Stress is a constant in most of our lives. It’s sometimes subtle and sometimes overt, but it always takes a toll on our health. In fact, most Americans suffer from a condition known as “Chronic Stress.” I make this distinction because stress itself is neither positive or negative. There is even a term—“eustress”—which refers to positive stressors in our lives, factors that provide motivation, inspiration and drive. However, over time, even eustress can result in the development of Chronic Stress. Chronic Stress is the condition in which the body’s natural coping mechanism can no longer effectively respond to one’s total stress burden.
When our evolutionary development is considered, this makes a lot of sense. Our bodily stress response was developed to deal with acute stress, i.e. being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. As a result, the body’s response to stress is to divert energy away from cellular repair, digestion and hormone regulation (not much point regenerating those organs, assimilating that meal or prepping to have a baby if you’re dead), and instead puts energy toward muscle contraction and adrenal stimulation—to run away, very quickly.
The adrenal glands are our bodies’ chemical energy reserves. They are there just in case that saber-toothed tiger jumps out from behind a bush when you hadn’t had a meal in a while. The adrenals kick in, giving you a jolt of adrenaline that allows your body to perform physically, even without proper fuel from food. You may have heard to the term “adrenal fatigue.” When the adrenals are constantly being activated due to stress they burn out, not only inhibiting this response to acute stress but also throwing many other systems in our body out of whack.
The following are the most common signs and symptoms of Chronic Stress and the resulting adrenal fatigue:
- Blood sugar imbalances (craving sugary or starchy foods and/or dramatic changes in energy throughout the day)
- Low thyroid function (identified through medical testing)
- Decreased fertility (could manifest as irregular menstrual cycles)
- Poor cognitive performance (poor memory or fuzzy thinking)
- Poor wound healing
- Decreased bone density (identified through medical tests, or frequent fractures)
- Fatigue (especially the pattern of not feeling awake until late morning, feeling tired late-afternoon but then better in the evening and getting a late-evening spike in energy)
- Lowered immune function (getting sick often, slow recovery from illness, low WBC count)
- Dysbiosis (poor digestion, gas/bloating after meals)
- Cold intolerance
- Salt cravings
- Low blood pressure (for some people)
Sound like you? Not surprising. The typically American lifestyle and diet is practically tailor-made to put people on this track. Here are some suggestions to manage and correct Chronic Stress:
- Get enough sleep (8-9 hours/night)
- Go to bed by 10 pm
- Make sure your bedroom is very dark
- Make time for social interactions
- Make time for a meditative or spiritual practice
- Do gentle, enjoyable exercise (overexcerise can worsen adrenal fatigue)
- Let go of perfectionism
- Schedule some unstructured time into your days
- Identifying what relieves stress for you (baths, journaling, reading, being outside, ???)
- Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Get enough protein (protein needs are elevated when stressed)
- Ensure an adequate intake of healthy fats
- Balance your blood sugar (eat breakfast every day/ get protein, fat and carbs with every meal and snack/ eat regularly throughout the day)
It can be tricky to give a prescription for stress reduction since the things that cause stress and relieve stress vary depending on the individual. However, I find that that a lazy day punctuated by a warm bowl of mac and cheese is a good start for just about anyone. Of course, this would seem to be flouting all of the expert nutritional advice above, but not so! I offer you a surprisingly delicious, surprisingly nutritious, surprisingly dairy-free recipe:
Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese (makes a lot)
Recipe is flexible, depending on the characteristics of your squash—play around with the seasonings to suit your taste.
- 1 medium butternut squash (or other winter squash)
- 1 cup nutritional yeast
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ white miso
- 1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
- 2 Tbs. Dijon mustard (or ½ tsp. dried mustard or horseradish)
- 1/8 tsp. freshly-grated nutmeg
- Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
- Unrefined salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
- Non-dairy milk (to achieve desired consistency—amount will vary. I use almond)
- Macaroni noodles (use gluten-free noodles, if you swing that way)
- Peel, dice and cook your squash. You can boil, steam or bake it.
- Once squash is cool enough to handle, put it in a blender or food processor and add all other ingredients except for the almond milk.
- Blend until smooth. Depending on the moisture level of your squash, you made need to add a little almond milk.
- Taste and adjust your seasonings. Keep warm in a saucepan on the stove.
- Cook your noodles and toss them with a healthy serving of the cheese sauce. ( Add diced hot dogs [vegan or otherwise] or extra comfort food bonus points).
- Leftover cheese sauce is awesome in burritos, enchiladas, on nachos or as a dip.
De-stress and enjoy!