Nervous System Stuck in Fight-or-Flight? Avoid These Stress Activators

We all know that stress isn't good for us. It can cause all sorts of health problems, both short-term and long-term. But why do some people seem to handle life's daily stresses so much better than others? Is there anything we can do to reduce the harmful effects of an overactive stress response? 

Let's take a closer look at the most common stress activators and how functional medicine can help you minimize their negative impact on your health.

How your body handles stress

When we encounter any physical, mental, or emotional challenge, it triggers a primal physiological response from the body. This is known as a fight-or-flight response, and the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This response is designed to help us handle potentially dangerous situations. 

During this time, your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and the adrenal glands pump out stress hormones like cortisol to give you more energy.

Unfortunately, in our modern society, stress is a daily occurrence—which is often unrelenting. The stress response that developed to give humans a physiological advantage to escape dangerous situations simply never shuts down.

Chronic stress can then lead to elevated cortisol levels for much longer than your body was designed to handle them.

Learn more about conditions we treat: Adrenal Fatigue

An overactive stress response

When the stress response never shuts down, it can quickly deplete vital nutrients, contribute to hormonal imbalance, and cause symptoms like insomnia. This leaves people feeling depleted and unable to handle even the stresses of everyday life.

Chronically elevated cortisol levels switch off the hormonal systems regulating growth, reproduction, metabolism, and immunity, which is what accounts for the dragging, exhausted feelings in the presence of chronic stress (1).

Related: Adrenal Fatigue & Cortisol Dysregulation

What can perpetuate chronic stress

When it feels like your nervous system is stuck in fight-or-flight mode, here's what might be contributing to the cycle.

You're low in nutrients

Magnesium is crucial for the body to regulate stress levels, but the vast majority of people in modern societies are at risk for magnesium deficiency (2). Stress can also rapidly deplete B vitamins, which can leave your body and mind starved to energy. Nutrients drive all the biochemical processes in the body. When you are not getting enough of certain nutrients, your body struggles to cope with stress.

You're reaching for sugar to cope

Sugar is a quick-fix, but it's not lasting. Eating sugar causes an initial spike in serotonin and other hormones, which can make you feel good for a short time. But foods high in simple sugars cause a blood sugar crash not long after eating them, prompting the release of cortisol to bring essential blood glucose back to baseline.

Additionally, studies show a correlation with high sugar foods and increased anxiety and impulsivity throughout the day (3).

Shop: Metagenics Ultra Glucose Control 

You rely on caffeine for energy

Caffeine is a stimulant, and can also interfere with blood pressure and healthy function of the adrenal glands in people who are sensitive. This may lead to further cortisol dysregulation and make you less resilient to stress.

When you’re feeling down, consider an extra boost of energy with the Recharge Drip.

You have untreated hormonal imbalance

Hormones like estrogen and testosterone influence your response to stress by affecting neurotransmitter levels in the brain. If these hormones are out of balance, it can lead to  markedly less resilience to deal with stress.

Men with higher stress tend to have lower testosterone levels. Increased cortisol, decreased testosterone, and the ratio between cortisol and testosterone levels have been widely used as hormonal indicators of stress (4).

Estrogen dominance can also increase cortisol levels, which may be of extra concern for women at certain times during the menstrual cycle, perimenopause, and menopause (5). 

Treat hormone imbalance holistically>>

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You have a high toxic burden

Regular exposure to some types of pesticides, solvents, and heavy metals can produce neurotoxin-like effects in the brain (6). This is known to cause changes in mood, energy, and irritability. Read more about safe, effective support for detoxification.

You’re staying up late and constantly hitting snooze

Not only can poor sleep lead to a heightened stress response, but going to bed late can actually put your body in a fight-or-flight response. When you stay up late, your body shifts its natural cortisol cycle. 

Research shows a strong link between high cortisol levels and cardiovascular disease, with increased severity of heart attacks in the early morning when cortisol levels are highest (7). It is important to wake up and go to bed at roughly the same time as this helps to regulate your cortisol levels and reduce stress.

You’re over-exercising

Some types of excessive, high-intensity exercise make it more likely you’ll have chronically elevated cortisol levels (8). Over-exercising can lead to negative effects upon levels of important neurotransmitters such as dopamine and 5-HTP, which increase feelings of depression and fatigue (9). 

The stress caused by overtraining can dysregulate the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA axis), possibly contributing to other hormonal conditions such as hypothyroidism. High stress is known to flare symptoms of hypothyroidism, and this includes the physical stress from prolonged, intense exercise (10). 

Physical signs of a fight-or-flight response

Chronically high levels of cortisol can increase your risk for a variety of health issues, and cause sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, and weight gain. Excess cortisol also encourages fat gain, particularly around the abdomen.

The long-term activation of the fight-or-flight response and dysregulated cortisol levels can lead to many health issues, including:

  • Difficulty concentrating/brain fog
  • Getting sick more often/immune weakness
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia or trouble sleeping
  • Digestive trouble like diarrhea or malabsorption issues
  • Irritability
  • Changes in mood
  • Weight gain or loss (often due to hormonal changes)
  • Sugar and carbohydrate cravings
  • Teeth grinding
  • Fatigue
  • Obsessive or compulsive behaviors

Read: The Integrative Guide to Stress Management

Stress management with functional medicine

  • Craniosacral Therapy. The goal of Craniosacral therapy is to engage the body’s natural self-correcting ability, improve wellbeing, and reduce internal tension. This may help you better manage stress.
  • Acupuncture encourages the body to switch off the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as “rest-and-digest”. This prompts the heart rate to slow, as well as blood pressure and cortisol levels to decrease. Acupuncture has been shown to improve stress-related complaints, such as trouble sleeping, energy, chronic pain, and migraines.
  • Massage therapy has also been proven a valuable tool in stress reduction in integrative health. Similar to acupuncture, massage therapy can also release feel-good hormones from the brain, such as oxytocin. This helps facilitate shifting your nervous system to a more relaxed state while decreasing the release of stress hormones like cortisol.

How Functional Medicine Can Help

Functional medicine looks at all the factors influencing your health, from nutrition, hormones, and environment to lifestyle, sleep, and stress. It seeks to identify the underlying factors driving your health problems and create a personalized plan that takes into account all of these elements.

By addressing imbalances in nutrition, hormones, and other biochemical processes, functional medicine can help you regain control over your body’s response to stress. With proper care and support, you can learn to manage stressful situations and prevent them from taking a toll on your health.




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