Welcome to part 3 of our Holland PRIDE month mini-series about chronic stress with me, Dr. Kate Lyzenga-Dean.
In part 1, we discussed the sneaky effects of chronic stress that impact us emotionally, mentally, and physically. Click HERE to catch up, if you haven’t read it yet. In part 2, we did some myth-busting – specifically, we learned why stress reduction isn’t necessarily the best path to a healthier you. Click HERE if you missed that one.
To wrap things up, I’d like to share some practical strategies that will help you stress better and cultivate healthy resilience to stress. These are key steps to living well despite inevitable, unavoidable, or chronic stress – remember, the goal isn’t stress avoidance because that’s not always possible!
Don’t worry – I’m not going to bore you with cliche or vague “stress relief tips,” even if some of these strategies can be helpful for some folks. Instead, we’re going to focus on physical strategies that actively address imbalance or dysfunction of your body’s stress-response system. These are the evidence-based, Functional Medicine action plans that you’re not going to find in Women’s Health Magazines or on TikTok, alright?
Let’s start with one of my favorite ways to stress better & cultivate stress resilience: balancing your blood sugar. I know, I know, it might sound like a stretch, but hear me out.
Every time your blood sugar crashes, your body goes into a stressed state. Cortisol, your chronic stress hormone, is released which initiates a process called gluconeogenesis in your liver. This is the body’s attempt to find more sugars to circulate in your bloodstream, because your body is low on fuel. What causes blood sugar crashes? Skipping meals, eating high-sugar foods without protein or healthy fats, sugar-sweetened beverages that also contain caffeine, drinking alcohol before bedtime…all of these things can create a temporary blood sugar crash, which then creates stress.
So, how do you balance your blood sugar to avoid that cortisol release? Eat at regular intervals, include healthy fats, protein, and fiber in every meal (buh-bye breakfast cereal!), avoid sugar-sweetened beverages, and avoid alcohol on an empty stomach. This helps your body better manage blood sugar, and also keeps you from feeling jittery, brain-foggy, or developing type-2 diabetes (all connected to chronic stress).
Another favorite strategy of mine for creating stress resilience is humming. Yes, you read that correctly! Humming activates and tones a very special nerve called the vagus nerve, or cranial nerve 10. This nerve is a superhighway of information that connects your brain directly to your throat, digestive organs, heart, and other organs. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, meaning it helps shift your body out of fight-or-flight and into rest-and-digest mode. When you hum, sing, or gargle, you’re sending impulses to your brain that encourage more parasympathetic dominance, or a less-stressed state. I especially like this strategy because it’s simple, anyone can do it, and it takes very little time!
Let’s do one more physical “stress better” strategy: practicing gratitude. Now, before you get mad at me for calling this a physical strategy, let me tell you about the reticular activating system (RAS, for short) in the brain. This special nerve center acts as a “gatekeeper” of information coming to the brain. It’s like a filter – it determines what information, thoughts, and impulses make it into the higher cortex of the brain – and it does this on a subconscious level. And practicing gratitude trains the reticular activating system to filter in certain things, and filter out others beneath the level of our awareness.
Have you ever had the experience where you’re deciding whether or not to buy a certain kind of car, and suddenly you see them everywhere? That’s your RAS at work, showing you what you’ve trained it to notice. The same happens when we spend time intentionally thinking about what we’re happy about, what we’re grateful for, and what we’d like more of in our lives. The brain pathways that “filter in” that kind of goodness get strengthened, therefore, more of it is brought to our conscious attention! Pretty cool, right? That’s a brain hack for ya!
I hope you can see how simple it can be to stress better every day – when you have the right evidence-based strategies that address physical stress as well as mental and emotional stress. Making these strategies a habit is what helps you build stress resilience despite the stressful circumstances, thoughts, and feelings you may carry with you. And when you’ve cultivated resilience – the ability to bounce back from a challenge quickly, completely, and gracefully – you create a positive feedback loop that leads to a healthier stress-response system! And a healthy stress-response system leads to a healthier, happier YOU.
I think that about does it! If you enjoyed this mini-series, sign up for my e-newsletter – it comes out twice a month and includes helpful resources, learning opportunities, and other Functional Medicine goodies. Just head over to my website – www.drkateLD.com – to subscribe.
Dr. Kate Lyzenga-Dean is a Functional Medicine Healthcare Provider, Speaker, Writer and Consultant with a decade of experience in private practice. She offers a new perspective on stress-related conditions and, utilizing evidence-based, integrative, and CAM therapies, helps clients find root-cause solutions that actually work. An engaging and insightful educator, Dr. Kate aims to help her audience understand “The Why” behind any health challenge, resulting in a wider variety of treatment options, better compliance, and lasting results.