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by Deborah Lynn Blumberg July 27, 2021 4 min read

Learning how to manage stress is an important part of achieving optimal health. From dealing with a work deadline to a relationship challenge, stress is a normal part of everyday life. But there are situations when stress can become too severe or frequent, and negatively impact our health.

When you're exposed to a myriad of daily stressors and the body is unable to tell the difference between real and perceived stress. Persistent stress can take a major toll and manifest in more serious conditions over time.

That is why it's important to understand the signs of high stress in the body and how you can support more healthy levels for long term well-being.

Understanding the Stress Response

When the body encounters a stressor — whether it's as simple as losing a pair of glasses or as serious as a car accident — the stress response begins in the brain. The part of the brain called the amygdala, which controls how we process emotions, sends a distress signal to another part of the brain, the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus talks to the body through our automatic nervous system, which is in charge of essential functions including, breathing, heart rate and how our blood vessels dilate and constrict. The automatic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. When you face a stressor, the hypothalamus turns on the sympathetic nervous system, giving you a boost of energy to deal with it.

The adrenal glands flood the body with a hormone called epinephrine, sending your pulse and heart rate up and making you breathe faster. If you continue to face a stressor, the hypothalamus triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol levels rise as the body remains vigilant of the threat. When the stressor passes, cortisol falls and your pulse and heart rate return to normal.

Stress and Cortisol Regulation

The trouble happens when the body perceives ongoing stressors — cortisol levels can remain elevated, not returning to normal and your body gets worn out from being in a constant state of fight or flight. In some cases, this issue can also lead to unusually low levels of cortisol. Either imbalance, known as cortisol dysregulation, can then also negatively impact other functions of the body.

When working optimally, cortisol is at its highest level in the morning and then declines over the course of the day. It plays a key role in sleep-wake cycle, stimulating you to wake up in the morning, stay alert during the day, and then dropping at night to let the hormone melatonin rise, encouraging sleep.

Chronic stress can throw off this rhythm, leaving cortisol levels high at night and low during the day. As a result, sleep can be impacted, and burnout can set in. While you may feel tired occasionally, being tired all the time is not normal and understanding the signs of burnout is important. This can include:

  • A deep level of exhaustion to the point where it's hard to get going in the morning
  • Changes in appetite
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Frequent or recurring illness
  • Difficulty with weight management
  • Problems falling or staying asleep
  • Low mood and irritability
  • Body aches
  • Gastrointestinal issues

If you are experiencing signs of burn out, the sooner you act to address it, the faster you'll be able to regain energy, improve related issues and get back to feeling like your regular, active self again.

Strategies for Maintaining Energy

To address burnout and any physical or emotional symptoms you might be having as a result — or to stave off burning out in the first place — try the following strategies to help maintain energy and support healthy levels of stress.

  • Focus on stress-reducing activities. Try meditation or yoga. Experiment with diaphragmatic breathing, take a walk and set aside time for activities you enjoy
  • Get enough sleep and practice good sleep hygiene. Turn off any electronic devices a few hours before bedtime. Take a relaxing bath, and read a book. Meditating before bed can put you into a more relaxed state and in a cool, dark room all help promote a more restful sleep
  • Cut back on processed sugar. Sugar can provide a short boost of energy — followed by a sharp crash. Have balanced meals that include protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates and favor whole food snacks to help keep your blood sugar levels stable
  • Monitor your caffeine intake. Coffee can give you a boost with its stimulant affect, but in excess can also keep stress hormones elevated, impact sleep and leave you feeling tired reaching for the next cup. Include beverages like matcha, which has beneficial antioxidants, or decaffeinated herbal teas
  • Exercise, but don't overdo it. Not exercising can leave you without energy, feeling tired and sluggish, but too much exercise can also have a negative impact, taxing the immune and nervous system. Find a healthy balance right for you

When experiencing stress, your body passes through several stages, including alarm, resistance, and — ultimately — burnout. If you're experiencing high levels of ongoing stress, with low energy and mood that make normal day to day life feel challenging, assessing your hormone levels can identify any underlying imbalances and help you find the support you need to rebalance your body at the deepest level and feel like yourself again.

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