of your cortisol. This is a great starting point for understanding your actual stress levels and enabling a personalised approach to treatment.
Once we identified that stress was silently playing role in Amber’s health problems, we created an individualised treatment strategy that included diet, lifestyle, herbal and nutritional interventions. With that all-guns-blazing approach we got that stress under control. No tropical islands required.