What stresses you out?
If you are like most Australians you get stressed by work deadlines, finances, over committing, worry, negative self talk, relationships, commuting and distressing world events. All these daily stressors can create within us a state of chronic low energy.
Often people don't recognise how stressed they are. We like to think that we are successfully juggling all our commitments. When one extra thing lands on your plate you suddenly realise you've no capacity to take on any more stress. For me, that additional stress can be as simple as my kids needing a fancy hat for a school Easter parade.
Everyone reacts to stress in a different way. One person may develop high blood pressure, while someone else may become anxious, have panic attacks, or suffer from ongoing digestive complaints. All of these stress responses drain our daily energy.
Many of us are additionally exposed to environmental toxins, overuse of alcohol and drugs, medications, poor eating habits and lack of exercise (or over-exercising). Often we use these as a way of coping with our stressful lives.
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. Poor sleep can be a result of being overcommitted to work, study or netflix, without enough hours in the day for hitting the pillows.
For many, worrying about work, finances, relationships, global events and time pressures can stop them from getting a refreshing nights sleep, often waking in the early hours of the morning with a busy mind.
By far the most common reason I see in my clinic for poor sleep is the daily consumption of coffee and alcohol. Coffee boosts short-term energy levels, but depletes long-term energy levels by disrupting sleep. Alcohol is the favourite way for Australians to relax but plays havoc with sleep and energy levels.
I often recommend that people take a break from coffee and alcohol for a month to see how they feel. Almost everyone reports that they sleep better and feel more energetic in the morning.
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. The rise of cortisol helps us to bounce out of bed feeling great in the morning, and then cortisol should drop in the afternoon to help us become sleepy at night.
Chronic stress levels can 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
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 stress response that assisted us to run from our foe.
Unfortunately, today 'fight or flight' is a constant state for many people. This condition of low level anxiety diverts blood flow away from the digestive system to prioritise heart, lung and muscle function.
Many people suffer bloating, reflux, indigestion, pain, diarrhoea and constipation. In approximately 60% of digestive cases in my clinic, we discover that the symptoms are strongly related to high stress levels and anxiety. These symptoms are an indicator that your digestion is compromised.
Energy is created in every cell of our body using the nutrients from the food that we have eaten. Nutrients such as iron, vitamin B12 and magnesium are required for energy production. When our digestion is compromised by stress it can lead to nutrient deficiencies and lowered energy levels, even when we are eating well.
4. Stress creates sugar cravings
When we are stressed we crave carbohydrates. Glucose is the fuel we require when we need to run from immediate 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 physical threat is not real, it's mostly in our mind. The signal of danger is sent to our brain by the way we are breathing, the way we are holding our body, and the thoughts we are having. Just think of the way you feel with a work deadline looming.
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 or dense in essential nutrients. Most often we eat cake, chocolate and lollies, or reach for soft drinks to pacify sugar cravings. These foods then contribute to a cycle of sugar cravings and low energy.
Over time, the cycle of stress, sugar craving and poor food choices leads to weight gain, obesity and chronic low energy.
5. Stress lowers thyroid function
Your thyroid is a gland located in your throat and is responsible for producing a thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormones tell all your other cells how much energy to make. An under-active thyroid can make you feel very fatigued. Other symptoms of an under-active thyroid can be sluggish digestion, constipation, depression and menstrual problems.
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, selenium and B vitamins.
It is recommended that anyone experiencing low energy checks in with their doctor to rule out thyroid disease. Naturopaths can support healthy thyroid function with a combination of stress management, herbal medicines and nutrient supplementation. This treatment is usually short term unless stress levels remain high.
Without energy we just don't feel like we're living our best life. That's why I have 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.
The Energy reset program offers 6 consultations for the price of 5 and takes you through the factors needed for energy step by step. Stress and nutrition are two of the many factors we address, as we explore the reasons why your energy might be low.
I am a naturopath, nutritionist, herbalist and certified wellness coach.
I welcome clients to my clinics in Gladesville, and Surry Hills 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.