8 Ways To Reboot Your Body’s Stress Response (Even When It Feels Impossible)
Do you ever read advice that says “Learn to let the stress go” and just feel MORE stressed because you have no idea how to do that? Or maybe you read this post about how stress can throw of our hormone balance and wondered if it’s possible to support healthy hormones without renouncing civilization and moving into a yurt.
Well then, this post is for you. Stress is “not a bad thing in itself,” writes Harvard-educated Dr. Sara Gottfried, adding that:
under normal conditions, your body produces a brief surge of cortisol – the hormone released when you’re under stress – that is beneficial and protective and, ideally, infrequent. The stress reaction is an appropriate alarm; perhaps a friend has had a medical emergency or your house was burglarized. Once you respond and cope with the situation, your cortisol should return to normal levels, similar to the rise and fall of a tide. When your cortisol is functioning properly and proportionally, so is your alarm system, and vice versa.
However, for many women, the alarm – that cortisol surge – never turns off. The pendulum, which is designed to gently sway, gets stuck on the “alarm” side.” (The Hormone Cure)
When we get stuck in stress mode, our bodies “steal” a hormone called pregnenolone to make extra cortisol. Pregnenolone is often called the “mother hormone” because it’s used to make all kinds of hormones – estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA, and of course cortisol.
You see the problem here, of course. Consistently overproducing cortisol leaves little pregnenolone left to produce other essential hormones, thus leading to hormone imbalance.
When that happens, we need to manually reset the alarm.
Tips For Resetting The Stress Response
There is no one “right” way to deal with stress. Some people love meditation . . . and some people find meditating while little humans crash things around them a little counterproductive.
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to support the body in stressful times and/or reset the stress response, and many of them work together synergistically. Some are like a hard reboot with immediate effects, while others have a cumulative effect over time. Don’t underestimate the ones that aren’t immediate, though. They can be incredibly helpful in increasing our overall resilience to stress.
When life feels like trying to hold onto a firehose that is going full-blast, think of adaptogens as weights that help support and ground the body through it all. Here’s a beginner’s guide to using adaptogens, and here are some specific ones worth considering:
- Holy Basil
- Licorice Root – This particular herb is considered helpful for individuals who have low cortisol, but not high.
- Panax Ginseng
Adaptogenic herbs work together synergistically, meaning that they tend to work better together than alone. They can be taken as a tea such as this Happy Adrenal Tea, or a tincture like this Adapt + Thrive recipe.
Beneficial Stress (Let Me Explain)
MORE stress doesn’t seem like the logical path to de-stressing, but sometimes it can be. Chronic stress is never a good thing, but small doses of short-term (acute) physical stress can have a positive effect. This type of beneficial stress – called hormetic stress – causes a temporary spike in cortisol, but after it’s over the body relaxes and stress hormones drop to levels far below the previous baseline.
Why does this work? Because our bodies stress response system is designed to deal with mostly physical threats – tigers chasing us, being caught in a blizzard, etc. Chronic stress doesn’t have clear boundaries that let the body know when the threat is over and it’s okay to relax, but if you introduce a manageable physical stress and then remove it, your body gets the “threat is over” message and reboots.
The important thing is to remember that it must be manageable. Exercise is a form of hormetic stress, but too much exercise can over-tax the body if you’re already in a stressed state. My favorite types of hormetic stress are infrared sauna therapy, short kettlebell workouts (about 7-15 minutes), and cryotherapy. Whenever my husband and I are super stressed out – we both tend to take on more than is wise at times – we drive to town and jump into a -200F cryotank for two minutes and then hit up a real-food sandwich shop. It counts as a date for us.
As mentioned in this post on the symptoms of hormone imbalance, our hormone grandmaster (the hypothalamus and pituitary) works in sync with our circadian rhythm – aka our internal clock – to orchestrate the ebb and flow of hormones within our bodies.
Blue light from computers screens, t.v.’s and phones can disrupt our circadian rhythm and therefore our hormones, but there are ways to mitigate their effects without giving them up. Here are some steps you can take to optimize your circadian rhythm for sleep.
Research suggests that physical contact with the ground – often called earthing – helps balance cortisol levels, calms our nervous system, reduces inflammation, and supports immune function. It’s free available everywhere. Here’s an explanation of why it works and how to get started.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
It’s only recently that we Westerners have learned that breathing unilaterally through the right nostril activates the sympathetic nervous system and left hemisphere of the brain, and that unilaterally breathing through the left nostril activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response) and right hemisphere of the brain.” – Dr. Sara Gottfried, The Hormone Cure
Here’s a video tutorial that explains the technique.
According to Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, meditation not only reduces your stress . . . it changes your brain for the better. Some people love guided meditation DVD’s like this one or free guided meditation options like these, but I prefer the cheater’s approach – a device that helps your brain attune to alpha waves using light and sound.
Dr. Lee S. Berk – who is a preventive care specialist and psychoneuroimmunology researcher at Loma Linda University and director of the molecular research lab at SAHP, Loma Linda – and his colleagues “were the first to establish that laughter helps optimize the hormones in the endocrine system, including decreasing the levels of cortisol and epinephrine, which lead to stress reduction.” (source)
Ready to try it out? Okay, read this and laugh until you cry. (Note: There is some language, so if that bothers you watch a funny movie instead.)
As I mentioned here, happiness researchers – yes, real academic researchers, neuroscientists and even economists – are now intensely studying how to increase happiness. One thing they’ve found is that keeping a gratitude journal lowers stress levels and improves sleep. Here are some other benefits of keeping a gratitude journal, along with a link to the one I have.
Next in this series: How to balance hormones naturally
Resetting the stress response is one of the most important things we can do to balance hormones, but there are steps as well. In the next post in this series, we’ll cover my top six.