Life, in our modern day world, can be stressful. I often marvel at how ‘being stressed’ has become a marker of being successful or even almost an achievement. In fact, many people sadly function in a constant state of stress and worry, and the health implications of this are disastrous. I speak from personal experience here!
Feeling ‘stressed’ has become an insidious undercurrent to so many modern day diseases and disorders. One of my key goals as a Naturopath in treating a patient holistically is to treat the underlying cause of disease. When I was in clinical practice, one of the most common drivers of many of the health complaints I saw was ‘stress’ or adrenal fatigue.
How does stress cause adrenal fatigue and make you sick?
So the aim of this post is to help you gain an understanding of one aspect of the human stress response and how it may be impacting on your health. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and it has an important role to play to enhance our reactions (and improve our survival) in stressful times. In order to explain how cortisol affects your body, I’d like you to consider our stress responses as cavemen and cavewomen. Living in these times, your main stressors would have been three-fold: war (territory takeovers), drought and famine. The modern human, however, experiences many more stressful events and with much more frequency.
So where the caveman produced cortisol in these (rarely) stressful occasions, we now produce it often. Where being ‘stressed’ becomes chronic for many people and cortisol levels remain elevated and unchecked, a number of common health problems may result. So elevated cortisol levels or exhausted adrenal glands become a key consideration when holistically assessing any ‘chronically stressed’ person who is unwell.
To further explain the symptoms of adrenal fatigue…
Poor sleep and fatigue
Our cortisol levels generally drop at night time to allow us to sleep. When they are elevated, deep sleep is not possible – this heightened awareness is a primitive response to war or threat. Good in the short term (for a caveman needing to keep alert for any impending attack) but exhausting in our modern world where every night finds elevated cortisol levels and disrupted sleep patterns.
In a primitive man stressed by drought, famine and war, elevated cortisol allows the body to store fat (especially abdominal) – that is, to build a larder for tough times ahead. It also promotes the storage of extracellular fluid (to prepare for drought), we’d refer to this as fluid retention or bloat. The older you are the worse this becomes as, in primitive times, the elderly were last in line for scarce food. So elevated cortisol reduces your metabolic rate and acts as an antidiuretic to store fat and fluid.
Obviously, during times of war, drought and famine, having more mouths to feed was not so desirable to the cave man and woman. So elevated cortisol also reduces both male and female fertility by reducing testosterone, progesterone, and oestrogen. Cortisol plays havoc on the menstrual cycle, libido, ability to conceive and energy levels. In fact, it impacts on all hormone driven disorders including PCOS, endometriosis, PMS, thyroid disorders and also makes for a symptomatic menopause.
Anxiety and depression
High levels of cortisol cause anxiety and also suppresses the hormone serotonin (good mood hormone), which can leave your spirits low.
Cortisol drives up the blood pressure and blood sugar levels (leaving you with sugar cravings and a predisposition to diabetes); combined with the before mentioned weight gain, is a key factor in the development of cardiac disease.
Stress hormones also adversely affect all stages of digestion, weakens immune responses, accelerates ageing, joint degeneration and reduces muscle tone and bone density.
A clinical example…
So a clinical example, a real anonymous case (but very common scenario). A woman presents with ‘bad menopausal symptoms’ – flushes, insomnia, weight gain, depression, fatigue, hypertension, arthritis, indigestion, and IBS. Her history reveals chronic stress. I do nothing but treat her adrenal glands, make some minor dietary adjustments and we discuss stress management techniques. Four weeks later, she no longer flushes, sleeps soundly, is happy, energised and has no joint pain or digestive upset. By simply addressing the underlying cause, she ‘feels like a new woman.’ This is one example that could apply to any number of cases I have seen over the years – from infertility to insomnia to depression, digestive disorder or any of the before mentioned disorders; by treating the individual holistically and addressing the adrenals, health can be restored.
This is by no means a complete list of all of the conditions caused or impacted by stress. The symptoms of adrenal stress are diverse and nonspecific and affect pretty much EVERY system of the body.
Disclaimer – this information is not intended to diagnose or take the place of medical advice. If you feel unwell, please seek the advice of your health care practitioner.
RECIPE // TURKEY SAGE SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS
This meatball dish is absolutely delicious and really very quick and simple to make. It can also be made ahead and reheated to serve.
Turkey is a vitamin and mineral rich source of protein. It is a rich source of tryptophan which is a precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin, our feel-good hormone. It’s also a great source of vitamin B12, which makes it a great option for those who suffer from anxiety and mood disorders. I like to cook with it occasionally to add a little nutritional variety to my family’s diet. The assortment of vegetables included in the meatballs and sauce contributes lots of plant-based fibre and nutrition.
You can serve this dish the traditional way, with whole wheat or gluten-free spaghetti. Or for even more nutritional bang for your buck, serve it with zoodles (courgettes/zucchini spiralized) or quinoa. Whatever your preference, these are SO delicious!
Serves approx. 6 (in our house it serves 2 adults, 2 kids with leftovers for 2 the next day)
1 bunch of fresh basil
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 kg ripe tomatoes, or 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon red wine or balsamic vinegar
Olive oil to cook in
Turkey and Sage Meatballs
1 small rasher short cut bacon, finely diced
1 red onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 cup baby spinach, finely chopped
1 large carrot, grated
500g turkey mince
½ cup almond meal (substitute with breadcrumbs for nut-free)
1 free-range or organic egg
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh sage or 1 tablespoon dried sage
Good pinch sea salt and ground black pepper
Start with the tomato sauce:
- Pick the basil leaves from the stalks, finely chop the stalks and set aside the basil leaves which you can also roughly chop or tear.
- Peel and finely slice the onion and garlic. If using fresh, cut the tomatoes in half, then roughly chop them or carefully open the tins of tomatoes.
- Put a saucepan on a medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the onion, then cook for around 7 minutes, or until soft and lightly golden.
- Stir in the garlic and basil stalks for a few minutes, then add the fresh or tinned tomatoes and the vinegar.
- Season with a tiny pinch of salt and pepper, then continue to simmer for around 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Once cooked, remove from the heat and stir in the basil leaves (reserving a few to garnish).
Prepare the meatballs:
- Prepare (chop or grate) your bacon, onion, garlic, spinach and carrot (by hand or in a food processor)
- Place in a large mixing bowl with the turkey mince, almond meal, egg, sage and seasoning.
- Wash your hands well and squeeze the mixture to combine all of the meatball ingredients.
- Roll it into approx. golf ball sized meatballs and set aside until ready to cook.
- To cook, place a little olive oil in a large non-stick or cast iron pan and heat over a medium-high heat. Cook the meatballs for about 5 minutes or until brown, turning to cook on both sides.
- Once the meatballs are almost cooked, pour over the tomato sauce and let simmer for 5 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked firm.
- With the reserved basil leaves and finely grated Parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast for dairy-free).
- With al dente whole wheat or gluten-free pasta, zoodles or quinoa.
- I also serve with a simple green salad.
For more inspiring healthy advise and delicious recipes, visit www.wellnourished.com.au.