Some people can get whipped into a right frenzy during the holiday season. More socializing, more pace, more late nights and more spending, really ramp up the stress. Frequent and prolonged stress alters our bodies’ ability to cope. Sustained activation can alter our normal cortisol secretions, a hormone that is secreted from our adrenal glands. The late Hungarian endocrinologist, Dr. Hans Seyle, affectionately known as the “Father of Stress”, described how stress leads to a three stage bodily response – these three stages are his General Adaption Syndrome theory (GAS) – alarm, resistance and exhaustion. The three stages can be matched to an ideal adaptogen, a herb that is very effective for helping individuals cope with frequent and ongoing stress. First, we will check in on each of the three stages and then, follow the ideal adaptogen, to benefit individuals at each stage.
Stage 1: Alarm stage, the fight or flight response – this is an initial activation of adrenals – at this point our bodies can respond robustly. Our adrenals are able to reset, if the stressors are few and far apart. However, when the stressors begin to accumulate this increases the adrenal output of cortisol. Under the influences of cortisol people will appear more anxious, agitated and high strung. People may begin experiencing difficulty sleeping, quick pulse and some digestive issues. Often there will be a compromised immune system at this stage with more susceptibility to catching colds and longer recovery time once those colds are caught.
Stage 2: Adaption Stage & Adrenal fatigue – with chronic influence of cortisol our physiology begins to suffer. In this stage individuals may develop irritability and depression on an emotional level and physiologically they may begin to experience more deep-rooted health concerns such as autoimmune reactions. In this stage often individuals will seek stimulants such as alcohol, tobacco, black caffeine, more sugar etc. as a coping mechanisms.
Stage 3: Exhaustion – here the levels of cortisol drop and other hormones are secreted in response to stress. This is where there is chronic disease, pain, allergies and again depression and anxiety.
Key changes to support and prevent adrenal fatigue/exhaustion are nourishing your body with a nutrient dense diet (high in greens and easily digestible proteins and low in sugars and low in refined grains), having restful sleeps, and engaging in gentle relaxing activities. When these changes are not possible, there is definitely a need for adaptogenic herbs. These herbs will help us adapt and optimize our responses to stress.
Stage 1: Alarm stage, the fight or flight response For individuals in this stage they can benefit from herbs and nutrients that will support stable cortisol levels. One herb that has proven to be very effective for the frequent and ongoing stress of Stage 1 is Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera).
Stage 2: Adaption Stage & Adrenal fatigue This is where adaptogen herbs that help us cope with stress really shine – three great herbs for stage 2, are Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) to help reduce fatigue and improve mood, Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) to increase dopamine and serotonin levels (again improve mood) during stressful events and, the third, Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthrococcus Senticosus), this herb helps blunt fatigue from sleep deprivation and inhibit elevated cortisol levels.
Stage 3: Exhaustion Since B vitamins are depleted from prolonged stress these are key nutrients to replenish at this stage along with the adaptogenic herb Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) which helps increase cortisol gently.
As with any naturopathic medicine the best fit is tailored to the needs of the individual. Reflect on how you experience the holidays and stress in general. If it feels like your response to stress is one that needs support, please seek the help of your naturopathic doctor.
“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” – Hans Selye, MD, PhD and hopefully a little wiser – vanessa dicicco, nd