Stress is a natural part of life that we are supposed to experience to help us function well. We have been hard wired that stressors produce chemical messengers in our body to spring us into action. This is of great benefit when we need our muscles to fire on all cylinders to get ourselves away from a danger, or indeed to perform well under pressure. However, once we have dealt with the immediate situation, we are then supposed to relax fairly quickly back into our longer term state where whilst we remain alert, we are no longer affected by the stress.
Stress and anxiety are responses from our nervous system. This short term ‘run away’ scenario is known as our fight or flight mode or more correctly our sympathetic nervous system. We have been designed to spend much more time in our rest and digest mode, known as our parasympathetic nervous system. In our sympathetic state, our energy and blood flow is diverted away from our normal organ processes in favour of our muscles which are our ‘run away’ tools. In our parasympathetic state, the energy and blood can flow back through to our vital processes such as our digestive system, to resume the absorption of nutrients, our liver and kidneys for our detoxification processes and even our reproductive systems to reproduce.
You can see the problems then that long term stress would cause from these simple examples such as poor nutrient absorption, detoxification and elimination problems and infertility. As humans we have not been designed to be under the pressures that we face in the modern world… the pressures of work, the disruption of our constantly available phones and always there media, and the societal pressures that have become the norm. We face these new challenges with the design flaw of humans being slow to evolve, much slower than technology develops and social change occurs.
We should also mention the Gut Brain Axis here, which has been well researched in recent years. When we experience emotions and in particular anxiety, we send signals via the vagus nerve through to the digestive system, as well as the heart and lungs. An example of this is when we feel anxiety or stress we tense up, not just in our shoulders but in other muscles too, such as our digestive tract. This has a huge impact on how well our system is working for us and especially impacts upon the health of our microbiome also. This is not just to our detriment however, as this process is a two way street and we can use this to our advantage. When we support the health of our digestive system, we can equally send positive signals back to the brain to support our emotional wellbeing and help to reduce anxiety and cope with external stressors.
There are many nutrient considerations to help manage stress and anxiety, especially magnesium which is a relaxant, B vitamins which are essential to our emotional wellbeing and vitamin C which is an absolute essential when it comes to adrenal health. The adrenal glands produce most of our hormonal stress responses, including our immediate stress messenger adrenaline, and the longer term messenger cortisol. This brings us to another evolutionary design flaw, that despite the huge need for vitamin C at times of stress, us humans, primates and interestingly guinea pigs are the only mammals who cannot manufacture vitamin C and therefore need constant intake in our diet. All the other mammals are seemingly designed to cope with stress much better than our good selves.
During a Nutritional Therapy consultation, we work using a Functional Medicine Framework to look at all factors that are influencing stress and anxiety, especially the nutrition and lifestyle factors that may be influential to your experience. Whilst we cannot get away from stress, we can certainly work on healthy recommendations to raise our ability to cope. These can often be very simplistic additions to your daily dietary intake that can make a vast difference to how people feel in themselves and their outlook on their external circumstances.
We may also look at Functional testing which can be a valuable tool to assess the impact that stress and anxiety is having on an individual. We use a variety of tests here such as a simple Adrenal Stress Index to which we have the ability to include various add on endocrine elements, through to the DUTCH test where we can see a much more complete full endocrine picture including other hormones and analytes.
There is no one size fits all approach and we help to educate and create a workable plan with the simplest of interventions to make the most positive impact on your health.