Stress. It appears in our lives in too many ways to count. Some stress is needed: there are studies proving it’s healthy to some degree. THAT is the key – “to some degree.” I could easily launch into a blog about hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction, better known as adrenal fatigue, but that’s not the focus here. If you’re interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend this article by Aviva Romm as a starter.
In an extremely oversimplified explanation of adrenal fatigue, what happens is our body is continuously in “fight-or-flight” mode and never in “rest-and-digest mode” due to our constantly demanding lifestyles. Once upon a time, our bodies entered “fight-or-flight” mode only when they had to … say, running from a predator or in times of starvation. However, in today’s world, this reaction is constantly triggered by stressors like getting stuck in traffic, working multiple jobs, eating an inflammatory diet, not sleeping enough, and using electronic media at night. These aren’t dire threats like getting chased by a lion, but our stress response system reacts as if they were. We experience the same spikes in blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart rate, along with many other changes designed to help us survive, but in this case, these changes are maladaptive. Rather than help us to survive as they do in the case of being chased by a lion, they contribute to chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease and a shorter lifespan.
Signs of Adrenal Fatigue
Dysregulation of the HPA axis is a primary driver of the modern disease epidemic and is associated with a diverse range of symptoms, including:
- Morning exhaustion, even after a good night’s sleep
- Energy crash after lunch or late in the afternoon
- Difficulty recovering from exercise or difficulty gaining muscle or increasing athletic performance
- Susceptibility to viruses (immune suppression)
- “Second wind” late at night
- Insomnia and sleep disturbance
- Poor memory
- Extra abdominal fat
- Low body temperature
- Skin rashes and breakouts
- Need for coffee or other stimulants to get going in the morning
Sound familiar?? It should, as it’s estimated that over 70% of us are walking around with adrenal fatigue.
Like many of you, my life has had its fair share of stressors. I’d say these started in college, when I was trying to complete a degree in four years having entered almost two years late, then expecting to break into the working world with my dream job. This was followed by moving across the country, getting engaged, planning a wedding and then never having a wedding, moving back to the east coast, finding another job, buying a house and most recently losing my oldest sister in a tragic and unexpected car accident. Now, please hear me when I say I am so extremely blessed in my life and am in no way complaining. In fact, this leads to the entire point of this blog: I now know that the way I handle stress (ESPECIALLY the small, everyday stress) is not healthy.
I have constantly been in “fight-or-flight” mode for years now, even when I thought I was relaxed! It’s no wonder I have trouble waking up in the morning even though I sleep like a rock and get at least 8-9 hours of sleep. It’s no wonder why I am down-and-out for an entire Saturday if I stay out late Friday to have a few drinks with friends. It also makes complete sense why I seem to come down with a cold every time I am gearing up for a big family weekend or event! My stress-response system is shot!
The article I linked to above really hit home with me. I never thought of myself as a perfectionist, because I never thought anything I did was worthy of that title. Little did I know THAT is the exact definition of perfectionism.
During major stressors in my life, and more so in everyday mundane stressors, I made it worse on my body and on my adrenals by telling myself that no matter how hard I worked I wasn’t doing enough. I was constantly stressing my body because of the cyclic negative and perfectionist ideals in my head. There was no immediate threat – I was not in a life-or-death situation – yet, I made my body feel like it was and for that I am still recovering. I do not handle stress as well as I once did. I want coffee in the morning to get me going. I often do not feel rested even with a full night’s sleep. So, what am I doing about it? I am giving my adrenals (the little organs that get hit the hardest with constant stress) EXTRA loving these days.
- I am adopting an 80:20 rule to life, because @letsgetreal_rd, I can’t pretend anymore that I can be everything to everyone 100% of the time. This applies to my relationships, diet regimen, workout regimen, and personal time.
- I am teaching myself that it is ok to take a nap on a Sunday afternoon instead of having to get all of the laundry, dishes and housework done before Monday morning. Everything WILL get done… in due time.
- I don’t work out on Mondays because Mondays overall are a high-stress day. I go home and relax or schedule time for catching up with friends.
- I don’t stress over having an amazing dinner on the table at exactly 7pm every night. Instead, I put together a simple MACRO-trio meal that takes no time at all but is still healthy and nourishing.
- I have learned that it’s ok to ask for help. My wonderful boyfriend was actually the one to teach me this lesson. I always tried to do everything on my own because I pride myself in being a capable woman. Well, you know what… it’s exhausting. Asking for help does not equal weakness.
- I set achievable goals for myself in 3-month chunks (because who really sticks with one New Year’s resolution for a whole year??), optimize my daily timeline, and document what I am grateful for each day in my Best Self Journal.
- I have adopted a minimalist lifestyle to cut down on the amount of decisions I need to make daily. Read more about my journey.
- I schedule time to be creative! I love painting and drawing, but realized that I hadn’t created anything since high school! My Best Self Journal helps me stay on track with this.
- I have accepted that this blog post that I am writing right now isn’t perfect, but I’m going to post it anyway and not spend hours editing, combing through every word, obsessing. Need I mention that I started this almost two months ago but just wasn’t ready to emotionally finish it until now?? I am learning to be ok with that.
- I am treating my body differently than I did when I was 22 years old. For example, I strive (TAKE NOTE: I strive to accomplish this goal, doesn’t mean I do it 100% of the time but I don’t beat myself up about it) to only have coffee on special occasions and weekends.
- In times of stress I nourish my body MORE, even when I want to put my health on the back burner. In times when we’re needed the most, we must remember it’s critical we take care of ourselves first in order to be there for everyone else. As I mentioned above, my family recently experienced a close loss. My sister, Jamie, died in a tragic car accident in her hometown of Colorado Springs, Colorado. She was the mother of two teenagers and was AMAZING. If you wish, you can see a glimpse of the joyful life she led.
How To Boost Your Immune System in Times of Stress
Following the accident, the last thing I wanted to do was think about eating healthy and taking care of myself. There was so much to do! Caring and comforting family (especially our mother and my niece and nephew), addressing legal concerns, making sure decisions that were being made honored Jamie’s wishes… if anyone has dealt with a close death in the family, you can fill in your own struggles. By following these simple steps below, I managed to keep my immune system strong and be there for those I love….
- Probiotics. A healthy and supported gut is essential for a strong immune system that’s ready to fight when an infection comes your way. Keep your gut populated with good bacteria from probiotics and lots of fermented foods so it’s easy to defeat the bad bacteria when it enters your GI tract.
- Oil of Oregano. Just one a day to balance the immune system.
- Vitamin D. In general, I recommend a 10,000 IU every other day to keep your level stable or to slightly increase it, and if your level is low, it’s important to increase your supplementation even further to get it into the normal range.
- This comprehensive immune-boosting supplement should be taken during the fall and winter months especially, when it seems as though everyone is sick. My general recommendation is 1-3 tablets of ImmuCore per day for adults and kids alike, taken in conjunction with your daily Vitamin D supplement. You can certainly take it daily throughout the year, especially for folks who are prone to sickness or in times of high stress.
- Dynamic Fruits and Greens. The combination of ImmuCore and Dynamic Greens is an immune boosting dynamic duo! Dynamic Greens, a powdered blend of super fruits, veggies, antioxidants and probiotics is extremely easy to fit into your routine (1-2 scoops/day mixed in water, yogurt or smoothies). I add the Chocolate or Espresso flavor to my coffee for flavor and added nutrition.
As for food choices during times of stress, always make the following choices part of your diet regiment:
- Make veggies a big part of my meal by making easy recipes like kale chips, roasted asparagus, salads, roasted root veggies, zucchini or carrot pasta, and veggies smoothies.
- Don’t get caught up on sugar, excess grains or alcohol as these negatively affect your immunity by suppressing your immune system for several hours after ingesting them. If you’re sick or don’t want to get sick, it’s important to give your body nutrients, not sugar, excess grains, or alcohol!
- Load up on bone broth, either homemade (I use this recipe) or purchase a good-quality brand like Kettle and Fire. Unlike the typical canned chicken noodle soup variety that can be full of MSG and other questionable additives, a high-quality soup made from real bones is incredibly beneficial for the immune system, since the gelatin and collagen in the broth are essential for a healthy gut, which leads to a healthy immune system.
- Hydration is key to ensure that white blood cells are able to travel freely throughout your body and stop any bacterial or viral intruders in their tracks. Choose WATER over anything else. Drink it plain or add flavors like fresh ginger, lemon, and/or sea salt. Other good choices are kombucha, Rooibos or herbal tea to help calm nerves.
Make these changes and day by day you body will thank you. You can directly change the effects of stress on your body by how you manage daily stressors.
In Good Health,
Olivia Neely, RDN, LD
Director of Nutrition Services
The Moday Center for Functional and Integrative Medicine