If you’re reading this, you’ve experienced stress—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Stress is all around us and almost all of us are familiar with it in one way or another. It can be caused by just about anything we’re exposed to on a daily basis – work, relationships, kids, financial obligations, worries about the future. But stress is complex and eludes simple definition. It includes the stressor and the stress response, psychological and physiological components, as well as acute and chronic effects.
Stress itself isn’t the problem. Without it, we wouldn’t have the drive to get up in the morning. Some forms of stress prove beneficial and acute stress responses have risen out of survival demand and our ability to adapt to the world around us.
The problem happens when stress interferes with performing our daily tasks whether it’s at work, at home, on the field, or in the gym. So how do our bodies deal with stress? What turns our adaptive survival response into a negative pathology that can cut into our sleep, our physical performance, and mental clarity?
Before we look at how to deal with it, let’s look at the mechanism of stress.
The HPA Axis and Stress
We start at the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis—the network of the stress response. The hypothalamus and pituitary are structures in the brain that give the orders. They are responsible for much of the body’s regulatory functioning and hormone control. They release signalling hormones which act on the adrenal glands, situated on top of the kidneys. Your adrenal glands secrete catecholamines such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine, glucocorticoids like cortisol, as well as sex-hormones including DHEA, testosterone, estrogen and progestin. It does this according to messages sent by the hypothalamus and pituitary which, in turn, are modulated by feedback loops that tell them when to stop producing certain signalling hormones.
During an acute stress response, the hypothalamus and pituitary release signalling hormones which tell the adrenal glands to secrete catecholamines like adrenaline. This engages the sympathetic nervous system noted for the fight-or-flight state it elicits. Along with other hormones such as cortisol, the body shunts resources away from unnecessary functions for immediate survival (such as digestion) and triggers energy mobilization and glucose sparing necessary for dealing with the stressful stimuli on hand.
To make the interplay between hormones even more complex, secretions vary according to circadian rhythms. For instance, growth hormone is an anabolic agent associated with development and cell regeneration that peaks following the onset of sleep. The dreaded stress hormone cortisol, on the other hand, peaks early in the morning as we wake. The complicated interplay between hormones throughout the day and during sleep can affect the body including immune deficiency which may be linked to interruption of healthy hormone regulation.
When is Stress the Bad Guy?
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid produced by the adrenal medulla and it too has a positive and negative side. High doses of glucocorticoids might sound familiar as they are often used as an anti-inflammatory. They are also used for tissue transplants to reduce the risk of the body rejecting new tissue.
Unfortunately, the same traits that make cortisol an essential hormone for homeostasis also make it problematic under chronic/pathological conditions. The reason why it works so well as an anti-inflammatory is due to its suppression of the immune system (which is inclined to cause inflammation and reject foreign tissues from implantation). This decreases the body’s ability to defend against pathogens. Stress responses also require energy and cortisol is inherently catabolic, breaking down tissues and inhibiting muscle growth.
In extreme cases of hypercortisolism, individuals can develop Cushing’s Syndrome which is characterized by protein depletion leading to fragility, muscle loss, and breakdown of connective tissues, among other symptoms.
Not only does pathological stress put unnecessary load on the body, but the dysregulated hormones are also linked to detrimental effects in the brain including damage to the hippocampus where it can affect the consolidation of new memories as well as memory recall.
Stress-related symptoms are many and frequent, but when does it get to be too much? When is intervention necessary? Stress management is crucial for a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. Rule #1 is that if stress levels are interfering with everyday activities, obligations, and relationships, seek professional assistance immediately.
There are other things to consider that you can implement on your own. Moderate exercise can provide anabolic stimulus to counteract the catabolic effects of cortisol and stress. Since exercise produces endorphins, it can also improve mood which aids in immune function and mitigate the severity of perceived stress. One mistake that can be counterproductive is overtraining which can be interpreted by the body as prolonged stress and exacerbate stress-related symptoms.
Healthy diet and sleep are also important considerations. Much like exercise, approach nutrition pursuits with caution and forgiveness. Not adhering to a diet can cause more, unwanted stress. Likewise, cheat meals can elicit a sense of guilt which can trigger stress as well. Approaching a diet that works for you must take these into account in order to achieve desired results instead of becoming counterproductive.
From how you feel, to your neurochemistry, to your physiology, and everything in between, stress is a complex and difficult hurdle to overcome. As the scientific community’s understanding of stress increases, so too does your ability to mitigate its hold on you. Knowing how it affects your body can put you in the know and offer footing for future solutions. Fitness and nutrition aren’t the only measures in the battle against stress but they are great places to start today and develop on your way to a healthy, stress-controlled future.
Supplementing your diet may aid in stress management. States of stress are categorized by prolonged excitation of our physiology, poor sleep, and hormone dysregulation. Inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA are useful for moderating erratic brain function while certain natural extracts such as Ashwagandha have been shown to reduce stress and control cortisol levels. KSM-66 is a relatively novel form of Ashwagandha with numerous human clinical studies backing its efficacy for stress control. Test subjects in reported a 38% reduction in perceived stress, and this was backed up with a 28% reduction in serum cortisol levels. Ashwaghanda is an incredibly effective adaptogenic herb that helps the body manage stress. KSM-66 Ashwagandha extract can be found at the full clinical dosage in DIABLO PM, a product designed to be taken in the evening to support stress response, cortisol control as well as support restful recovery to enhance performance and weight management.