Stress. It forces us to adapt, to improve and bring about positive change. But long-term stress is not good for the human body and can potentially cause huge metabolic damage. Research shows that stress is implicated in many chronic conditions including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression.
How the stress response works.
The autonomic nervous system is divided up into 2 parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. ‘Fight or flight’ responses are part of the former. ‘Rest and restore’ responses like digestion and sleep occur as a result of the parasympathetic nervous system . These divisions serve to keep the body in balance, a state known as homeostasis.
The nervous system communicates with several primary organs to ensure homeostasis is maintained:
Hypothalamaus – This part of the brain receives the stimulus and decides whether the situation needs to be responded to (ie. the fight or flight response initiated).
Pituitary Gland – The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to secrete ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone).
Adrenal glands – ACTH from the pituitary gland stimulates the adrenal glands to start secreting cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline in order to prepare the body for fight or flight. These hormones increase heart rate, respiration, stimulate blood flow to the skeletal muscles and increase blood sugar levels. It also suppresses immune and digestive systems.
The 3 stages of stress
Alarm stage – The initial or acute stage of stress. Adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline are released by the adrenal medulla, increasing blood glucose, heart rate & force of contraction, blood flow to skeletal muscles, lungs and brain. (1)
Resistance – The body adapts to its new circumstances and returns to a normal or near-normal state of balance. If the body is unable to adapt, then the response progresses to the exhaustion phase.
Exhaustion – The adrenal glands are depleted, the nervous system is chronically overworked and exhaustion begins. However, this may not always end in fatigue. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, heart palpitations and dizziness are common symptoms of this phase.
What happens when stress becomes chronic?
As adrenal fatigue sets in and cortisol levels drop, it is common to experience low immunity, depression, blood sugar level dysregulation, weight gain, blood pressure irregularities, and gut dysfunction (including indigestion, heartburn, bloating, constipation, and diarrhoea).
Managing stress is possible. Diet and exercise should not be underestimated as powerful tools to support body and mind. Eating a varied diet, high in fresh foods and low in sugar and unhealthy fats, supports metabolism and provides essential nutrients. Take time out, at least 1 hour each day to do something relaxing. Switch off phones, laptops and tablets during this time and at least 1 hour before bed. Mindfulness and meditation are excellent ways to retrain your brain and nervous system to respond better under stress.
Natural remedies to support sleep, adrenals and nervous system
B vitamins are one of the best and most accessible remedies. Nourishing for the adrenals and essential for neurotransmitter synthesis, they are commonly used for managing stress, assisting sleep and reducing fatigue.
Magnesium is a calming and relaxing nutrient, used throughout the body to synthesise neurotransmitters, promote a restful sleep, support blood sugar levels, bone structure and energy production.
Vitamin C supports the adrenal glands and immune system and is effective for lowering cortisol, adrenaline and insulin levels (2).
There are an amazing variety of herbs that support the nervous system and the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Withania (Withania somnifera), Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and Rehmannia (Rehamnnia glutinosa) are some of the herbs that I use on a daily basis to gently rebalance and rejuvenate the nervous system.
Nervine herbs like Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) and Californian Poppy (Eschscholtzia californica) are great herbs to nourish the nervous system & support sleep.
(1) Hechtman, L. (2014). Clinical Naturopathic Medicine. Elsevier. Chatswood, NSW.
(2) Olayaki, L.A et al. (2015). Vitami C Prevents Sleep Deprivation induced Elevation in Cortiols and Lipid Peroxidation in the Rat Plasma. Nigerian Journal of Physiological Science. Dec 20;30(1-2):5-9