Last week, we discussed the body's stress response system and the impacts of long-term stress on the body. Now let's look at some stress management techniques. First of all, don’t stress about stress management! There are a ton of things you can do to actively start reducing your stress levels and the effects that stress has on your body. Some of these suggestions are lifestyle interventions and some are activities. You can start with one, and once that feels manageable add another. With stress management activities, the goal is to find something that is enjoyable and makes you feel at peace.
Here are some simple steps to start improving the health of your adrenal glands (HPA axis):
Avoid skipping meals: low blood sugar is a physiological stress for the body meaning it triggers a release of cortisol (1). Although I think intermittent fasting can be really beneficial under the right circumstances, it's particularly problematic for those with adrenal fatigue (HPA axis dysregulation).
Limit caffeine to the morning hours or cut it out altogether: although I don’t think caffeine is inherently bad for everyone, it can exacerbate adrenal fatigue due to it’s effects of increasing serum cortisol (2). If giving up coffee sounds devastating, at least start by limiting it to the morning hours when cortisol is naturally at it's highest. It’s estimated that 90% of people consume caffeine in the afternoon (12-6pm) and 68.5% of people consume caffeine in the evening (after 6pm)(3).
Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep: Establish a regular bed time and get adequate sleep. Lack of sleep is another physiological stress for the body. Cutting back sleep can feel tempting the longer the to-do list becomes, but being well-rested and having healthy adrenal glands will make you more productive and able to manage stress. See #2 if you’re having a hard time sleeping.
Practice gratitude: Gratitude is the appreciation for what one has in life, whether tangible or intangible. In positive psychology, gratitude has consistently been associated with increased sense of wellbeing (4), optimism, sleep quality and reductions in blood pressure (5). There are many ways to practice gratitude: Keep a gratitude journal and spend some time every day writing down what you are grateful for, or mentally keep a gratitude journal. Or, simple thank someone. Write a thank-you letter or note to someone, something or yourself on a regular basis. You don’t have to share these if you don’t want to.
Exercise regularly but don’t over exercise: Excessive exercise triggers your bodies stress response. It can be hard to know if you’re over doing it. But if you are in shape and you feel overly exhausted during and/or after your workout, you’re probably over doing it. If you’re still not sure, get your adrenals tested!
Stress management activities: Take time every day to actively practice a stress management activity. Find something that calms you and brings you joy. Think of these activities as workouts for your nervous system. It’s like taking your mind to the gym, but rather than building muscle strength you’re strengthening your nervous system (the parasympathetic nervous system to be exact) and it’s ability to respond to stress. When you work out your muscles regularly, they are stronger even at rest. Same thing here - when you work out your nervous system regularly, it’s stronger even outside of these activities. The most well studied methods are meditation and moving meditations:
Meditation: The benefits of meditation are undeniable. It improves memory, focus and cognition, outlook and mood (6), sleep, and promotes longevity (7). If meditation was a drug or supplement, everyone would take it and it would be a multi-billion dollar industry. But guess what? It takes time, precious time out of a busy day, so a lot of people won’t consider it, they are too busy.
To get started, find a local meditation class or download a meditation app, I like Calm and Headspace for iPhone.
Start with an amount of time that feels manageable, like two, five, or ten minutes. Understand that you’re not going to be great at meditation right away, that’s why it is a practice. Everyone is different so experiment and see what works best for you.
Moving mediations like yoga, tai chi, qigong, walking in nature, etc. Regularly practicing yoga improves fatigue, depression, anxiety and anger (8). Qigong and other moving meditations are helpful for mood, sleep and energy (9).
Importantly, always listen to your body. If you find that any of these activities doesn’t really help you relax because you can’t stop thinking about your to-do list, try a different one. You might find that depending on the day and you’re mood, you might prefer a moving vs. sitting meditation.
Stay tuned next week for the best nutrients, herbs and supplements for stress management!