Is feeling stress making you sick?

How do you know when it's harming you? Here are three important tips to help you cope

Dr. Natasha Turner, stress

No matter what stresses you out (think someone suddenly running in front of your car or the anxiety you feel about a meeting with your boss), your body’s response is to release the hormone cortisol. If you suffer from a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression , or if you have a digestive issue such as irritable bowel syndrome, you can bet your body is also cranking up this powerful hormone. Poor lifestyle choices like not getting enough sleep can also contribute to increased cortisol levels, even if you aren’t actively stressed out about something. The question is, how do you know when the stress you’re experiencing is harming you?

When we experience stress, it triggers a chemical reaction called the “fight-or-flight” response, which produces the hormones adrenalin and cortisol. This reaction is hardwired in our brains, and is designed to help protect us from perceived threats. If you always feel tense or anxious, however, your body will remain in a continuous state of heightened arousal. Constantly overproducing cortisol and adrenalin day after day can eventually lead to “adrenal fatigue.” The result can be lack of stamina, sleep disruption, blood-sugar imbalance, depression, increased food cravings and weakened immunity.

If you suspect you suffer from chronic stress or adrenal fatigue, don’t worry. Your recuperation strategy can be as simple as three steps:

1. Stop skimping on sleep. During most of the sleep cycle, the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or- flight headquarters) relaxes while the parasympathetic nervous system (which regulates rest and digestion) is stimulated. Activity also decreases in the parts of your brain that control emotions, decision making and social interactions. Research shows that sleep deprivation causes stress hormones to rise in the evening and heightens the stress response during waking hours . In addition to calming your nervous system, sufficient rest and recuperation effectively reduce cortisol levels. Your new sleep mantra? Mandatory lights out before 11 p.m., sleep eight to nine hours a night and make sure your room is completely dark—light prevents the release of melatonin, the hormone that allows for deep, recuperative sleep.

2. Become a meditation junkie. Meditating is as easy as listening to the sound of your breath or repeating a word or phrase for five minutes each day. We now know that meditation may actually modify our responses to daily situations and train the mind to deal with stress better. It is particularly helpful with relieving the severity of health conditions associated with stress, including insomnia, high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, asthma, depression, chronic pain and heart disease.

3. Stock up on supplements.

Vitamin C: Research shows that vitamin C lowers cortisol levels and supports adrenal function. Take 500 to 1,000 mg one or two times daily.

B vitamins: Stressed or fatigued individuals should take extra B vitamins, especially vitamin B5, which helps the body adapt to stress and supports adrenal-gland function. Take between 200 and 500 mg vitamin B5 and/or 50 to 100 mg of B6 per day.

Omega-3 fats: Studies show that omega-3s aid brain and cognitive function and promote a healthy mood balance. Further research suggests they may help reduce stress and depression. Aim for 1,500 to 3,000 mg per day.

Ginseng: This herb has been used for decades to combat mental and physical ailments. Not only has it been shown to reduce chronic stress, but research shows that it can strengthen our immunity and improve mental function. The recommended dose is between 0.5 and 9 g of dried root daily, but consult your physician to see if it’s right for you.

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a Toronto-based naturopathic doctor and founder of the Clear Medicine wellness boutique. She is also the author of the bestselling book The Hormone Diet