When we feel stress, the body responds as though we are being chased by a lion. It jumps into a ‘fight-or-flight’ state and releases a cocktail of hormones from the adrenal glands, including cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones redirect blood flow to large muscle groups, increase our breathing and heart rate, and give us a boost of energy. This response is meant to help us survive when we’re threatened, and it would be very helpful if we were actually come face-to-face with a lion.
The problem is that the body can’t tell the difference between being chased by a lion and being stuck in traffic or facing a tight deadline, so it responds in the same way. When we’re faced with stressful situations day in and day out, the body thinks we’re being chased by a lion all the time.
The opposite of being in fight-or-flight (sympathetic nervous system state) is called ‘rest-and-digest’ (parasympathetic nervous system state). The body cannot exist in both states at the same time, and it should only enter fight-or-flight on rare occasions. However, most of us face a multitude of stressors each day, and burning the candle at both ends takes a toll on our mental and physical health.
During the fight-or-flight response, the body takes the following actions:
Sends extra blood flow toward large muscles and the heart, to help us run or fight the lion. This increases our risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke1.
Takes blood flow away from digestion and detoxification organs. This causes indigestion, heart burn, bloating, and can trigger flare-ups of digestive conditions like IBD and IBS.
Suppresses the immune system, because dealing with a lion is more pressing than fighting an infection.
Breaks down muscle and increases fat storage to stockpile energy for future lion encounters. This causes us to gain weight, especially around the abdomen.
Reroutes blood flow in the brain away from areas responsible for learning and long-term memory, because there’s no critical thinking needed when the only thought is, “run!”. This causes us to experience brain fog, poor memory and difficulty concentrating.
Suppresses sleep because melatonin, our sleep hormone, is inhibited by cortisol. This results in fatigue, anxiety, depression, and difficulty coping with stress.
The most important way to reduce cortisol and minimize these fight-or-flight reactions is to reduce stress. Unfortunately, that is not always possible, so supplementation can help your body cope with stress more effectively.
Dr. Hilary’s Lifestyle Tips To Reduce Stress
Self-care: What is something that you love to do? Build that activity into your weekly routine and make it a priority. Some ideas are going for a walk, getting a massage, or seeing a friend. It doesn’t have to be a big ordeal, even one hour a week is beneficial.
Recognize stressors: When are you most stressed, and is there something you can do to change it? Oftentimes setting firm boundaries (no emails after a certain time), letting things go (my house doesn’t need to be spotless), or asking for help (can you watch the kids?) are the biggest steps we can take to limit stress.
Breathe: The body can’t exist in both fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest at the same time. When you feel yourself switching into fight-or-flight, stop and take three slow, deep breaths. This forces your body back into rest-and-digest and helps us to feel calm.
Meditate: Daily meditation practice helps to lower overall stress levels through the whole day. Download a meditation app to help guide you, and start small with five to ten minutes daily.
Prioritize sleep: Melatonin is our sleep hormone, and it inhibits our stress hormone, cortisol, so getting a good sleep is one of the best ways to lower stress. A consistent routine is the best way to set yourself up for successful sleep. Set a bedtime, turn all screens off 30 minutes before bed and use that time to wind-down, and sleep in a dark room or use a sleep mask.
Counselling: Consider seeking out professional help, especially if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression. Therapy helps us process challenging situations, understand how they impact our mood, and provides us with tools and support for moving forward.
Gentle exercise: Exercise reduces cortisol and boosts endorphins (our feel-good hormones). Research supports almost any type of exercise for stress reduction, so choose something that you enjoy. If you feel depleted after a workout instead of invigorated, you have pushed yourself too hard and likely increased your stress levels instead of lowering them. Less is often more when it comes to using exercise as a coping tool for stress.
Keep blood sugar stable: When our blood sugar spikes and crashes, it makes us feel on edge and makes it more difficult to cope with stress. Minimize sugar, and focus on having fat, fibre and protein with every meal and snack. Simple tricks include adding nuts, seeds, hemp hearts, or beans to keep blood sugar balanced. For example, pair almond butter with an apple, add beans to a salad, or chia seeds to yogurt.
The reality of our daily lives is that we’re constantly bombarded with stress. Unfortunately, the body can’t tell the difference between a threat to our survival and an important meeting at work. The body always responds to stress in the same way, by jumping out of rest-and-digest mode and into fight-or-flight mode. When frequent, this response to stress has widespread negative impacts on our health, including digestive issues, high blood pressure, heart disease, insomnia, anxiety and weight gain.
The most important things to do to prevent a negative stress response is to reduce our stressors and learn to cope with them when they happen. We should engage in self-care, meditation, prioritize sleep, exercise, keep blood sugar stable, and seek counselling to lower our stress levels, but we may benefit from additional support through supplementation.
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