There are many different words we use to describe how we are feeling in the current global pandemic and the isolation we are enduring. Words like anxiety, worry, concern, apprehension, strain, or stress are all based on fear of something. Any fear or perceived threat to safety activates our Sympathetic Nervous System and can over long term cause havoc with our health. In light of our current situation more than ever it is important that we are staying healthy or even better: building our health to be more resistant to contracting illness. So in case we do get sick, at least we can have less symptoms and shorter duration. We have all seen the recommended nutrients for a good immune system, but have you thought about the link between stress levels and the suppression of our immune system? In a stressful situation, the body cannot differentiate between stress of surviving a burning building, or stress of enduring slow internet. Long term activation of the Sympathetic nervous system leads to high blood pressure, digestive problems, and suppression of the immune system.
You may have heard of the Sympathetic Nervous system and the HPA axis. The Sympathetic Nervous System is the branch of our Autonomic Nervous System which is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. While the HPA (Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal) Axis is what regulates the Sympathetic Nervous system. If there is an event, then the chain of reaction the body goes through is what allows us to survive the situation.
SO WHAT HAPPENS?
The immediate response is the release of adrenaline (the scientific name is norepinephrine), which works as both a neurotransmitter and a hormone.
Adrenaline as a neurotransmitter: this is released into the skeletal muscle which allows for the fight or flight response.
Adrenaline as a hormone: released from the adrenal medulla and sent throughout the body.
This adrenalin surge leaves you feeling good: highly aware with a clear, sharp mind, physically strong and able to take action quickly. Increased heart rate and perspiration are also affects you may recognise. This adrenaline sends blood to skeletal muscles and restricts blood to our digestive system, thus lowering our digestive capability. Adrenaline throughout the body also delays wound healing indicating the immune system involvement .
Next the HPA axis kicks in:
The Hypothalamus sends a specific message by releasing Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) to the Pituitary gland.
This causes the Pituitary gland to send a message by releasing Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)
ACTH stimulates the Adrenal cortex to release cortisol. Unlike adrenalin, cortisol’s effect is a slower release, like a dense log in a fire: it takes longer to catch on fire and releases heat slowly over a longer period of time.
The body naturally releases cortisol in response to:
- Low blood sugar
Cortisol released into the body causes:
- increased blood sugar by gluconeogenesis (this is where fats, proteins and carbohydrates are all converted into glucose to meet the increased needs required to survive)
- decreases inflammation (it stops the production of eicosanoids which is an immune system mediator necessary in the immune response and healing of wounds )
ONGOING DAILY STRESS:
We now know that the immune system works together with the nervous and endocrine systems . In fact, all the body systems work together. Unfortunately for women in particular, chronic stress is linked to immunosuppression . Women with higher cortisol levels have impaired memory and slight brain shrinkage . Being in a chronic state of increased blood sugar thanks to cortisol leads to type 2 diabetes, depression, obesity, and cardiovascular disease . If you think browsing Facebook is relaxing, then consider a recent study which associated Facebook induced anxiety with a lower immune system .
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Below is a lists of ideas to break the cycle of chronic stress. Some can be done at home, and others may require professional help. The world is quickly changing to a new normal. I am conducting all Naturopathic Consults online, so both my husband and I are currently working from home. I have been home-schooling my kids (again, so its nothing unusual for us), we have been doing HIIT exercises together, and having all our meals together at the dinner table (without devices mostly). Now is the perfect time to implement regular strategies which you can stick to in your new normal.
- Meditation – if you are new to meditation, then consider a guided meditation app. I like https://synctuition.com/ which has free programs
- Mindfulness – simply being present to your environment, whether that be your loved ones, or the food you are eating; enjoy each moment
- Talk to a friend – sometimes it is good to unload onto a friend and talk things out
- Counselling – sometimes you need some helpful strategies to get you through. There are online sources available like https://www.beyondblue.org.au/, https://mensline.org.au/, or https://www.headspace.com/
- Eat a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruit
- Take B vitamins to support the nervous system – I can suggest options
- Herbal medicine for adrenal and nervous system support – depending on the individual
- Bach Flower essences for emotional support – available here https://www.facebook.com/truwellness.com.au/
- Timeline Therapy to release the negative emotion of fear around the novel virus – this can help https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WIwRHbPguU or contact me
- Relaxing music
- Exercise – daily movement is important. I like using the free app called: Interval Timer － HIIT Training
- Laughter – zoom your friend or family, or watch a good comedy on Netflix.
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- Echouffo-Tcheugui J, Conner S, Himali J et al. Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study. Neurology. 2018 Nov 20;91(21):e1961-e1970. DOI: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30355700
- Joseph J and Golden S. Cortisol dysregulation: the bidirectional link between stress, depression, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016; 1391(1): 20–34. DOI: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5334212/
- Campisi J, May J, Burch K et al. Anxiety-inducing Facebook behavior is associated with higher rates of upper respiratory infection in college-aged users. Computers in Human Behavior. 2017 Nov; 76:211-217. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.07.022