It’s like the old saying goes – ‘it’s the stress stupid!’ Ok maybe that’s not exactly it, but in this case it’s a useful play on a classic. I used to think diet was the most important factor in wellness and longevity, that being hyper conscious of every bite we put into our mouths would guarantee well-being. But I have come to believe that diet pales in comparison to managing the biggest health risk in our lives – chronic stress.
As humans we were designed with a built in stress response system called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The actions of this system – commonly known as ‘fight or flight’ – were designed to kick in at rare moments of acute stress. Basically our body shuts down digestion and any other non-essential survival functions in order to give us increased speed and strength. This epic design was a very useful tool in fending off the types of stressors that early humans faced – an attack by a wild animal or fellow human. These events were rare and finite and once they were over our body switched back into parasympathetic mode also known as ‘rest and digest’. That is the state we want to be in the majority of our lives to experience optimal health.
In our modern world we have far fewer threats of a tiger jumping out of the jungle but we are faced with many other consistent stress triggers that activate our SNS. Since our body can’t tell the difference between types of stress, our nervous system is responding as if we’re being attacked by a wild animal 50 times a day. Being in a consistent stress response elevates our cortisol (the stress hormone) which escalates into a host of problems including high blood pressure, fat accumulation, depressed immune response, bone density loss, anxiety and blood sugar imbalances.
Given all this, it is of the utmost importance that we manage and, whenever possible, reduce stress. Now sometimes there’s not much we can do about the stress in our lives – we have to go to work, we have to drive, we have to take care of our kids, etc. But once we become aware of the impact that stress has on our bodies, we have the ability to do a few things:
- Make empowered choices to put our health and well-being over other things like money, career and even many relationships
- Increase our resilience and manage our stress response
- Support our bodies with healthy diet choices, clean beauty products and avoiding chemical exposure so as not to pile even more on top of this stress shit storm.
So #1 is a BIG one to tackle and I’m not going to do it all here 🙂 but I will share one personal anecdote and a few tips:
In my mid 20s I had a job in health and wellness where I had unlimited access to the most optimal nutrition and healing modalities. My diet and lifestyle were pristine and yet I was also experiencing one of the most stressful times of my life. I always felt like I was just treading water, only barely compensating for the toll stress was taking on my body.
When I left that job, I took over 6 months off to decompress and travel. My diet was far less ‘perfect’ and initially I worried that my body would fall apart. There was a time where I thought I wouldn’t be able to function if I wasn’t drinking spirulina smoothies and eating $20 superfood salads at every meal but it turns out with a balanced nervous system, I felt better than ever. By completely eliminating stress from my life and maintaining as much of the good nutritional balance as I could while traveling, I learned how much stress was impacting my health and how important it was to make choices that truly nourished my well-being.
Living with purpose is a great way to manage stress. Many of us are lucky to have jobs/careers that light us up with purpose and passion. If you are not one of those people, pursue a hobby, passion or service outside of your work that gives you a greater sense of meaning even if it’s just spending quality time with your family. A purpose in life greater than yourself, greater than money that helps you stay grounded and connected is key in the stress management game
Learn When to Say Yes and When to Say No
So many of us beautiful humans are so kind and generous and truly want to be there for the people we care about. We want to be the best parents, friends, children, siblings and employees but we also must set boundaries to protect our own well-being. If you find yourself drowning in commitments to the point where it’s affecting your health, it’s time to assess what’s really important and say a few ‘NOs’ even if you know it’ll disappoint someone you care about. The people who truly love you will understand and once the dust settles you’ll be able to show up as a much better version of yourself for them anyway. As they say on every damn airplane, ‘put on your own mask before assisting others’!
#2 is the meat of this equation and so here are some of the ways I increase resilience and manage stress in my life:
Incorporating the magical plants that were put on this earth to nourish us as teas or tinctures is a fantastic way to help our bodies deal with stress. The class of herbs known as adaptogens are literally designed to protect us from stress in any way our body needs. Learn about these plants to find the one that best suits your needs.
Tulsi/Holy Basil Ashwagandha Rhodiola
Eleuthero Ginsengs Reishi
Nervines are another key plant group that balance stress by nourishing our nervous systems.
Lemon Balm Passionflower Skullcap
Kava Kava Milky Oats Motherwort
I cannot overstate the role that yoga has played in my life. During my most stressful times it has kept me sane and become an essential part of how I navigate my life. Yoga can be a great physical workout but more importantly it’s about nourishment for mind, body and spirit. A great yoga practice offers a unique combination of movement, meditation, breathwork, philosophy and stillness that is complete nourishment for our souls. If you’re in the mood for a good sweat, hit up hot yoga, if you want to get out of your head, try kundalini, if you need to decompress, try restorative and if you want the full package, find a great vinyasa flow class with an experienced teacher.
Our bodies love simple, functional movement. People tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves to ‘exercise’ which is great if exercise truly makes you happy, relieves stress and doesn’t overtax your body. But simply taking a walk, going for a swim, spending time in nature or even cleaning your home while listening to music are great ways get your body moving and release stress from your nervous system.
Meditation or a Practice to Quiet the Mind
Many of the most successful people on Earth share that they could not be where they are without a meditation practice. Quieting the mind and sitting still is an essential practice for our nervous systems. If you absolutely cannot sit still, try a sound bath, floating, or another form of energy work that allows for full body relaxation.
Manage what You’re Exposed To
In today’s world, we have endless choices about what we feed into our brains and nervous systems and if what you’re choosing is worsening your stress, it’s time to pivot. Now this looks different for everyone. I recently saw an article that said when pregnant women listen to music they love (whether classical or heavy metal) their babies are calmer and have stronger nervous systems! It’s extra important to be in touch with what really feeds you on a cellular level so maybe for you that’s you turning off the news, keeping TVs out of the bedroom, filling your home with calming, natural scents, candles, flowers and good music, creating sacred spaces in your life and sacred rituals in your day – even if your sacred ritual is dancing in your underwear to the latest Lizzo single (just me??).
#3 Takes this whole thing to the next level by helping us commit to building a balanced lifestyle that supports us in spite of stress
The diet piece here is twofold. Nutritious foods of course support the health of our nerves, our brains, our guts and our hormones whereas foods with lots of pesticides, chemicals, inflammatory oils, starches and other poor ingredients put an added burden on our systems so from a pure biological standpoint, we’re always going to operate better when we choose the best fuel. In addition, when our bodies are under stress, we simply do not absorb nutrients or digest our food as well (remember ‘fight or flight’ vs. ‘rest and digest’). This is why adding an unhealthy diet on top of a stressful situation is the perfect storm for illness. So especially during times when you are under excessive stress, it’s more important than ever to make sure your diet is nourishing and supportive.
This same principle goes for many of the other choices we make on a daily basis. Unfortunately in our modern world we are exposed to chemicals from every angle from pollution, to our water, our cleaning supplies, beauty products, building materials and on and on and on. When are bodies are under consistent stress, they simply cannot process out the chemical exposure we are faced with. There’s a LOT we can’t control which is why I highly recommend making the best choices wherever you can – switch to clean beauty and cleaning products, make sure you’re drinking only filtered water (sorry, Brita’s not gonna cut it), and avoid use of common endocrine disruptors like plastic!
As you can tell, I’m a firm believer that we must protect ourselves from the effects of stress and really build our whole lives around managing this reality. There’s much more we can dive into on this topic but this should give you a solid place to start from in increasing your awareness and resilience.