We’re into week 2 of South Africa’s lockdown and I think it’s safe to say that there is not a single person who has been immune to the effect this has had on our mental health. From chatting to friends, family, patients and colleagues, the most common thread amongst all of us, is this underlying worry that plagues us everyday. It’s this heightened sense of awareness and uncertainty that grabs you at the most random of times.
This lead me to thinking about what this whole CoronaMona (as I’ve coined it) is doing to our physical health. Stress is one of the most common health ailments in our healthcare system – it is the single most common cause of a variety of health issues. When seeing my functional medicine patients for the first time, chronic stress or a stressful life event is so often the main catalyst to an entire range of symptoms that eventually leads the patient into my door.
If we recognise stress as it starts, we can implement lifestyle changes to support our health and hormonal function so that those changes in our body are mitigated not only in onset but in severity as well. Making a few early proactive changes will hopefully prevent an entire flurry of health issues a few weeks or month down the line.
But I know it is MUCH easier said than done.
Before we get to the proactive changes, lets start with the basics of stress and the hormonal response thereof.
When we’re stressed, our body perceives that as a threat and this perceived threat leads to a response in our hormonal system. The first hormone organ involved is the adrenal gland – many people have heard of adrenal health and the stress response. The adrenal glands are tiny organs sitting on top of the kidneys which initially release our stress hormones – both adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is released first and this tells the body to escape with an immediate increase in heart rate, release of glucose and gets us on alert. Cortisol is also released at the same time but this release is more slow and sustained than that of adrenaline.
Continued stress means that we are producing far too much of these acute hormones which then causes further imbalances and it is these imbalances that lead to the physical manifestations of stress – chronic inflammation, hypertension, insomnia, fatigue, decreased immunity with repeat and chronic infections, weight loss or gain and mood problems. This list is endless!
Stress is inherent in our life, regardless of what is happening in SA and the world at any given time. Yet we can help our adrenals out by supporting their health and adjusting the hormonal response to stress before we hit adrenal burnout. This is where our lifestyle choices come into play:
- The best adrenal support is meditation, yoga and breathing exercises. These interventions have been clinically proven to immediately decrease cortisol levels and produce a sense of calm.
- Any lifestyle change would not be complete without addressing diet and here limiting sugar, carbohydrates, processed food and increasing fresh (preferably organic) vegetables. This is so difficult right now as it is so easy to reach for a bag of crisps while lying in front of your tv watching Netflix but stay with me here – health is more important!
- Routine is especially vital as well. Not only is sleep important but the quality thereof as well!
- Daily exercise which isn’t too intense and exhaustive helps improve the quality of our sleep and decreases raised cortisol. Now is not the time to start these “Lockdown Marathons” of 42km around your house – this does not support ideal adrenal function at all and may place them under further strain.
- Last but not least, nutrients and vitamin supplementation to support adrenal health. None of us are eating properly (myself included) and because of this we need to take in extra nutrients in the form of supplementation. For adrenal health, the group of herbal adaptogens include ashwaganda, rhodiola and licorice root to name a few. Others include vitamin B and C as well as phosphatidylserine and some prescription bioidentical hormones as well when needed (you will need to see a functional medicine doctor for these).
Having a holistic approach to treating something as “simple” as stress is so important! Guided intervention with a doctor with routine follow up and adapting your health plan as your health and circumstances change, is so important. It isn’t a quick fix but it’s a sustainable health plan – that’s what we’re here for.
We are still seeing patients at Elan Healthstyle for functional medicine consults – both new patients and routine follow ups in person or virtual consultation. If you’re concerned about anything, please pop us an email and we can advise on the best course forward.
But until then, it’s safe to say our lives and the outlook thereof, has changed dramatically in the last few weeks. I know mine has.
Dr Allison Blair