Understanding and managing stress

Stress seems to be a challenge that most of us are faced with in our lives today.  There are so many demands on our time and energy and an expectation of the 24 hour society.  It seems to be a side-effect of modern life and can become overwhelming.  But we can learn to recognise it and manage it as it occurs.

Excessive stress affects every system in our body:  challenging the nervous system, dampening the immune system, affecting digestion, dysregulating blood sugar levels, and the list goes on.   Ongoing stress and our perception of what we think we are meant to be able to manage can also have a detrimental effect on our mental health.

The body’s reaction to stress is actually a survival mechanism that was incredibly important in our past.  When you’re faced with a sabre toothed tiger, you need the hit of adrenalin to run for your life.  This is where “survival of the fittest” truly evolved.

You’ve probably heard the term ‘fight or flight’ reaction?  This is our sympathetic nervous system reacting to a threat.  Our adrenal glands secrete hormones that will give us the ability to outrun or fight the threat.  During this reaction, hormones such as adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding up the heart rate, raising the blood pressure, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, giving the body a burst of energy and strength.

Then after you have outrun the sabre toothed tiger, you would chill out and recover – going into “rest & digest” mode.  This is controlled by our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the adrenalin and cortisol to break down, the digestion and immune systems switch back on and the body’s homeostasis brings you back into balance.  This relaxation response takes between 20 and 60 minutes to calm the body back down.

What can happen in our modern world, is that the perceived threat continues – peak hour traffic, work stress, family stressors, financial pressure, trying to fit everything in; so that the “fight or flight” response continues, and your body is always in alert mode.  However this constant stress reaction contributes to feeling anxious and fearful even though there isn’t an immediate threat.

On a physical level, the continued cortisol production lowers your immune system response, which is why you might end up with a cold when you are stressed out.  It also interferes with your digestion and may lead to diarrhoea or irritable bowel syndrome.  Constant muscle tension, headaches, insomnia and high blood pressure may be evident.  Cortisol even contributes to diabetes and blood sugar dysregulation.  So as you can see, stress is a major contributor to us feeling out of balance and unwell.

How naturopathic medicine can help:

Stress may contribute to unhealthy eating habits – eating on the run, grabbing takeaway foods; and you may find you are also craving foods high in fat and sugar.  The combination of these food choices alongside of elevated cortisol levels leads to weight gain, blood sugar fluctuations and eventually diabetes, as well as potential cardiovascular issues.  Ongoing stress also depletes essential vitamins and minerals from the body including amino acids, Vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium, which contributes to anxiety and nervous tension, insomnia, lowered immune function and fatigue.


Include in your diet:

1.     Good quality protein, such as lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, cheese and legumes.

2.     B vitamins – whole grains, meat, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds, brewers yeast, vegetables and bananas.

3.     Vitamin C – fruits such as citrus, kiwi fruit, capsicum, strawberries, paw paw and pineapple.

4.     Magnesium – green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, meat, fish, nuts, seeds and cacao.


1.      Sugar – depletes nutrients as well as contributing to weight gain and fatigue.

2.     Caffeine – increases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol contributing to feeling jittery and increases heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

3.     Alcohol – Alcohol and recreational drugs actually contribute to the stress on the body, creating imbalances in the neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain and further depleting essential nutrients.

4.     Smoking – apart from the obvious damage to your body, smoking depletes nutrients, causes heavy metal toxicity and also affects the neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain.

The potential for herbal medicine to support physical and mental wellbeing in times of stress is quite unique.  Certain plant extracts called adaptogens increase the ability of the body to adapt to physical, environmental, emotional or biological stressors, reducing fatigue, supporting cognitive function and overall physical health.  An individual herbal formula can be tailor-made to your requirements, and may also include support for the digestive, immune and nervous systems, depending on your current symptoms.  Herbs can be prescribed in tablet or liquid, and have the potential to boost your system and have you feeling better in no time.

5 easy steps to manage stress yourself: 

Recognising and acknowledging that we are feeling stressed is the first step.  Don’t keep ignoring it.  Look at what is happening in your life.  We are so busy doing stuff, that we forget that we are human beings, not human doings.

1.     Slow Down – What is truly essential on your to-do list?  What can you let go of?  What is non-negotiable?  When we have a long and never-ending ‘To Do’ list, we can get overwhelmed, despondent and ineffective.  If you can slow down and spend some time recharging yourself, giving yourself space and time to process and integrate your thoughts and feelings.  This allows you to more effectively understand who you are, and be present with your circle of friends, family and society.

2.     Find Balance – Finding balance is a priority for your wellbeing.  It involves time and space alone, away from our busy day to day lives to process and reconnect with ourselves.  This can be through meditation, time spent in nature or even a bath.  Somewhere that you can take time out and are not bombarded with news, entertainment and the constant hum of society.

3.     Connect with your breath – If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, angry or frustrated, bring yourself back to your breath.  Breathing in deeply for a count of 4, breathing out for the count of 4.  Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the “fight and flight” response.  Do this 10 times, and you’ll feel calmer and in control.   You can practice this breathing technique anywhere at any time.  The more you practice, the easier it gets, and the calmer you feel.

4.     Shake it off – Another technique to manage stress is to shake it off – literally.  Stand up and give yourself a shake. We tend to hold onto things when stressed. This loosens you up and allows you to let go of whatever is bugging you.  You may feel strange doing this, but having a bit of a laugh at yourself, while you’re shaking it off can also help release some pent-up stress.

5.     Exercise – If you can remove yourself from the situation, try a 10 minute walk.  A change of scenery does wonders for our attitude and also allows time out for some perspective.  Regular exercise of any sort is a way of burning off the dross and helping to gain some balance.   It also does marvellous things for your cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, nervous system, immune system, and the list goes on.   It doesn’t have to be anything strenuous or difficult.  But I do suggest something you enjoy.  Swimming, yoga, dancing, playing in the park with your kids or your dogs, bush walking, gardening.  Make it something that you want to do, and it will be much easier to be consistent.


Modern life can be challenging and sometimes it’s not possible to remove the stressors, however there is support through naturopathic medicine and finding balance.   If you would like some additional guidance on herbs and supplements that can assist you to manage with your daily expectations, call (07) 3105 2875 or emailcathy@kpnwellnesscentre.com.au for a naturopathic consultation with Cathy.