"If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment" - Marcus Aurelius
What is Stress?
Fatigue and lethargy are among the most common complaints affecting adults. Fatigue being the most common symptom associated with doctor visits. The feeling of fatigue is often connected with a syndrome called Adrenal Fatigue. In fact, symptoms such as anxiety, weak immunity, depression, poor memory, trouble concentrating, and difficulty losing weight are all signs of Adrenal Fatigue - which often is misdiagnosed.
Adrenal fatigue is caused by a disruption in ones HPA axis. HPA stands for hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands which are all responsible for regulating ones stress response. The HPA axis is very sensitive, once disrupted negative consequences can cascade throughout ones entire body. This disruption can negatively influence everything from energy levels and sex drive to memory and cognition.
Adrenal Fatigue has become a fundamental component of modern living. The reality is our bodies are more equipped to deal with life threatening danger than deal with the chronic low-grade stressors that encompass our daily lives. Think about ones ancestors that had to avoid predators vs current times where stress is a constant barrage of minor stressors like driving, paying debts, and social media.
Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens. — Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.
Out of life’s school of war — What does not kill me makes me stronger. - Friedrich Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols (1888)
These chronic pressures and stressors wear down our metabolism over time; ultimately leading to the symptoms referenced above. When our bodies are exposed to stress it goes through a natural physiological response called “Fight or Flight”. The “Fight or Flight” response is a component of your sympathetic nervous system. This response tells your adrenal glands to produce hormones allowing your body to respond to the stress appropriately.
Specifically, your adrenal medulla produces Epinephrine and Norepinephrine while your adrenal cortex produces Cortisol. This pathway is critical because an increase in the production of cortisol typically means there is a decrease in other vital sex hormones such as testosterone.
Stressors and Stress
The crucial distinction is that stress and the feeling of being stressed are distinct from stressors.
Stress is a physical reaction to something dangerous or challenging: Muscles tense, pupils dilate, respiration and heart rate increase, etc.
Stressed is an invented term to describe the combination of physical feelings and emotions that go along with a constantly elevated stress response: exhausted, frustrated, frantic, worried, anxious, on-edge, etc.
A stressor is a thing that produces a stress response: A bear chasing you or being fired from your job.
Stress management is arguably the most essential components to ones health and vitality. Not only does it regulate Cortisol and DHEA, it regulates all of ones sex hormones. Stress is the root cause to myriad dysfunctions and needs to be treated as such. Stress is the Hydra that needs to stamped out at its roots rather than attacking one head at a time. Though the stressors expressed above are mostly uncontrollable, there are some things that one can do on a daily basis to better manage stress and arm ones metabolism, HPA axis, and sex hormone balance.
The ability to manage stress is what allowed our ancestors to survive and evolve into who we are today. What once was an essential component to our survival is now detrimental to our health. No matter the severity of the stressor one undergoes the bodies response is the same. Our environments have evolved faster than we have. No longer are we chasing down prey or avoiding a predator; we are responding to the pressures of work, issues with family and friends, financial obligations, and the countless environmental stressors that we often don’t realize. This seems like a great trade off - who wants to run for their lives? However, our bodies have not evolved quickly enough to deal with the lack of physical exertion and stochastic stressors - we can handle “Fight or Flight” we can’t handle Constant Struggle.”
Cortisol can be negatively influenced through a process called the “Pregnenolone steal”. Pregnenolone is said to be the mother of all hormones in the body. Pregnenolone is needed to produce Progesterone, Testosterone, Estrogen, DHEA and Cortisol. Therefore, when Cortisol is elevated due to chronic stress it negatively influences DHEA, Progesterone, Testosterone and Estrogen. This negative influence can result in sex hormone imbalances that lead to poor sex drive, erectile dysfunction, muscle weakness, muscle atrophy, menstrual issues, and an increase in body fat. This is not something anyone wants to undergo.
Over the past decade Cortisol has become more and more prominent. The rise in symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, chronic pain, and low sex drive have resulted in many peer-reviewed studies on Cortisol and stress that look to explain why these symptoms are plaguing our population. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that increases blood sugar, suppresses the immune system, fights inflammation, decreases bone formation, and helps mobilize fat, protein and carbohydrates when it is released in the appropriate amounts.
Unfortunately, when stress is constant Cortisol can become chronically elevated which results in negative implications to ones body. One of these negative implications being a disruption in blood sugar. Cortisol naturally increases blood sugar and insulin resistance. This can lead to weight gain and eventually diabetes if not controlled. Insulin resistance can lead to poor memory and trouble concentrating. Serotonin is decreased from an increase in Cortisol leading to food cravings, anxiety and depression.
Stress is inevitable, so is the effort to manage it. There are positive and negative ways to deal with stressful moments, but the best practice is to pick the ones that not only release stress, but also help by adding positivity. Not all stress is bad, in fact, many short bouts of stress can be very healthy. Exercise, fasting, and extreme temperature exposure to name a few. The key aspect to remember is that stress can be largely managed by duration and perception. Keep the duration of stressors finite and the perception of stress as something that is ephemeral and manageable.
Too much time and energy is wasted trying to manage stress when the more effective strategy would be to manage stressors — the things that produce stress in the first place. The reason we have so much trouble doing this is because it involves a lot of temporary discomfort. Yet, if one is unwilling to experience some short-term discomfort, one is likely to remain stuck with a life that’s full of stressors and consequently, full of stress.
To better understand exactly what one needs to do to see the best results is to undergo a saliva based test that tracks ones diurnal cycle. This is a critical measurement to establish if one is in fact dealing with chronically elevated cortisol. One one establishes a baseline recommendations to improve cortisol may include the optimal time to work, which exercises to choose, what foods to eat and when to eat them. By establishing where ones stress hormones levels currently are, one can make the necessary adjustments to live a life of controlled stress, which will allow one to live happier and healthier - for health is wealth.