What stresses you out? If you are similar to most Australians, then work deadlines, finances, over committing, worry, negative self talk, relationship problems, the daily commute and distressing world events play a role in your everyday stress levels.
Many people are additionally exposed to environmental toxins, overuse of alcohol and drugs, medications, poor eating habits and lack of exercise (or over-exercising). All these daily stressors create within us a state of chronic low energy.
Everyone reacts to stress in a different way. One person may develop high blood pressure, while someone else may become anxious or suffer from ongoing digestive complaints. From my clinical experience I believe that stress affects our health and reduces our energy levels in a number of ways:
1. Stress causing sleep disturbance
Sleep disturbance is very common among Australians with 30 to 45% of us suffering from regular sleep disturbance, according to a 2016 report. For some people sleep disturbance is a result of being overcommitted to work, study or netflix, without enough hours in the day to sleep.
For many others, the worry about work, finances, relationships, global events and time pressures can stop them from getting a refreshing nights sleep. This means that around 30 to 45% of adults have low daytime energy levels caused by sleep disturbance.
2. Stress disrupts cortisol levels
The natural response to stress is to produce the hormones adrenalin and cortisol. In a healthy person, cortisol levels should peak in the morning and then fall at night. This cortisol rise and fall helps us to bounce out of bed feeling great in the morning, and then feel sleepy at night.
Chronic stress levels play havoc with cortisol regulation. People who worry all day, exercise late at night, or work late at night can have high cortisol levels when their body should be winding down and resting.
3. Stress lowers the nutrients available to make energy
Energy is created in every cell of our body using the nutrients from the food that we have eaten and digested. When our digestion is compromised by stress it can lead to nutrient deficiencies and lowered energy levels.
Stress causes our body to be in a state of 'fight or flight'. Fight or flight was very useful in years gone by when we had physical threats in our environment such as attack from wild animals or other tribes. When our lives were in danger we would go into a temporary state of stress that assisted us to run from our foe.
These days fight or flight is a constant state for many people and it diverts blood flow away from the digestive system to prioritise heart, lung and muscle function.
Many people suffer digestive symptoms due to stress: bloating, reflux, indigestion, pain, diarrhoea and constipation. These symptoms are an indicator that your digestion is compromised. In approximately 60% of digestive cases in my clinic, we discover that the symptoms are related to high stress levels and anxiety.
4. Stress creates sugar cravings
When we are stressed we crave carbohydrates. Glucose is the fuel we require when we need to immediately run from danger. This carb craving is a signal from our stressed body that sugar is needed to power us up to cope with an imminent threat.
The problem is that the threat is not real, it's mostly in our head. The signal of threat is sent to our brain by the way we are breathing, the way we are holding our body, and the thoughts we are having.
A continual state of stress can cause blood sugar fluctuations, leading to cycles of sugar cravings. This is a double edged sword because the foods we crave when we need a sugar hit are not usually wholesome and dense in essential nutrients. More often we eat cake, chocolate and lollies and reach for soft drinks to pacify sugar cravings. These foods then contribute to the cycle of sugar cravings and low energy.
Over time this cycle of being stressed, craving sugar, and making poor food choices leads to weight gain and obesity.
5. Stress lowers thyroid function
Your thyroid is a gland located in your throat that has the responsibility for telling your cells how much energy to make. In some people, a healthy thyroid response to high stress levels is to slow down thyroid hormone production. Thyroid function can also be compromised by low levels of nutrients such as zinc and B vitamins.Lower thyroid hormones will cause lower energy levels.
An under-active thyroid can make you feel very fatigued. Other symptoms can be sluggish digestion, constipation, depression and menstrual problems.
6. Stress lowers libido
In the same way that digestion is compromised due to a state of fight or flight, our libido can also take a hit. After all, if your life is in danger it's not a great time to be having sex. Chronic low libido can often be linked directly to stress levels.
I have recently introduced a program in my clinic called "Energy Reset". This program is designed for people who want to regain their energy by making some changes to their lifestyle and the way they eat. Stress is one of the many factors we address, as we explore the reasons why your energy might be low.
We need energy to be motivated at work, to enjoy our family time, to exercise and to have fun on weekends. Without energy we just don't feel like we're living our best life.
I am a naturopath, nutritionist, herbalist and certified wellness coach.
I welcome clients to my clinic in Gladesville, Sydney.
This blog contains information from my Bachelor of Health Science degree, continuing research, and from experience gained from working with men and women in my clinic.
The blog is not intended as individual health advice and you should seek assistance for medical conditions. Herbal medicines do not replace medications prescribed by your doctor.