Stress- it isn’t all bad…..
Argh stress!!! A catch phrase we have all heard a billion times. What exactly is Stress? Based on the original definition from Hans Selye’s book, The Stress of Life, stress can be seen either positive or negative (eustress or distress). Both cause a reaction from your body and it is your body’s ability to adapt to stress that is essential to growing, developing and thriving in this modern life. It is how your body recognises and adapts to stress that determines if it is positive or negative, so by definition stress in itself isn’t all that bad.
We think that stress unfortunately cops some fairly negative press and is often seen as the perpetual bad guy. We want to help you understand how your body recognises and adapts to stress, what we can do to make the most out of stressful situations and how we can turn stress into the positive stimulus it often is designed to be.
Adapting to Stress
Your body’s ability to adapt to stress is based on a many different influences i.e., the amount and type of stress, the environment you are in, the time frame you’re given, additional stressors occurring at the time, whether you perceive it as a positive or a negative, fatigue levels and previous exposure to similar stress. In order to react to stress, your body must recognise & adapt to what is going on. This means activating your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). As the name suggests, the ANS triggers automatically and happens at a speed faster than your conscious control. The ANS has two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Think of these systems like Yin & Yang or two sides of the same coin. They work in direct opposition to each other and both must be fully present and functional for you to respond, react and adapt to stress.
Fight & Flight Vs Rest & Digest
The Yin or sympathetic is your “on” system. Your fight or flight response and your literal go button. When switched “on” heart rate elevates, blood vessels constrict and blood pressure increases and pupils dilate. Whats more, blood flow pumps to the working muscles, muscular contraction increases and the production of hormones, epinephrine, norepinephrine, estrogen, testosterone and cortisol are increased. Conversely the Yang or parasympathetic system is when the curtains are closed. This is your rest and digest system, it’s responsible for rebuilding and recharging the body after the strain of sympathetic activity. It is here the majority of recovery and repair occurs. Hormones such as dopamine, progesterone and human growth hormone are produced and cortisol production stops.
The Sympathetic System is awesome- without it we wouldn’t be able to get excited, defend, attack, or sprint. The Olympics would be as exciting as watching the grass grow. However, we can’t run around 100% of the time in a sympathetic state. Continual Sympathetic exposure exhausts and depletes the supply of the major hormones. This results in an energy deficit unable to produce the next desired fight or flight response.
It’s like the fable the boy who cries wolf where the townsfolk no longer come to the rescue of the boy. Continual exposure to sympathetic stress can dull, blunt or completely switch off the body’s ability to mount a defence or attack. Many people are perpetually stuck in this Sympathetic state as such the term Sympathetic Dominance (SD) came about. As opposed to the Yin Yang theory of balance, we are now in a 100% Yin phase and we are missing half of the coin.
How do you know if you are at risk of Sympathetic Dominance? It’s a tough question as the list of associated problems hormonal issues, insomnia, heart health, feeling of burnout, digestive issues, or muscular deficiency is seemingly endless. We believe that knowledge is power so we want to take a look at these 6 major issues associated with SD and shed a little light on how stress can play a big role:
A progressively dangerous condition. The warning shots are often silent and it is easy to end up in a rut tough to dig out of. Stimulation of the Sympathetic System triggers something known as the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA axis). Continued firing of this pathway triggers the release of inflammatory markers which bombard the thyroid. This perpetual attacking of the thyroid can reduce thyroid activity. Prolonged periods of decreased thyroid activity can result in hypothyroidism which is often associated with increased fatigue, lethargy and a big contributor to burnout.
Estrogen is a major hormone that releases in a Sympathetic state. Estrogen imbalance is often inflammatory and linked to irregular or painful periods, endometriosis, decreased thyroid activity and hypothyroidism. Similar to the HPA axis, continual stimulation is the biggest way to create a problem and cause more permanent damage.
Ever noticed that even after the most stressful day it’s almost impossible to fall asleep? It doesn’t seem to matter if it was an emotionally stressful day, mental overload or flat out physical exhaustion from a huge race. Whether physically, emotionally or chemically wired (yes a big night on the booze can be a problem) your ability to sleep can be affected. Your brain can be too busy processing the events from the day, cortisol and heart rate can be elevated making it impossible to switch off. This inability to switch off is another example of the body’s sympathetic system in overdrive.
Stress hormones force an increased heart rate and blood supply to working muscles. This is great if we need to escape a raging bull. However, continued stress of the heart can literally be life threatening. Conditions known as athlete’s heart occur where there are changes to size of the left ventricle and muscle changes to the wall of the heart. We’ve heard the stories of exceptionally fit people i.e. Dean Mercer who passed away suddenly from heart failure.
However, it isn’t just athletes at risk. Continued mental stress exposure for the corporate exec can increase blood pressure and pulse rate. Too much time in this stressed stage can damage the heart and valves leading to potential problems.
In the middle of escaping from a lion the body isn’t too concerned about processing food. Blood shunts to the working muscles and drives movement to escape the beast. Although very useful for short term, we can’t stay here for long. The plethora of digestive issues and intolerance’s in society these days suggests way too much time in a stressed out state and an inability for us to process and absorb the necessary food and nutrients.
Personally, a few years ago I was severely anaemic and it wasn’t diet or bleeding- I just was not absorbing my food. At the time too much emotional and physical baggage kept me wound tighter than a clock. Just like the snake who ate an antelope, we need time and relaxation to process food. Busy corporate’s who eat on the go or say “I’m too busy to eat” are sending their digestive system in a spin similar to Ironman athletes trying to eat as they run. Fluctuations in energy, concentration, bloating, flatulence and uneasiness in the belly are all good signs that your belly is in stress. It might be time to slow down and feed the beast and give your body time to process your food. As Snickers says, “you’re not you when you’re hungry.”
Muscle cramping, twitching and extreme muscle weakness is not normal. A muscle by itself is pretty dumb, it won’t do much. Muscle activity is controlled via the nerve system and if you are sympathetically active your muscles will be told to fire and launch. Muscles only have a finite ability to do this similar to there being only X number of matches in a matchbox. Once the matches are burnt out there is no more fuel left to fire. Muscles will twitch and cramp as they try to find enough fuel to fire properly. In a sympathetic state your muscles are hyper-alert and primed to fire. This constant state of “Go” uses a lot of fuel. Allowing your muscles a chance to switch off gives them time to reboot & recharge.
Balancing out the Scales
There’s a lot of issues, problems and disorders that occur as result of too much time in a sympathetic state. So how do we balance out the scales? How much time in a parasympathetic state do we need? This is illustrated beautifully in the sporting field where training is literally 50% of the equation. Adapting to the training and recovering from it is where the physical and performance gains can come from. Ironman athletes like Andy Potts get 10 hours of sleep a night and nap during the day. Sebastian Kienle prides himself on being a master napper. Several Kenyan runners laze around and do nothing whenever they aren’t running. Many elite military men pride themselves on their ability to fall asleep anywhere, to take micro naps to help recharge the batteries.
In the business world Arianna Huffington, the woman behind the Huffington Post and her book, Thrive, places huge emphasis on sleep and having sufficient down time to charge the batteries. Even billionaire Warren Buffet places time as his number one commodity and for that reason only has very few things he “must do” in his diary to allow for enough rest and focus on those important tasks.
Recovering From Stress
We now know stress isn’t all that bad. We need to adapt and recover from stress. The bigger the workout the more rest and recovery required. If getting results is important, then we need to recover and relax before going full throttle again. “Stepping off the gas” allows the hormonal system to take a break. Cooling the production of major inflammatory hormones (i.e. cortisol) decreasing stress on the heart and giving the working muscles and nervous system needed respite. The body needs a break from repeated bouts of forceful contraction, shifting blood flow from hard working muscles back to essential processing organs like the liver, kidneys, stomach and intestines. Soft tissue structures like muscles, ligaments, discs and tendons need a break otherwise they become strained, stressed and likely to be torn.
Wearables to the Rescue
Wearable technology can now help to provide an objective feedback of individual stress responses. Monitoring heart rate is a great way to track parasympathetic and sympathetic activity. An elevated resting heart rate is an early sign of over training. It’s a warning sign your sympathetic system is still switched on and needs recovery. Worse though is Sympathetic burnout which can take months if not years to get over. Here in the boy who cried wolf analogy the body is chronically overstimulated when the boy cries Wolf, Wolf, Wolf no one comes. No training stimulus, sprint or hill even creates a response. Wearable technology can help us avoid that mistake by making sure we are seeing a rise in heart rate that corresponds to a rise in how hard we feel we are pushing.
Multisport watches like the Garmin Fenix automatically recommend a certain about of recovery time after a workout. Activity trackers like Morpheus and whoop measure activity versus recovery using some very complicated algorithms. It also uses heart rate variability (HRV) to provide a recommendation on the amount of sleep required and how hard to push yourself. HRV is something I haven’t used, but the science behind it is brilliant. It’s a measure of the variation between individual heart beats. This variation is something that is necessary to your ability to adapt and survive.
HRV Is Necessary To Your Ability To Adapt and Survive
Tracking HRV can provide an early indicator of how stressed or relaxed your body is from the previous session. If still too stressed you are already fatigued before working out so your response won’t be very good. If relaxed it could be a perfect time to go hard. A too high a reading of your HRV could indicate an overexcited state. Too little a reading your body could be heading towards sympathetic burnout. Similar to Goldilocks, to get the most out of your training we don’t want it too hot or too cold, we want it just right. This is a very simple view of HRV & the major companies like eliteHRV, ithlete and researchers like Daniel Plews have done huge volumes of research on this.
It appears as though the Parasympathetic requires at least 8 hours per day to counteract Sympathetic activity. 75% of which in full sleep mode which equates to a minimum of 6 hours of sleep per night combined with a few very relaxed and chilled out hours. So 8 hrs of downtime with 6 hrs of sleep should allow you to counteract the physical and lifestyle stresses that constantly trigger the Sympathetic or fight/flight response.
Making the most of Stressful Situations
Listed below are 11 lifestyle choices to maximise a parasympathetic state:
- Get adjusted. Whether in pain or not a chiropractic adjustment can not only make you feel better it can directly activate the parasympathetic off switch. That’s why we get the big “ahh” so often after an adjustment.
- Get to bed early. Sleep with the sun. Early to bed and early to rise makes jack a productive boy.
- Turn off the phone. Even if you are not looking at it, the electrical interference from phones can still disrupt sleep.
- Minimise screen time. Excess bright lights from computers or televisions artificially stimulate your brain making it harder to switch off & fall asleep.
- Cut out the late night sugar hit. Making your digestive system process a high processed snack is a sure fire way to keep your tummy rumbling all night.
- Deep breathing. According to some yoga practices, it can take as little as 18 full nasal inspirations & expiration’s to switch into a parasympathetic state.
- Light stretching or foam rolling. It helps to decrease muscle tension from the day, enabling you to relax into a sleepy state easier.
- Calming teas. Caffeine free teas like Peppermint or Rooibos can help to promote relaxation.
- Meditation. Taking deliberate time to calm & focus on breathing can be a great way to clear your mind & prepare for a great night’s sleep.
- Warm showers. Promote your body’s ability to relax and switch off.
- Sleep in a cool environment. The ideal temperature for sleeping is 18 degrees.
How can we turn Stress into a Positive Stimulus?
Stress, Chiropractic and Living on the Edge!
So why am I, a chiropractor and endurance junkie, writing about this? My answer to this is 3 fold:
- Firstly, I believe many of us only see stress as a problem and aren’t fully aware of its benefits.
- Stress is everywhere. So where do we turn? The stress boils up inside until we literally explode. Many people are unaware that the upper neck, hips and pelvis are home to parasympathetic nervous system. Chiropractic care can directly influence these areas. That hunched computer posture can also be directly and continually irritating the sympathetic stress system too.
- Many of you know that May 12-14th 2018 I raced a 3 day triathlon, Ultraman Australia. It’s was biggest endurance event I’d ever tackled and 515 km of racing had me training like never before.
Forward Posture Is More Prevalent Throughout All Age Groups
As for chiropractic, take a short walk down the street through the mall and observe people’s posture. Most are standing or sitting around slouched or hunching over. Originally, this was a problem of aging however, this hunched & stooped posture is getting more prevalent throughout all age groups. Kids & adults alike spend hours on computers, tablets, phones and other devices. This amazing technological revolution comes at a cost. Our technical boom is pulling our head off our shoulders and our back is straining to keep up with it. Our eyes and head stare at the screen and our spinal curve and pressure increases. Studies show with the head at 15 degrees, it weighs 12.3 kg, by 30 degrees, it increases to 18.2 kg, at 45 degrees, it weighs a whopping 22.3 kg and finally at 60 degrees, it exerts a force 27.3 kg on the spine.
Hunching Creates More Than Just Muscle Tension
It can cause a plethora of issues including:
- Structural stiffness. As the joints go through increased wear and tear, the discs start to collapse. The ligaments supporting the spine then can stretch and shorten. If left long enough these postural changes can be so debilitating they can’t be undone by exercise.
- The thoracic (middle) part of the spine is the anchor for the rib cage. A stiff or hunched spine restricts normal rib movement. This compresses organs limiting the space for lungs to expand. This decreases the ability to engage the diaphragm. When dealing with stress we want as much oxygen rich diaphragmatic air as possible.
- The majority of the sympathetic nervous system lives in the thoracic spine. If compressed then these nerves will be irritated or excited.
Suppose you walk into the bathroom to find the floor flooded, the bath overflowing and the tap still on – grabbing the mop and sponging up the water will not do much good, the cause needs to be taken care of first. Chiropractic aims to correct postural stiffness opening up the space between the vertebrae again. Chiropractic assists in preventing progressive structural stiffness building up restoring normal disc height & ligament damage. Full movement through your back will help noramalise breathing allowing beautiful big diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing to occur.
Following on the previous analogy, chiropractic is not just mopping the flooded floor, chiropractic helps to remove the plug and switch off the tap. Normalising thoracic movement with chiropractic can decrease pressure on an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system. This allows your body to efficiently switch between sympathetic overdrive and parasympathetic reboot restoring the balance.
“Thankfully with the help of a smart coach…I avoided what a lot of athletes stumble into…”
Lastly for Ultraman Australia, that crazy race my training had me racking up the K’s and the hours in an unprecedented fashion. Thankfully with the help of a smart coach, I avoided what a lot of athletes stumble into- over training. My coach carefully balanced my training time and intensity along with my other life commitments. At times I felt like I was right on the edge, balancing full time work, staying (happily) married and actually turning up being dad.
It was a real tough balance. Some training weeks were hitting 30 hrs/wk. There was a few consecutive weekends of over 200 k on the bike and 50 k’s running. I certainly had some sluggish or tired days and generally my mood and heart rate showed it. However, after a solid feed and a good night’s rest I was back to my normal self. I never had an issue with this feeling lasting longer than a day. I think the fact I was deliberately eating a lot more and tried to carry a little extra weight helped. Monitoring my heart rate when training and listening to my body to rest and eat certainly saved me from going off the edge. I am glad I did it, but I am not running back to this type of training again anytime soon.
So, What Can Stress Do To You?
The short answer is A LOT!!!! Hopefully you’ll find above a fair few ways that you can help to monitor your stress levels. This might also make you aware of a few other ways stress may be affecting you. It’s my hope that you’ll be aware of problems before they get too out of hand. I hope you can use some tools listed above to find that beautiful balance that exists in all of us; between the warrior of fight and flight and the Zen master of rest and digest.