Our bodies are smart, much smarter than we think. Which is why they can withstand a lot more than what they bargained for before we even notice. In this case we’re talking about stress. Stress can be hard to identify before it starts to become more of an issue than what it is actually meant for.
So, what is it meant for? ‘Stress’ is a biological response that humans and other species have acquired to tackle certain situations in order to survive. In the past, these situations looked like running from predators or going long periods of time between hunts. Now, stress turns up through pushing to meet deadlines, living off coffee and stretching ourselves so thin we have no time to stop and take a breather.
Of course, stress is a normal response. However, when stress is present in your life for long periods of time – known as chronic stress – this can throw our whole system out of whack and really do a number on our health in more ways than one.
Are you someone who the above criteria applies to – which everyone in this fast-paced society has certainly related to at some stage - but not sure how to recognise the signs of chronic stress? Let us break them down for you.
The Stress Response
Stress essentially starts in the brain. We perceive stress and a cascade of responses occur. Though it is unfortunately a lot more complex than just that.
Stress is a result of the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) which releases a number of different stress hormones known as glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids are utilised by the body to ensure there is enough energy available for the body to combat whatever stress is being experienced at that time, whether that be a ‘reactive’ response such as running from a threat or an ‘anticipatory’ response such as preparing for a speech.
The stress response is usually kept under pretty tight wraps in order to keep our bodies in a state of balance. Though this can quickly become out of balance when we experience high levels of stress. One glucocorticoid that receives a lot of attention is cortisol. And for good reason.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone that is released, referred to as our-get-up-and-go or fight-or-flight hormone, especially in times of chronic stress. In a normal acute stress response cortisol is released, peaks and troughs in a regulated way. In phases of prolonged stress, cortisol is released and remains elevated for longer periods causing an inflammatory response. It is this inflammatory response that gives rise to the signs of elevated stress.
Signs of Elevated Stress
Although stress may seem purely neurological, it has an effect on most if not all body systems.
Psychological signs: Prolonged stress in humans is associated with a plethora of conditions related to emotion and behaviour. Obviously, we aren’t meant to experience stress in a chronic way but if and when we do we see the negative effects of anxiety, depression and irritability for example which are far too common.
Another major psychological sign of stress is problems with your sleep. Trouble getting to sleep, interrupted sleep and severe early waking are all tell-tale signs that your cortisol levels are elevated or out of whack.
Physical signs: ‘Burnout’ is one word that gets thrown around a lot in terms of when someone is feeling the implications of elevated stress. Burnout can be described as feeling fatigued, exhausted, unmotivated and lacking energy, which is usually related to prolonged occupational stress, overexercising or simply taking on too much.
Headaches or migraines are also commonly seen in states of chronic stress. This may be due to the amount of tension the body is holding onto during stress – such as muscle and jaw clenching - which causes the body to excrete high amounts of magnesium, our key nutrient in muscle relaxation. Keeping up your daily intake of magnesium through foods such as cacao, pumpkin seeds, dark leafy green vegetables and oats are key for replenishing stores during stressful times.
Digestive signs: Stress can expose itself in two major ways through our digestive system; first affecting our appetite and next our digestion. An acute stress response generally causes a suppression in appetite whereas chronic stress has been shown to increase appetite, especially for highly palatable foods – we’re looking at you chocolate and wine!
It is also common that people experiencing high stress complain of digestive issues as stress can alter the functionality of the intestine. Research has shown that stress can affect nutrient absorption, increase intestinal permeability, alter stomach acid secretion and increase intestinal inflammation. This is evident in the increase of IBS diagnosis seen following a period of chronic stress.
Reproductive signs: Mental and emotional health plays a pivotal role in sexual health. Libido gone MIA? This is your body telling you that now is not the time to reproduce as your body doesn’t feel safe, it is in fight-or-flight mode.
In females, period loss, or amenorrhea, is a major sign in reproductive health that immediately displays your bodies HPA axis is dysregulated. Whether the chronic stress is directly related to prolonged stressful situations or indirectly related to stress such as under-eating and over-exercising, period loss is an indication of elevated stress.
One of the best things you can do both during and after periods of elevated stress is to prioritise nourishing foods. At Active Collagen we take pride in nourishing our bodies with quality ingredients, that’s why we’ve curated Active Cycle. A nutrient rich hot chocolate powder that is high in magnesium with ingredients like cacao that are sure to replenish your daily magnesium intakes. Not to mention it’s also delicious and seriously stress reducing! Head here and start replenishing.
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