• Julia Davies

Understanding & Managing Stress

Updated: Apr 1, 2019

We all have stress in our lives, and certain types of stress can be beneficial. But when stress is on-going, it affects us negatively and has devastating consequences on all our body systems.


The nuts ‘n bolts


The nervous system


Our nerves run through every millimetre of our bodies, which is why stress has such an impact on every body system. There are two sides to the nervous system:

  • sympathetic nervous system ("SNS"), also known as ‘fight or flight’ and controls the reaction to stress, and

  • parasympathetic nervous system ("PNS"), known as the ‘rest and digest’ and helps calms us down.

The PNS and SNS are controlled by the hypothalamus, a gland within the brain that deals with emotions, memories, and every single stimulation received and perceived. When the hypothalamus senses a stimulation, it releases hormones that travel via the bloodstream to the pituitary gland, which is located within the brain.


The pituitary gland links the nervous system to the glandular system. It responds by releasing its hormones which reach the glands in the body via the bloodstream. The glands respond by secreting their hormones, which cause various functions of the body. It operates like an organised company: the managing director (hypothalamus) tells his managers (pituitary gland) to delegate to the staff (glands of the body) to get certain tasks done for the smooth running of the entire business.


'Hormone' = "to set in motion"


All glands in the body secrete hormones that set things in motion. Some examples are:

  • insulin and glucagon: released by pancreas, responsible for glucose metabolism;

  • thyroid hormones: released by pituitary and thyroid glands, responsible for maintaining body temperature, metabolism and heart rate; and 

  • oestrogen and testosterone: released by ovaries in women and testes in men, responsible for female and male characteristics, respectively.

Adrenaline, cortisol and nor-epinephrine are the three main stress hormones, and they're released from the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. We need stress hormones for emergency situations, and even day-to-day activities. Adrenaline is what wakes us up in the morning and gets us out of bed. The problem arises when stress hormones are released on a daily ‘drip feed’ from chronic stress: being stuck in traffic on the way to work, the angry boss, anxiety doing the shopping, an impending exam, extreme weather, or anything that aggravates or stresses you out emotionally, physically or mentally.


The effects of stress hormones


Even if we perceive something as a threat and know that it's not actual danger, the SNS reacts. Stress hormones will continue to be released until the source of stress is removed, or you can effectively manage the effects of the stress, and calm down.


The effects of stress hormones are necessary for a fight, or to take flight:

  • increased heart rate;

  • raised blood pressure;

  • fast, shallow breathing;

  • blood redirected from the skin, intestines and internal organs, to the brain, and major muscle groups (for fight or flight);

  • increased anxiety and alertness - great in an emergency, but in a state of constant dread or anxiety, our brains get tired, mind fog and fatigued from being so alert;

  • increased cognitive function to make decisions faster - doesn't mean we make good decisions if we are in a constant state of high alert and tiredness;

  • cortisol helps lower sensitivity to pain - people often don't notice severe injuries until they actually see the wound; and

  • when the PNS kicks in, cortisol helps regulate blood pressure go back to normal.

Less blood flow to the digestive organs means less digestion of food and less absorption of nutrients. Our skin and extremities may become cold, due to less blood flow, however, sweating actually increases, which is why cold, clammy hands are a sign of nervous stress.


Cortisol is involved in glucose metabolism and insulin release, so when cortisol levels are constantly high, fat accumulates around the middle of the stomach/waist. This increases the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.


The effects of stress


When you get a fright, you instantly feel the surge throughout your body. These are the stress hormones flooding your system. Yet it takes a noticeably longer time to calm down. This is because the hormones released are very potent, and need to be broken down and removed, which takes some time. Also, it is more important to react in an emergency situation than the need to calm down afterwards.


During times of stress or an emergency situation, any system that is not required to perform is shut down. Digestion, reproduction, immune function, blood cell production, detoxification processes, and many other functions, are all stopped or greatly reduced. Because immune function is virtually stopped, the long term impact of stress weakens our immune system, so we will not fight off diseases very well.


The nervous system connects to our digestive system via the enteric nervous system ("ENS"), or 'gut brain', which carries out digestive processes in an autonomous way so that we don’t have to think about digesting our food. When the ENS is alerted of a stressor by the central nervous system, or being under continuing chronic stress, digestive function is greatly reduced. Even saliva in the mouth is greatly reduced, causing the dry mouth we have when we are nervous.


Once the PNS calms the system down, digestion resumes, thus the ‘rest and digest’ response. The expressions 'stomach in knots' or 'my stomach turned', or when someone can't eat from being too nervous, highlights how stress affects digestion.


The liver is also affected by stress, because it has to break down the surplus of stress hormones, as well as the 500+ daily functions it performs. Read here for more about the liver, and here for more about digestion.


Chronic stress causes: gastritis, ulcerative colitis, IBS, peptic ulcers, hypertension, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, anxiety, depression, poorly functioning immune system, and many more symptoms and diseases.


How to reduce your stress


We need to tap into the PNS to focus on calming down. If we get the hypothalamus not to perceive the stress as stressful, or if we do things that stimulate the hypothalamus to receive calm signals that influence the rest of the nervous system, then we can help the body calm down.  


To attack the stress, physical, mental and emotional all symptoms need to be addressed:

  • Herbs and Bach Flower Remedies can help calm a nervous system down by calming the mind and thoughts.

  • Herbs can help slow down breathing and heartbeat, improve liver and digestive function.

  • Herbs can help improve poor sleep, which is important to help repair and remove waste products and excess hormones.

  • Herbs can help improve immune system function.

  • The right diet can help combat fatigue and the right nutrients help nervous system function.

  • Reduce sugar, caffeine and alcohol, as these all contribute to a high cortisol level.

  • Getting enough exercise, even going for a walk can help clear the mind. Exercise releases feel-good endorphines, which help remove stress hormones.

  • Activated vitamin B complex helps energy levels.

  • Magnesium can help relax muscles and ease constipation.

  • Fish oils can reduce inflammation and cortisol levels.

  • Meditation, mindfulness techniques, breathing techniques can reduce physical symptoms, eg. palpitations and fast breathing, and help quieten your mind, which is where it all starts!

  • Do fun things that bring you pleasure - hobby, going to a comedy show, anything that makes you happy, especially laughing. Being happy releases endorphines that make you feel good and more relaxed, and counteract the stress hormones.

  • Massage, acupuncture, or other body therapies can help tight muscles, and a mind on wheels!

  • Talk to someone about the things on your mind.

  • Rest as much as possible. Even lying down in a dark room with your eyes shut, in silence or with soothing music. Let your mind wander/switch off.

  • Write down the stressors, how stressed they make you feel emotionally and physically to try tackle each one. Think of the ‘flight’ part of ‘fight and flight’ as running away from your fears, and the 'fight' part facing them head on to fight them with these natural techniques.

  • If you have a phobia or are having difficulty removing the anxiety/fear, cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling may help change thought patterns.

If you have any of the above problems, please don't hesitate to contact me!

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© 2020 Julia Davies Medical Herbalist