The Effects of Stress

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Reviewed April 2017

Stress and your physical body.  I know, I know, we always hear, oh, it’s stress, it’s stress.  Stress is kind of a wastebasket term, isn’t it?  It doesn’t really refer to anything.  I want to tell you what stress does.  We need some stress in our lives.  You need stress on your bones, vertical vectors of force on your bones to keep bringing in the calcium and other minerals that build bone.  And we need stresses on the brain, routinely, in order to learn new things.  And every time you lift weights, you get stronger, because you’re putting stress on the muscle, which brings in more amino acids and so on and builds a stronger muscle over time.  So stress is not necessarily bad. 

            The kind of stress that gets all of us into trouble is the unremitting stress that says, there’s no escape, there’s no way out, there’s nothing you can possibly do.  This is the kind of stress that will cause women to miss their periods, have their hair fall out, gain weight. 

Now how does this happen?  When you’re under stress, your cortisol levels rise and you go into what’s called fight or flight.  Now, as Dr. Pam Peeke points out, when your cortisol levels rise, it is to prepare you to exercise, to run away from something that is scary and that could harm you.  So 15 minutes, 10-15 minutes of walking will eat up excess cortisol, a stress hormone, and that’s really all you need to do.  That’s why exercise is so good for decreasing stress.

When you don’t exercise and the cortisol goes up, what happens?  You want to eat more, because the cortisol suggests burn calories, do something, I need more calories, and then you actually want to eat more.  Have any of you ever been on any of those steroid inhalers, and after you’re on the steroid inhaler, let’s say for asthma or whatever it is, you’re desperate to eat Pop-Tarts?  It’s because the cortisol, the prednisone, that’s another name for cortisol, it’s a drug, it actually forces you to want to eat more.  So the more cortisol, the higher the desire to eat, and the higher the intake of sugar, and then the higher the intake of insulin, or the blood produces more insulin, and that stores fat in your cells, and it’s a vicious cycle.

So it all starts with some way to stop that vicious cycle of stress.  One way to do it is to simply visualize a stop sign, and then when you’re doing it to yourself, you go, stop, and then you take one full deep breath in through your nose, and out through your nose, and that in itself will stop the vicious cycle of stress, because when you breathe deeply through your nose, the lower lobes of the lungs will expand, and the vagus nerve, the main nerve of the parasympathetic rest and restore nervous system goes right through there, and it will be triggered.  It will instantly lower your blood pressure, and lower your heart rate, and begin to gobble up stress hormones.

Let me give you the other big stress hormone gobbler, sleep.  Sleep is, without a doubt, the best way to digest excess stress hormones that there is.  Of course, and then you want to stop the stressful things in the first place, and that requires mindfulness.  Changing the story you tell yourself about what’s stressing you. 

So let me give you this final thought.  There is no situation that is hopeless, there is nothing that you can’t escape from, but what you have to do is engage your higher power, the nonphysical part of you that knows a lot more than the part of you that is stressed out.  Sometimes that involves getting down on your knees.  I can’t tell you the number of people who have a change in their life, simply when they’re brought to their knees and they surrender:  “Okay, all right, I’ve had it.  I can’t figure it out myself.  Tell me what to do.”  That, alone, will stop the vicious cycle of stress, most of which is in your head.

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.

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