Stress: Friend or Foe? – Sue Potgieter

Over the last few months we have looked at the core imbalances in disease from a functional medicine point of view; this month we review the last one. Stress – is it a friend or a foe? As hunter-gatherers in the past, stress played a vital role in our survival, alerting us to the presence of a sabre-tooth tiger, and enabling us to escape! It served a purpose by ramping up certain body systems and temporarily lowering others, so that we could deal with the threat. Afterwards the body would return to normal, until maybe a marauding bear wandered into the camp, and the whole cycle would start again.

In today’s society, rather than dealing with an occasional sabre-tooth tiger or bear, we find ourselves under constant attack. Running late for work, financial pressures, relationship issues, chronic sleep deprivation, bereavement, work deadlines, over exercising, inflammatory foods such as sugar and trans fats, being constantly available via email or phone: the body perceives these as stressors and goes into what is known as ‘fight or flight’ mode. Unfortunately, these days we rarely get the chance to move out of this state into what is known as ‘rest and digest’ mode, because as soon as one stress passes, the next one is close on its heels.

Although the concept of stress has earned a bad reputation, it is important to recognise that while long-term stress is generally harmful, short-term stress can be protective as it prepares the body to deal with challenges. It up-regulates the immune system promoting wound healing, and enables the body to deal more efficiently with pathogenic bacteria. Long term stress, however, suppresses many of the body’s systems, leading to low grade chronic inflammation and may increase susceptibility to some of what life insurance companies term as ‘dread diseases’. Have you ever found it harder to throw off a cold when you’re stressed?


In the presence of a stressor, the adrenal glands (little triangular organs situated on top of each kidney) release hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These cause an increased blood flow to the muscles, heart and brain to support the ‘fight or flight’ response. Digestive and reproductive processes are inhibited during this time. Research has shown that repeated and uncontrollable stress can dysregulate cortisol levels, promoting fat around the middle and a tendency to crave high fat, high sugar or high salt foods.

Do you ever reach for a doughnut, or chocolate or crisps when you’re stressed? Find it hard to lose weight? Could it be that there is a biochemical imbalance in the body from being chronically stressed, which needs addressing, and it’s not just a lack of willpower? Research is beginning to show a clear correlation between high cortisol and high insulin levels, and fat around the middle. High cortisol levels can also suppress the appetite in some people, leading to weight loss.

Sleep deprivation is a common chronic stressor and two recent meta-analyses have found that short sleep duration (<5h per night for adults, <10h per night for children) significantly predicted obesity. As further demands are placed on us each day, we have to discover a way to relieve our chronic stress levels in order to optimise our health.

Reduce and Manage Stress

1. Meditation or mindfulness: This practice has been shown to help train the brain and body to turn off the stress response and promote more relaxation. Check out the app Headspace for a great way to get started.
2. Deep breathing exercises: Taking deep breaths helps turn down the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) and kick in the body’s natural relaxation response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest mode).
3. Spending time in nature/outdoors: walk in the forest, do some gardening but get outside and away from technology to allow yourself to relax.

Stress relieving foods

1. Sunflower seeds, wild salmon, avocados, broccoli, mushrooms, eggs, some grass fed meat for B vitamins
2. Increase your intake of vegetables and fruit to 8-10 portions (1 portion = fistful) a day for vitamin C (high intake required during stressful times)

As we move towards the end of 2017, let’s not wait until 2018 but turn over a new leaf today! Tired all the time? Wired but tired? Can’t sleep? Craving sugary/salty foods?

Email me at: A fully referenced article in PDF format is available on request.

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