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What's your body telling you about stress?

My clients often tell me that they are not stressed.

Life is busy, but they are handling things just fine.

I wonder if we are becoming immune to the busyness of life and accept that being on-the-go 24/7 is – well, normal.

Luckily, one of the key features of naturopathic treatment is gaining an understanding of what’s going on with the person in front of you – and that involves spending some time asking them about their life and how they live it. This gives me a really good insight into the potential drivers of their symptoms, and together with pathology such as blood tests I am often led to believe that their body tells a completely different story.

You can look at stress subjectively. Some people say they thrive on it – do you know someone who always leaves everything to the last minute? But, even if this is the case, the effects of stress on your body are the same and they can be very damaging.

Stress isn’t just a feeling, it’s a physiological process within the body that is activated by your brain and triggers your adrenal glands to release cortisol and other hormones and chemicals. This kick starts a whole gamut of other processes from the way your body handles glucose, to the amount of nutrients you absorb from your gut and much, much more. Your adrenal glands are also intricately linked to your thyroid gland, your ovaries/testes, your heart and your brain. You might be familiar with muscle cramps that you get after intense exercise or a stressful day at the office – this is related as well!

Ok, so I have your attention now – but what kind of symptoms might you experience if your body is struggling due to stress?

The list is vast, but here’s some of the common ones:

  • Gut issues including bloating, irregular bowel function, reflux, burping, gas

  • Irregular periods, heavy bleeding, pain, cramping

  • Weight gain or difficulty maintaining a healthy weight

  • Sleep problems

  • Headaches and migraines

  • Anxiety or low mood

  • Low energy or fatigue

  • Frequent or recurring infections

Stress is also a well-recognised driver of chronic disease including insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. This is often due to poor diet and lifestyle decisions. Can you see how stress can actually become a self- perpetuating cycle?

You’re tired at the end of a busy day and so you grab some takeaway that contains lots of refined carbs. These make you feel satisfied for a short time but because they elevate your blood glucose just before bedtime, you find it hard to get off to sleep. You wake tired the next day and don’t have the energy to make any breakfast or pack a healthy lunch. First stop is the bakery for a coffee and a pastry to get you through the morning. By lunchtime you feel like taking a nap under your desk and have no motivation to do any exercise. – this is not a recipe for health.

So what can you do? It’s not as if you can quit your job and move to a mountain top. The truth is for most people there are many day-to-day stressors that you can’t change. You can, however, modify a few things that can have a really powerful impact on your health.

  • Eat a nutritious, wholefood diet and avoid processed foods as much as possible. This may mean prioritising meal prepping at the weekends so that you have healthy options when you are busy during the week. It might also mean making a commitment to increasing your skills in cooking – meals cooked at home, from good quality ingredients are always going to be healthier than takeaways or pre-prepared options.

  • Prioritise sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is foundational for health. There are many studies that now support this and recognise that poor sleep is a key contributor to chronic disease, obesity and mental illness.

  • Move your body regularly. Find activities that you like and do them often. It doesn’t need to be hitting the gym before heading to work – in fact, this can be detrimental to your health. It can be as simple as going for a lunchtime walk, joining a dance class, riding your bike or going for a swim.

  • Practice some mindfulness. It’s really important that you don’t confuse this with exercise – I have many clients who say that their mindfulness is the 6am pump class they do 5 days a week. That’s not mindfulness. Finding time for your body and mind to be at rest allows your nervous system to calm and your body to heal. It’s a vital part of supporting your health and wellbeing.

In a world that spins 24 hours per day, finding time for self-care can feel overwhelming. However, making some positive changes to your diet and lifestyle can improve your body’s tolerance to stress and that means better health and wellbeing. You don’t need to go it alone though, and in fact you are more likely to make permanent if you have support from a health practitioner. Naturopathy uses nutritional and herbal medicine to treat deficiencies and improve the way your body functions. This is alongside the most important aspect of treatment which is providing education that encourages people to take control of their health – it’s this that changes lives.

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