I recognise that I talk about stress A LOT and I wanted to talk about it a bit more. If you've done one of my programmes, then you'll know when I am talking about stress, it's not *just* the gas bill/work presentation/job interview type of stress I mean: no, no, I also mean the hidden stresses in life, the things that we don't consider to be stressful, but that are absolutely having an impact on our nervous system and therefore, our internal environment.
So what do I mean? Stress is stress, right? Well, kind of. I consider stress to be anything external that has an impact on our internal environment. I imagine what you're thinking of is classical stress, like the bills and interviews I mention above. You'd be absolutely right, but this hidden stress also has an impact, and I'll explain my thoughts more.
Our nervous systems are primed to fire off stress hormones when we are faced with a stressful situation: think sabre-toothed tiger in our cave dwelling days. The body will start to release stress hormones like adrenaline, to prime us to fight the tiger, or flight as quickly as possible, because it's a real life or death situation. Our brains haven't evolved to be able to distinguish the difference between that kind of stress, and our current day kind of stress. So whilst once upon a time it served a great purpose to be fuelled by adrenaline, nowadays we tend to have less of these sabre-toothed tiger situations, and more of the day to day stresses: commuting, school runs, work meetings, and yes job interviews and paying the bills... but the problem is, the stressors aren't going away.
With a sabre-toothed tiger situation, eventually there is a resolution to that situation. If you've outsmarted the tiger then eventually your stress hormones come down and you crack on with life again as normal, until the next time you encounter the tiger. Now, once we have finished the awkward conversation at work, we go straight back into the commute, school run, answering emails in the evening... and so our tiger, albeit smaller, sits there next to us all day long
This kind of prolonged period of stress means that our stress hormones never really come back down to ground again, so our nervous systems are always just a little bit more aroused than they need to be.
For this kind of more chronic stress, our stress hormone cortisol takes over from adrenaline. So this is another stress hormone produced by the adrenals and it's responsible for helping your body deal with these more prolonged periods of stress, but still not for months on end - sometimes with no end in sight. It can increase your blood pressure, affect and impact sleep, and definitely have an impact on the menstrual cycle.
Your adrenals need nourishing and it's so hard to do this when the stress is ongoing - so we need to consider ways to help minimise the stress levels, and allow us to rest and restore at a deep level.
Under normal circumstances, our cortisol levels rise and fall throughout the day, being lowest in the evening which (along with decreasing light levels) allows our melatonin levels to rise. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for making us feel sleepy, and for aiding restful and restorative sleep overnight. If we're still pumping out cortisol, then it stops melatonin from being released and so we start to feel a bit tired, but pretty wired. And so we often will crack on in the evenings, do a bit more work, check some emails... ya know, continue exposing ourself to the stressors of the day.
We then go off to bed, expecting to fall asleep straight away, but our brains have other ideas, as we still have cortisol coursing through our bodies, so it can take some time to drop off, as cortisol drops and melatonin rises. Tossing and turning in bed to try and fall asleep can be really frustrating too and definitely not relaxing. When we do get to sleep, is when we get that vital rest and repair, and our adrenal glands, which are responsible for the stress and sex hormone production, get to have some down time. Well needed by this time I'd say.
Waking in the morning, kick starts our natural circadian rhythm again, so stress hormones start to rise, peaking around 9am and then we begin the cycle again for another day.
Eventually, this takes its toll and you get that tired and wired feeling, exhausted but unable to sleep, ratty, irritable and with random energy bursts at the 'wrong' time of day. This is what I'd classify as chronic stress, and you may have seen it called adrenal burnout. And the impact can ripple throughout your life, having an effect on concentration, digestion, libido, menstrual cycle, fertility.
The building block of the hormone cortisol, is the same building block that we use to produce progesterone (amongst others), one of the sex hormones responsible for influencing our menstrual cycle. During these times of prolonged exposure to stress, our bodies prioritise cortisol production over progesterone in a bid to keep us safe from the sabre-toothed-tiger (of work), because remember, our brains can't distinguish between the two.
Now I hope it makes sense why I'm always banging on about stress: because it really can affect everything, and often we don't recognise our own signs because we have been 'in' them for so long.
If this sounds like you then do not despair - It's not permanent and we absolutely CAN work on getting the balance back. There are some important lifestyle things that you can do yourself: first and foremost trying to set boundaries around work, tech and screens - allowing yourself to have some time to properly switch off in the evenings, ensuring your brain has actually had time to power down after work is hugely important: not only do we need this time to decompress, but we need to move away from the tech and blue light, to allow cortisol to come down and melatonin to rise. I blogged about some of my top tips for sleep too - those are super relevant here too: giving yourself the time to relax is also important, if you meditate then this would be an ideal time to do so, if not then maybe it's something worth considering? If you don't have time, then some quick and simple breathing exercises could really help. Apps like Headspace, Calm and Insight timer have short meditations which you could certainly give a try to see if it's a good fit for you. Just a few minutes per day can really help to dial down those stress hormones.
I like to ensure that I'm taking my supplements too - I use good quality brands like Wild Nutrition and Cytoplan, which definitely helps. Magnesium is one that I find really important too, taken in the evening to help promote that restful sleep, but avoiding the Magnesium oxide supplements which tend to be poorly absorbed. On top of this, the all important herbs. Ashwaghanda is a personal favourite as an adaptogen and all-round tonic herb and I use it frequently for the tired-and-wired folk amongst us. It helps to nourish and restore the adrenals and will often feature in a bespoke blend, nestled alongside other herbs which will help the adrenals and the nervous system.
I've been working with the Nourish Ashwagandha tonic for a while now: this is utterly delicious and could hopefully be a fundamental pillar of your evening power down. It's a yummy blend of cacao, cinnamon and ashwagandha which you can add to warm milk for a truly indulgent hot chocolate, or even enjoy stirred into porridge or in a smoothie. Nourish also contains oat, which is another incredible herb for a jangly, super aroused nervous system (1), it's perfect to help restore some balance. This would be a great option for you if you felt like your nerves could use a bit of tlc. It's not a sleep inducing blend so if you wanted to eat it in the morning then that would be fine - I just love the idea of an evening ritual for calm :)
Ashwagandha is not only thought to be able to support nerves and chronic stress (2,3,4), but also to have an impact on fertility too, in both men and women. For those of you on TTC journey (5), you'll know that keeping your stress levels managed is super important - and with the additional fertility benefits, Ashwagandha is a great all-in-one tonic for you.
Free from dairy and refined sugars, this is a fantastic option for those who are conscious of these elements and it does taste yummy to boot, which is always a win. I would love to hear your feedback too, so give it a try for a month and let me know how you're feeling. Don't forget those other tips, too and if you have a complex situation or think you may benefit from working 1:1, then drop me a line and we can chat.
Wishing you a restful time!