Live Better is our new blog series—covering the tips, tricks, and science nitty gritty to living your happiest, healthiest life—by one of our fave naturopaths, Krista Lowe (IG @natmedicine).
Trying to juggling work, a social life, meaningful relationships, getting enough sleep, and fitting in enough exercise can cause anyone to feel pretty overwhelmed. When your lifestyle starts to feel too demanding, it's natural to begin to feel stressed. But in chronic situations, that can lead to burnout (in science terms “HPA axis dysfunction”).
Stress is a conscious or unconscious response to physical and/or mental pressure. Stress can have a negative or positive effect (known as eustress). Positive stress allows you to feel motivated and it can help you work towards a goal, but when stress becomes chronic, it can start to wear on you and cause you to feel burned out.
This year the World Health Organization included burn-out as an occupational phenomenon in the International Classification of Diseases. This change specifically applies to chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed (the kind so many of us have experienced). It includes feelings of exhaustion, negativism towards one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.
Now back to this idea of HPA axis dysfunction. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis involves the central nervous and endocrine systems. These systems are responsible for how your body adapts to stress. As mentioned before, chronic stress can cause you to feel burned out, but there are other factors that can add to this HPA dysfunction—like inflammation, liver status, thyroid status, and obesity.
You've probably already heard about the idea of “adrenal fatigue” through health and wellness media. Adrenal fatigue is often explained as this concept that chronic stress can cause your adrenals to eventually throw in the white flag and give up. I’d like to fine tune this idea and say that it’s a little more complicated than that. It's not just your adrenals. Your hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal gland all work together to regulate your stress response, metabolism, and motivation! They all need support!
What are the symptoms of HPA axis dysfunction?
- emotional and physical exhaustion
- brain fog
- weak immune system
- trouble losing weight
- anxiety & depression
What you can do about it?
Reset your circadian rhythm. I will be writing another article that dives deep into your sleep patterns and how you can get a better night's sleep. As for right now, know that your sleep allows your body to rejuvenate—it’s ideal to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.
Take adaptogens. Click here to read more about what adaptogenic herbs are and how they can help your body become more resilient, whether your cortisol is high or low!
Get to the cause of the issue. As mentioned before, HPA axis dysfunction is not only caused by a stressful lifestyle. Inflammation, obesity, and your liver and thyroid status all have an effect on how your HPA axis functions! That being said, we could all use more stress management in our lives.
Check for nutrient deficiencies! Different vitamins are needed in helping to support your body through stressful situations. B vitamins play a big role in supporting a healthy stress response, whereas magnesium is important in relaxing your muscles and mind. My favourite way of replenishing B vitamins is through B vitamin injections, as it gets into your bloodstream more efficiently than a supplement.
Add meditation into your routine! A long term meditation practice is beneficial in improving attention and allows you to train your brain during times of stress.
Say no and set boundaries! This is one that has taken me years to learn—and I am still learning. If you are constantly putting yourself in stressful situations and doing things that bring you no fulfillment, then no herb or supplement will be able to fix your problems. I get it… we are all adults. Sometimes you just can’t say no to things like taking out the garbage or doing the laundry. But we can say no to overcommitting and overextending ourselves. Make it a conscious practice.
*If you need some extra motivation on setting boundaries, please watch this YouTube video from Brene Brown. And if you are interested in the importance of expressing your emotions and understanding the mind body connection and how stress and disease are connected, watch this YouTube video by Dr. Gabor Mate.
- Aronsson, et al. (2017) A systematic review including meta-analysis of work environment and burnout symptoms. BMC public health: 17: 264.
- World Health Organization (2019) Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/
- Marchand et al. (2015) Work Stress models and diurnal cortisol variations: the SALVEO study. Journal of Occupational health psychology. 40: 27- 36.
- Zanesco, King, MacLean, Saron (2018) Cognitive Aging and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement: 2(3): 259-275.