Definition of Toxic Stress

Stress Plan Program by Nisha Jackson, PhD, MS, WHCNP, HHP
Stress PLAN


The Stress Syndrome

You may wonder how a perfectly healthy person like yourself could have developed so many of these symptoms or issues, which you’ve never had before. This Stress Syndrome, which health experts also call adrenal fatigue or adrenal hypofunction, is the direct result of chronic, excessive and relentless stress that a person’s own system no longer is able to combat appropriately.

When working well, our body’s adrenal — or stress — glands are equipped with a powerful tool that helps us deal with the physical, emotional or mental pressures we face every day. Located above the kidneys, adrenal glands produce cortisol, an anti-stress hormone.

Cortisol helps regulate many body functions. It activates the thyroid hormone, helps prevent bone loss, encourages muscle strength and produces energy. Cortisol also provides resistance to infection and cancer, resistance to autoimmune diseases and to the intensity of allergic reactions.

This amazing hormone helps maintain blood sugar levels while suppressing the immune system to keep white blood cells from attacking healthy cells. Cortisol acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory, because stress causes our entire body to become inflamed, leading to pain. Cortisol also acts as a powerful vasoconstrictor, lowering blood pressure because stress elevates it. Cortisol is our body’s main defense against overreacting to a perceived threat.

Cortisol also determines how rejuvenating sleep is to our body. Cortisol is produced in a cyclic fashion, with the highest levels released in the morning and the lowest at night. This 24-hour cycle is called the circadian rhythm. An abnormal circadian rhythm released by our adrenal hormones can adversely affect multiple, critical body functions, including energy production and immune surveillance. Any disruption in this rhythm can result in a variety of problems such as a tendency toward fatigue, easy bruising, infection, osteoporosis, low sex drive and infertility. An abnormal circadian rhythm also can cause migraine headaches, adult acne, abdominal bloating and either low or high blood pressure.

A disruption in the cortisol level during the night also affects the quality of our sleep. If the cortisol level is high during the night instead of during the day, we will have disrupted rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and will wake up non-refreshed, no matter how many hours of sleep we appear to have.

When our adrenal gland functions correctly and produces the proper amount of cortisol at the correct time of day, our body easily and systematically handles stress. But what happens when our adrenal glands are over-burdened and not operating correctly or at full capacity? We can develop the Stress Syndrome.

What causes the stress syndrome?

Some causes are physical:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic sickness, illness, disease
  • Low blood sugar
  • Late hours
  • Jammed schedule without necessary “breaks”
  • Chronic pain
  • Malabsorption (not absorbing your food and supplements in your intestines)
  • Exposure to environmental toxins
  • Toxic diet (excessive sugars, artificial manufactured foods with little or no whole or natural foods)
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Excessive exercise
  • Excessive stimulants to keep you going

Other causes are internal:

  • Inability to handle uncertainty without constant worry
  • Pessimism
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Perfectionism
  • Lack of assertiveness
  • Continual anger
  • Emotional trauma and ongoing emotional strain
  • Trying to “do it all”
  • Persistently pushing yourself when you know you need to rest
  • Single parenting with not enough emotional support

While it’s important to rule out all other medical problems before blaming problems on stress, it’s certainly worth the effort to modify stressful behaviors to get back on track and start feeling better — no matter what the diagnosis is or how we plan to treat it.

Our health is all about taking personal responsibility. We need to be proactive in taking care of ourselves. We need to lose the mind-set that we just need to “take a pill” and keep going at Mach speeds. Now is the time to make sure we are supporting every part of our life to avoid a “crash” in the near future. Such a crash not only would turn our life upside down, but it would significantly compromise the lives of those we love most and are closest to. Choose wisely!

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