For as long as I’ve been in practice, I’ve explored the impact that stress has on physical health.
This wasn’t something that the conventional medical profession used to talk much about. I remember how excited I was in 1983 when Time Magazine called stress the “Epidemic of the 80’s” in a cover story. Finally, a popular, widely accepted and trusted news source,was talking about this important factor that most medical professionals seemed to want to ignore!
But here we are, more than 35 years later, and sadly not much has changed in many ways: stress continues to plague us and contribute to a myriad of health challenges. I see patients every day who are demonstrating signs of chronic stress. Many of them tell me that life in the 80s – whether they lived through it or have only heard about it – seems almost idyllic in comparison to the busy pace of life now.
There’s a bright spot in all this, though: More and more practitioners are recognizing the importance of adrenal health and its connection to stress. This link is critical to building an understanding of what goes on in your body when confronted with constant stressors.
‘Adrenal fatigue’ as a significant health condition hasn’t been discussed in the mainstream until recently. And now that it is, it’s often the source of great controversy. Many doctors don’t recognize or understand it, and there’s great debate over whether it’s even a real condition. But at least the movement has started.
At my clinic, we’ve been talking about and treating ‘adrenal fatigue’ for decades. When I ask my patients to describe something stressful, most of my patients can produce a personal example pretty quickly: being stuck in traffic and being late to a child’s recital or game, missing a flight connection, having an enormously long to-do list to prepare for an event or a holiday, or a tight deadline at work for a big project coming due.
What many of us don’t realize is that it’s not so much the one-time situation as it is the little stresses of everyday life can do damage to our health. The cumulative and repetitive stressors over time do the most harm.
Where are we most stressed?
Work might come to mind as the most stressful part of modern life. Americans, in particular, work long, hard hours in their quest for success. But a 2014 study revealed the surprising fact that people say they are more stressed at home than at work.
That didn’t make a lot of sense to me until I began exploring the underlying factors. Let’s take a look at some of these together. I’ll also share what women tell me about sources of stress at the Women to Women clinic every day.
Many of these surprising sources of stress are things that most people don’t even consider or recognize as having an impact on their health. However, these stressors can do significant harm to your health and hormonal balance over time.
Maybe some of these will sound familiar to you, too. The first step in addressing chronic stress is to identify the source. Let’s get started.
Home is where the (most) stress is
A few years ago, while catching up on some reading as I traveled to and from the Institute of Functional Medicine where I was facilitating workshops and training new practitioners, a headline caught my eye. It was that study, done by researchers at Penn State, that revealed people have much lower stress levels at work than at home.
What made the study especially interesting to me was that more than simply asking people how they felt and determining stress levels purely anecdotally, the researchers also measured the cortisol levels of the participants at home and at work. (Cortisol is a biological marker of stress; more on that later.)
We’ve always heard that work is the source of so much of our stress and home is where we re-charge, but this new finding reflects what many of my patients have told me for years: home is not a stress-free haven.
Rather, home can actually cause stress, especially for women. Before we delve deeper into some of the reasons why, one of the really interesting conclusions of the study was that women (as well as men) reported significantly lower levels of stress at work than at home and this included parents, although the decrease was not quite as big for parents as for non-parents.
And here’s another shocking revelation: Women (unlike men) reported that not only was stress lower but their happiness levels were higher at work than at home; many found work to be renewing!
This conclusion supports numerous other studies published over the years that show that people who work have better mental and physical health than those who do not.
In fact, mothers who work full-time outside the home through their twenties and thirties have better health at age 45 (an age at which stress can wreak havoc on hormonal balance heading into menopause) than mothers who worked part-time, had periods of unemployment, or who chose to be stay-at-home moms.
Perhaps because they have to deal with so much, the full-time working moms are forced to find better ways to manage their stress levels and wellness, whether it’s hiring help around the house, or making sure they hit the gym or get that massage.
Or perhaps, because they have an outlet or a place to escape the frenzy of home, somewhere they can make a valuable contribution and be recognized for something other than being chef, maid and chauffeur, those chores and labels don’t cause the same emotional stresses that can impact health over time.
Of course that doesn’t mean that full-time working mothers have stress-free lives. But they do seem to have lower stress levels than other women overall and the research shows that full-time working women do experience better health. (Though clearly, if you hate your job, that will change things significantly and may cause stress and health concerns, not prevent them.)
Beyond the overall health and wellness impacts of full-time work, I had to wonder, and you may too, why it is that work is seen as a place of renewal and home is seen as chaotic and stressful for women?
Now consider this past year, when so many women have had to either try to work from home while also caring for children, or leave their jobs to manage the needs of the family during the pandemic. Numerous studies have cropped up about the stressful impact of the pandemic and its toll on mental and physical health.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to talk about identifying and managing hidden sources of stress.
Surprising Sources of Stress
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of research on where stress comes from.
In my practice, I’ve also heard from patients about some other surprising sources of stress that may help shed some light on why home can be so stressful for many people, especially women, today.
As I contemplated what they were telling me, I discovered that other experts recognized the same concerns as potential sources of stress that my patients have shared. Let’s see if any of them resonate with you.
Your Partner/Significant Other
Merging your life with someone else can be a major source of stress as you adapt to the habits and routines of another person. And as time goes on and life evolves, money, parenting and life choices can bring on additional stress. If you don’t see eye to eye with your partner on any big issue, whether it’s money, kids, intimacy, shared workload or how you spend your time, being at home will be less than peaceful!
In addition to struggling with specific issues, not having alignment on some foundational relationship basics – such as communication styles, intimacy preferences, how you show affection, love, appreciation and support for one another, and how much time is spent together as a couple – can wreak havoc on a relationship.
Relationship challenges or differing styles may create distance and an emotional gap that, in and of itself, can create stress as well.
For so long we’ve been taught that we should multi-task and as women, let’s face it, we do it because we can! But in recent years, studies have shown that not only are people more successful and accomplish more when they focus on one thing instead of trying to do several at once, but they are less stressed.
One particular study measured heart-rate variability as a reflection of mental stress and found that people who answer emails during the day as they work instead of setting aside time each day to respond to all their mail at once experience more stress.
Digital Devices and Social Media
When Time magazine discussed stress in the 1980s, smartphones and tablets weren’t even invented, and no one was lying awake in bed at night texting or checking social media. Now, those things are ever present.
It’s no wonder that we’re stressed when we never take time to unplug and reconnect with nature, family and friends! How many times have you seen families out to dinner all on their own devices simultaneously? Do you find your own family doing the same thing?
Reading stressful or upsetting messages, emails or posts causes us to take on some of that stress ourselves. Subconsciously, we may worry that it could happen to us.
A post or a comment impacts us much in the same way that watching the violence and negativity on nightly news may. Research also shows that negative body image and longer periods of post-break up pain are just two of the downsides associated with social media use.
Apart from exposure to negative or stressful messages, using technology before bed can also interfere with sleep, and excessive technology use can reduce your availability for connection and intimacy with your partner and family.
We also lose the warmth, tone and context that comes with a direct interaction not transferred through an email or text exchange; that’s why it’s never a good idea to discuss anything important, particularly with your partner, over email or text.
And because these devices go everywhere with us, we can’t ever get a real break from the information overload, work requests and problems, and constant distractions – not even while on vacation, when we should be playing and relaxing with family or friends!
That’s why it’s best to leave the devices behind if you can. If you can’t, at least set some clear boundaries around when you’ll check your phone — set aside one hour a day, then turn it off!
Housework and creating a sense of order can be quite relaxing for some people. For others, it is exactly the opposite and is a huge source of stress. Even if you do enjoy it it can become a source of stress if you feel that you don’t get enough help and support from others in getting it done.
Dividing up the workload in a manner that everyone feels comfortable with and feeling supported in your role is key. This can be challenging for many couples and families to accomplish, however, and may be a source of significant stress in the home.
These are just a few of the sources of stress that impact us at home. Is it any wonder work can feel like an escape when you consider all of these factors?
And the most important thing to remember is that these aren’t the things women talk about when first asked about stress — so there may be far more stress going on in your life than you can even identify!
It’s important to understand all sources of stress in your life, since little things can snowball into big, divisive issues in the home and a steady stream of small stressors can cause more chronic health issues than one major incident.
Stress and adrenal fatigue
Remember when I said cortisol was a major factor in how stress impacts your health? Here’s why.
When we are in a dangerous or stressful situation, our adrenal glands, which sit on top of our kidneys, release adrenaline to make us more alert and focused, and cortisol to convert protein to energy and release our stored sugars, glycogen, so we can respond quickly.
The adrenal response will prepare us to fight or flee by releasing energy, sharpening our senses, and slowing our digestion. Once the threat is removed, adrenaline rapidly vanishes and cortisol slowly returns to normal again.
When stress is chronic, not just every once in a while, the adrenal glands focus the resources required (including estrogen) on making cortisol, resulting in hormonal imbalance. In addition, too much cortisol can damage healthy tissues. Eventually, the adrenals become totally burned out from this repetitive process and adrenal exhaustion and serious health concerns may result.
But before they are fully exhausted, the adrenals will function at limited capacity, resulting in hormonal imbalance and adrenal fatigue. In this case, you may experience symptoms such as weight gain, depression, cravings, insomnia, fuzzy thinking, and mood swings.
While I see this often in my practice, the good news is that our foundational nutrition and lifestyle recommendations can help stressed out women get back on track and restore their adrenal health. Our adrenal health products also play a key role in restoring hormonal balance and providing adrenal support by delivering foundational nutritional support that is just not available from today’s food supply.
My products and programs have been helping thousands of women to restore hormonal balance and repair adrenal fatigue for more than three decades. Together we can help you reduce your symptoms, restore your health, and finally feel like yourself again.
The surprising sources of stress discussed in this article (and many other sources) have a significant impact on your body over time. But stress doesn’t have to wear you down and wipe you out or leave you wired and unable to sleep. You can feel better. I can help!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD