Stress is inevitable. But if it's short-lived, referred to as acute stress, most of the time your body can easily handle it. The problem arises when the processes that are supposed to help you avoid a threat, once in a while, become your body’s modus operandi. This is why chronic stress is possibly one of the biggest health problems facing us today.
It can take the form of physical or emotional stress, or, more commonly, a mix of both.
Physical stressors include things like eating a bad diet, having consistently low quality sleep, leading a sedentary lifestyle, taking certain medications, being exposed to toxins, drinking alcohol too often, smoking, getting recurring infections, suffering from chronic inflammation, and having a badly managed chronic condition.
Emotional stress can come from things like having financial issues, being under too much pressure at work, not having a good support network, or being in an unhealthy relationship, to name a few.
One type of stressor often creates a cascade of other types of stressors. For example, if you’re under a lot of work pressure and don’t have a lot of time to cook healthy meals at home, you might end up relying on takeout and junk food more often than you'd like. Or, maybe you are having issues with a chronic condition and it makes it difficult to socialize and keep up with your friends and family.
Either way, chronic stress can really eat away at your health. In this article, we explain its primary mechanism, and what you can do to turn it around.
Chronic stress is the underlying cause of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) as well as NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response dysregulation. Your adrenals are part of your NEM’s Hormone Circuit, with the other two components being the thyroid gland and reproductive organs.
The other five circuits of your NEM are the Bioenergetics, the Cardionomic, the Neuroaffect, the Inflammation, and the Detoxification circuits. And although chronic stress affects all of these circuits, the first one to respond to that stress is the Hormone Circuit, and it’s also usually the first to dysregulate and then negatively affect the rest.
How it works is that, at first, your adrenal glands produce higher levels of stress hormones in order to meet the growing demand. And although they are capable of keeping that up for a while, after a point, they become exhausted and their hormone production drops. The main anti-stress hormone they produce is cortisol, although they also produce others, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline as well. And so it is primarily cortisol that dysregulates at first.
When cortisol levels are too high or too low, that leads to other hormonal imbalances as well as disruptions in all the other NEM circuits. That’s why symptoms of AFS can be so varied. In fact, symptoms of AFS are pretty much synonymous with symptoms of chronic stress, and they include:
The specific set of symptoms you get will depend on which component of your Hormone Circuit is affected more. For example, if it’s your thyroid, your main symptoms will be low energy levels, weight gain, and mild depression. If it’s your adrenals, your main symptoms will be fatigue, anxiety, and irritability. When it’s the ovaries, your main symptoms will be estrogen dominance, PMS, and brain fog.
In the long term, unaddressed AFS and chronic stress increase your risk of developing other chronic conditions, such as metabolic syndrome, hyper or hypothyroidism, type 2 diabetes, autoimmunity, gastrointestinal disorders like IBS and IBD, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, burn-out, full-blown depression, and other psychiatric issues.
Also, the more advanced the AFS and stress, the more difficult it becomes to function in your day-to-day life. You may then end up with job problems, relationship issues, and financial pressure that you didn’t have before. Not to mention the psychological stress people experience when they feel they are losing control of their health.
The first step in reversing, or at least managing, your chronic stress is to figure out what your stressors are. And you’ll likely have more than one.
If you have a chronic condition, it’s time to get that under control to the best of your abilities. What we see with a lot of people who have uncontrolled chronic conditions is that they just feel they lack the time, resources, and tools to manage it properly. But with a little patience and the right kind of medical support, you can always find ways to improve this issue.
Here is how to tackle some of these stressors, starting with the most important: diet.
An unhealthy diet is one of the most common physical stressors we come across at our clinic. The reason for this is two-fold.
First of all, the Standard American Diet is so widespread that it’s almost unusual to eat differently. You are eating the way most people around you are eating, so it doesn’t seem like a bad idea. But most people who eat this kind of diet are also suffering the consequences of it in some way.
The other reason is that modern life has become so fast-paced that most people feel they don’t have the time or energy to really pay attention to or change how they eat. Making a well-rounded meal plan sounds like another thing on a to-do list that is already overwhelming. But the truth is that a healthy, nutritious, and adrenal gland supporting diet is imperative if you want to get back on your feet and beat chronic stress. It may require more time and energy at first, but once you have the hang of it, it will feel just as easy as the way you’re eating now.
The adrenal fatigue diet is a great foundation to build upon. It’s nutrient-dense to replenish all your depleted nutrient and energy stores, it’s mostly organic in order to decrease the toxic load on your system, it’s timed in a way that will keep your blood sugar steady throughout the day, and it’s anti-inflammatory so it will help with any other chronic conditions you may have.
Once you have your diet in place, there may still be a few nutritional gaps here and there. That’s where supplements can be very useful. Supplements can also be dosed in a way to give you a therapeutic boost short-term, to get over some of the bumps of the recovery process.
It’s very important that you do not attempt to create your own supplements plan, though. This is especially important with AFS. Supplements that work for other people may give you a paradoxical reaction - a reaction opposite of the one intended. And the worst mistake you can make here is to use the shotgun approach – taking a bunch of different supplements hoping something will work. At best, you will not know which work and which don’t. At worst, you can end up with an adrenal crash and an overloaded Detoxification Circuit.
Whether your chronic stress is caused by physical stressors or psychological ones, you will benefit from implementing some stress management techniques. Those can include meditation, support groups, journaling, going to therapy, and doing adrenal breathing exercises or adrenal yoga.
Although moderate exercise can be beneficial for stress, if you have more advanced AFS and NEM dysregulation, it might be better to stick with the very gentle techniques listed above for now. Too much exercise, when you’re in such a weakened state, can overload your body and cause an adrenal crash. Exercise requires cortisol too.
Identifying not only the root causes of chronic stress, but also triggers of acute stress, can be extremely helpful. While you are recovering from the chronic type, you want to avoid adding to it with the little stresses.
These little stressors can include getting work emails in the evening, being asked for favors you’re not up to doing, doing extra chores that are not really necessary, or going to social events that you don’t want to go to. Make a list of these triggers and then either find ways to avoid them or reduce them.
Recovery takes time. But you can cut that time down by not fighting against it. Allow yourself to rest when you need to rest.
Improving your sleep quality is also essential for the recovery process and thereafter. Good sleep hygiene includes things like:
If none of the above help, you might want to consult with your health professional regarding some natural sleep aids, like a melatonin supplement, for example.
Most of us have developed a set of coping mechanisms that may actually be adding to our stress. You may even be aware of these but not sure what to replace them with. Here, the best option can be to work with a professional to find solutions.
For example, if you’ve relied on food for your sense of comfort, then the next time you are faced with a big stressor, you might unknowingly resort to your comfort foods. This will then start a downward spiral into overeating again. Others have developed the coping mechanism of a negative mindset, so they trap themselves into complaining over and over again without actually looking for solutions.
One very effective form of therapy for replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). But there are many other options out there. You just need to know what to look for and be honest about whether it is working for you or not. It may take some time to find the perfect configuration for you.
Chronic stress is a major threat to your health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, in our modern, fast-paced lives, it is almost a given. But that doesn’t mean you should accept it as a life sentence. It’s time to identify the root causes of your stress, get on a recovery plan, and replace your unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy ones. Especially if your chronic stress has developed into more advanced AFS and NEM dysregulation, you need the support of an experienced professional.
Recovery can be a long road with some setbacks. But if, like our past and present clients, you persevere and stick to the plan, you will not only emerge on the other side, you will have set yourself up for a much better future in mind, body, and spirit. Life is so much more enjoyable when you’re not constantly tired and stressed out.
If you have questions about physical and emotional stress, AFS, or NEM dysregulation, you can contact the Dr. Lam Coaching team. We can offer you a free** no-obligation phone consultation at +1-626-571-1234 where we will privately discuss your symptoms and what your options are. You can also send us a question through our Ask The Doctor system by clicking here.
Chronic stress can not only result in fatigue, weight gain, brain fog, and hormonal issues, it can lead to full-blown chronic conditions and psychiatric problems. But the problem is that most people think it’s part of modern life. It shouldn’t be, and it’s time to fight back.