Elevate Your Function, Not Your Stress
April 01, 2020
April 01, 2020
In an increasingly high-paced world, stress has become a normal part of our lives—so much so, that many find themselves in a state of chronic stress with little relief. Unfortunately, this is taking an enormous toll on our functional health.
Stress can be characterized as an interplay between a stressor (a challenge, obstacle, difficulty, or environmental factor) and the response, which can be physical, psychological, or both. Stressors come in all forms and can be simple (such as the pressure to complete a task) or more complex and debilitating (sickness, excessive worry, etc.). Realistically, we all experience stress in some form and likely every day. While this isn’t always bad, the current levels of stress are having a serious effect on our functional health and wellness, especially as active people.
When we become stressed, there are actual physiological changes to the body as a natural response. Instantly, our sympathetic nervous system takes over. Cortisol (which will be the primary focus) is released from the adrenal cortex and distributed to almost every cell in the body. The hormone’s purpose is to enhance the systems critical in a dangerous situation like an elevated heart rate, more rapid breathing, an increased blood glucose, adipose tissue (fat) storage and a heightened sense of focus or awareness among many others. Simultaneously, cortisol limits the functions that nature has deemed less necessary for fighting a bear or escaping an avalanche, including suppression of the immune, nervous and digestive systems. The reality is that this is a natural process that served and continues to serve a distinct and necessary purpose to us as evolutionary beings. In fact, our stress response is largely what has allowed humans to respond effectively to real-world, life-or-death threats in times when survival was a constant challenge.
But let’s face it, there is very little legitimate threat to our lives today and that is great! Yet, our sympathetic nervous system is working over time to combat the stressors presented by work, relationships, finances, etc. and our body is simply not optimized for it.
The result: we are living in a state of overexposure to stress and subsequently cortisol and our functional health is deteriorating.
Look back for a moment at the list of natural responses associated with the release of cortisol. These responses have drastic effects on our function and can create further health concerns when not triggered in the right context, including:
As stress levels have increased and become the new societal norm, obesity has risen almost proportionately. When we are stressed and the sympathetic response is initiated, our bodies are preparing for the worst. We immediately begin to preserve energy, which includes the suppression of your metabolic function and the storage of fat—evolutionarily this makes sense in times of famine, but in today’s food-rich, stressed out world, this is no longer useful and has created dysfunction. If you are experiencing weight gain or unable to lose weight, stress may be a great place to look.
The demands of every day life are having a significant effect on our ability to sleep. The release of cortisol means a heightened state of awareness, increased heart rate and constant signaling within the body. Quite frankly, this is a recipe for terrible sleep quality, which means decreased recovery. Without recovery, our bodies gradually deteriorate further and we no longer function efficiently, including an inhibited ability to handle stressors. As you could expect, the cycle continues to spiral into complete dysfunction and a breakdown of health, which is where so many find themselves today.
The Digestive System:
Did you know you have a second brain located in your gut? The bacteria inhabiting your gut lining are actively working to perform a number of functions critical to our existence, many of which are directly connected to your brain function. When the fight-or-flight response occurs, distinct changes in the gut bacteria create dysfunction, such as increased permeability to harmful toxins and partially digested food (leaky gut), inflammation, infection and even changes in mood and depression. In addition, the sympathetic nerve system slows down our digestion to preserve energy, which can lead to irritation, inflammation and severe discomfort.
The Immune System:
There are a number of concerning links between stress and immune function. The immune system’s purpose is to combat harmful stimulus and heal the body—when a stressor is detected, a number of critical responses occur naturally, including inflammation. This is great when we are sick, injured, or facing a legitimate threat. But when we are chronically stressed, our immune systems become overworked, less-responsive, and the inflammatory cycle becomes chronic, eventually doing more harm than good.
It wouldn’t be Fieldlab if we didn’t discuss the effects of stress on mitochondrial function. Stress has been shown to have significant negative effects on our mitochondria including reduced capacity to produce energy, significant structural damage, and increased susceptibility to further/future damage. This manifests in exhaustion, inability to regain energy, depression, injury, sickness, and so much more. The more we stress, the further our mitochondria breakdown and the more our function suffers.
Understanding the complex and dynamic relationship between stress and our biological response is critical to optimizing function. With chronic stress comes constant deterioration at every level and the slew of disorders that can accompany such dysfunction. Eliminating stress entirely is impossible and would actually be unhealthy. Using what we know about function and cellular health, we must use strategies to mitigate the negative responses and improve our ability to heal when a stressor arises. This is done through the creation of a purposeful and conscious functional ecosystem that promotes healing and recovery over stress and disorder.