Holiday Stress, the Cycle of Inflammation and the Perfect Gift for your Stressed out Loved Ones.

If you’re experiencing holiday stress this year or have a loved one that is, continue on to learn how the cycle inflammation plays a role. Learn what to do about it and how this may be the perfect gift for yourself and/or for your “stressed out” loved ones.

Note: The following piece is written with moms in mind but information presented is relevant to everyone.

We’re deep in the holiday season! For our little ones and young at heart, this is a fantastic time of year; full of presents, giving, parties and winter breaks. Many moms, however, may disagree. For them, ‘tis the season’ for major stress and while we may experience transient moments of joy and happiness watching our little ones faces light up with glee with all the holiday decor and gift getting, most of us are, unfortunately, are paying a hefty price. 

What’s the price? Inflammation.

The Current Epidemic…

Many of us are entering the holiday season already inflamed and chronic inflammation is a current epidemic (1). If you’re a working mom, maintain a home, raise kids, care for elderly, skip your veggies, don’t work out, don’t get enough sleep etc., (you get the point), you’re most likely already suffering from the consequences of inflammation in your body. 

How does this show up? You may be extra snippy with others and even with yourself. Maybe you’re more fatigued than usual and/or you may be experiencing more weight gain than what can be blamed on those extra Christmas cookies you ate. 

You’re hormones might be wacky and/or you may be getting constantly sick. Maybe you’re even depressed and wondering why you’re not more excited for the season. Or even worse, maybe you’re keeping yourself so busy that you’re not even noticing how inflammation is showing up. 

Regardless, what many people fail to realize is that inflammation itself, anywhere in the body, will actually trigger a stress response in our brains. Here’s what that looks like.

The following info, while super overgeneralized, gets technical and may inadvertently induce “stress” while reading. Bear with me because it’s worth knowing the process and ultimately, what to do about it.

Our Brains on Stress…

Imagine the scenario where you’re kids are on break from school, they’re bored, so they’re annoying. The house is a mess, you still have a work project to complete and you’re expecting company for dinner. You still have to shop and cook and to make matters worse, you still don’t know what you’re going to make. You’re super stressed! You feel it both physically and mentally and all you really want to do is cancel the whole day, send your kids away, put on your pajamas and take a nap.

Now imagine this scenario. The above described “stress” enters your brain. This triggers CRH; corticotropin-releasing hormone (a stress hormone). CRH then activates 2 different systems in your brain: your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The two systems look something like this:

Image Credit: Google Images

When our SNS is activated, it releases pro-inflammatory chemicals and like the label implies, are inflammatory. Pro-inflammatory chemicals, or cytokines like NF-kB and TNFa are what constitute and/or make up the stress chemistry in our brains. So we end up with an inflamed brain. 

Thankfully, our bodies our balanced and in turn, when our sympathetic system gets activated, our HPA axis gets kicks in as well. Our HPA axis produces cortisol and cortisol is inherently anti-inflammatory.  Cortisol inhibits the pro-inflammatory chemicals listed above and ultimately reduces them. 

Elevated cortisol is a good thing, and is needed to balance the effects of brain inflammation. This whole process is normal and expected in single stressful events. The problem occurs when stress is chronic and unfortunately, for most of us, it is.

Your Brain AND Body on Chronic Stress…

A chronic stress response (for many this can go on for years) leads to cortisol resistance. Meaning your body’s cortisol receptors no longer respond to the cortisol released (many times referred to as adrenal fatigue). Cortisol resistance also means you don’t get the anti-inflammatory benefits of cortisol either. The process is much like insulin resistance. Elevated insulin for an extended period of time leads to insulin resistance and/or worst case scenario diabetes. Same concept with cortisol. Elevated cortisol for extended period of time leads to glucocorticoid resistance (cortisol) and/or steroid hormone imbalance (2). When we lose our built in anti-inflammatory effect and/or become resistant, we end up with chronic brain inflammation.

Add in the fact that if inflammation in our body is great enough to reach our brains, meaning if there’s enough NF-kB (pro-inflammatory chemical) floating around, this, itself, will trigger a CRH response in your brain, activating the 2 systems again, releasing more pro-inflammatory cytokines, contributing to more cortisol resistance….you get the picture right?! It’s a feedback loop (brain and body inflammation) and if you’re experiencing chronic inflammation in one area, you’re most likely experiencing it in the other…

Enter “stress” of the holidays and no wonder so many of us get so frazzled, so quickly. We’re adding fuel to a fire that already exists and blame it on the season rather than on pre-existing inflammation….

What to do about it…

Now that you have a visual as to what exactly is going on and what stress chemistry actually means, what do you do about it? One of the many tools you can use to help dampen inflammation includes the use of adaptogens.

Disclaimer: Always check with your doc before taking any new supplements and this is not an endorsement for any specific brand.

Adaptogens are natural substances that work with a person’s body and as the name suggests, help them adapt; most notably, to stress (3). Adaptogens have been shown to exhibit neuroprotective (protect the brain), anti-fatigue, and anti-depressive activity. In addition, a number of clinical trials demonstrate that adaptogens exert an “anti-fatigue” effect that increases mental work capacity, particularly in tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention (3).” The protective activity of adaptogens is associated with the regulation of our stress response via several mechanisms of action, all linked to our HPA axis. 

Ultimately, these natural substances can help “support” your body during stressful times, and we can use all the support we can get. Obviously, using a multifaceted approach for lowering total inflammation is an ideal approach and identifying and removing both internal and external stress is key for initiating the process. For those of us though, that currently can’t remove much of our external stress (our holiday to-do list for example) adaptogens can help support us through these times by mitigating the harmful effects of brain inflammation that this holiday season can trigger. Hence why they also make the perfect gift!

If you’re interested in learning more about adaptogens, if they’re appropriate for you or your loved one, and/or steroid hormone testing for identifying a source of inflammation, contact me here!

Sources and Inspiration

1) The Inflammation Theory of Disease

2) Stress and Hormones

3) Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity

-Functional Diagnostic Nutrition-

-Cogence Immunology with Dr. Yanuck

-all image credits: Google Images

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