Stress: The Health Epidemic of the 21st Century

Stress‘ has been dubbed the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century” by the World Health Organization. Understandably, stress is something I talk about a lot in my practice and my group women’s health program, the Wild Collective. I did a blog on it back in 2018, Stress & the Adrenal Glands – Why Test Cortisol?, which covers the 3 main stages of the stress response and options for testing to determine where you are in this response at different times of the day. I’ve always helped patients work to overcome the negative impacts of stress on their minds and bodies with a number of tools, including:

Diet modification. For example, to achieve steady blood sugar balance throughout the day (via adequate protein and healthy carb intake but also reversing insulin resistance). Did you know when your blood sugar drops low it triggers the rapid release of adrenaline and cortisol, which can trigger feelings of stress and anxiety? Upping healthy fats, a diet that promotes a reduction in body inflammation, and a healthy microbiome (hello gut:brain connection) are also key, as is getting the micronutrients needed by our bodies to manage stress and maintain happy hormones, such as magnesium, B vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids, and more.

More restorative sleep. I think of sleep like one of the main antidotes to stress. Is your stress cup overflowing? Usually it results in sleep latency (prolonged time to fall asleep) or that dreaded 3 am waking. It’s a vicious cycle and one of the first places I focus to help someone better manage their stress is getting their sleep in-check.

Exercise. The types and amount can be key here depending on where you are in the stress response, i.e., reducing high intensity exercise for a period of time if you are in burnout. This can be especially true for women (our sex and thyroid hormones can be more easily thrown out of whack). But exercise can be one of the most effective forms of stress management aside from adequate, good quality sleep.

Nutritional and herbal supplementation. Used to supplement diet and lifestyle habits, these can be so helpful to reduce symptoms of stress (e.g. fatigue, anxiety, disrupted sleep, etc.) while we work to implement the foundations of health: diet & digestion (getting your gut health in order), stress management, sleep, and movement. Some of my favorite botanical medicines for this are called adaptogens, plants or herbs that are defined as biologically active, medicinal plant substances that help your body adapt or adjust to stress. I often adoringly refer to them as, “meditation in a bottle” because similarly, without changing your external stressors, they reduce your body’s perception of the stressor. An example, one of my favorites that you may have heard of, is Ashwagandha (aka Withania). Low levels of vitamin D have also been linked to increased anxiety, depression, and stress – this is one nutrient we need to be especially mindful to supplement with because we make it on our skin in response to sun exposure, with very limited amounts in food.

Acupuncture! I absolutely love this ah-ma-zing tool for managing stress. I’ve written about it before in the Lead blog: An Effortless Way to Practice Self Care – Acupuncture; have you tried it?. I have many patients who see me for their monthly maintenance session as a highly effective part of relieving their stress and tension. Consider adding it to your regular rotation every 4-6 weeks.

These are all important considerations in relieving the effects of stress, but I want you to take a moment to consider another very critical aspect to our ability to cope with stress: community and connection, or lack thereof. I have seen the negative health effects of social isolation compared to the resiliency and improved mental and physical health of those who have a strong sense of community and feeling of regular connection in their lives. It was something that I was finding many of my patients (and myself included) were not prioritising to the same degree as their health promoting diet or lifestyle habits.

Did you know that perceived loneliness may be a bigger risk factor for your health than smoking or obesity? If you’re eating all the kale, exercising regularly, and putting yourself to bed by 10 pm but neglecting your relationships and avoiding deep conversation and connection, you may benefit in a big way from shifting your priorities to include connection. You can read more on my thoughts on this here: Why The Wild Collective?.

My point is, don’t forget to schedule in (just like your other health habits) spending quality time with friends and loved ones or in your broader community. Get outside, take some deep breaths, and make time for PLAY (time spent without purpose, that dissolves your hyper-self-consciousness, and in which you lose track of time). Don’t underestimate the therapeutic effects of these actions in relieving stress. I know the pandemic has served a barrier in many ways, but it is still possible to prioritize community and connection during these challenging times.

Take care out there,

Dr. Willow