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Stress to Strength & Health

My Journey From Stress to Strength & Health

Ten years ago, a chance encounter with a book on my doctor friend’s desk sparked a life-changing journey.

The book was titled “Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome” by Dr. James L. Wilson, and it immediately piqued my curiosity.

“If you like it, take it,” my friend offered, noticing my fascination. “It’s a very interesting book. I’ve read it three times!”

Intrigued, I dove into the book, devouring it in one sitting. While excitement surged through me, a deeper awareness bloomed: I had only scratched the surface of the American School of Functional Medicine. This book opened a new window to a world of questions I desperately needed answers to.

Confession time:
I’m no stranger to stress. My childhood was deeply impacted by my father’s sudden, serious illness. As I detailed in my autobiography “My Childhood,” this experience likely triggered childhood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

This left a lasting mark, transforming me from a lively, happy child into a more withdrawn and sensitive one. Looking back, I believe this emotional shift might also explain why I became a picky eater and struggled with maintaining a healthy weight.

Life, of course, doesn’t offer rewind buttons.

But it allows us to look back, recognize regrets, and learn from the road we’ve traveled. This is where my journey truly begins.

In this blog, we’ll explore the profound effects of stress on our health with a sneak peak into the world of functional medicine and uncovering strategies to combat stress and optimize well-being. Join me as we navigate this path to a healthier, happier you!

Is Stress The Silent Culprit in Modern Disease?

As a former medical student, I readily recall everything about the adrenal glands, adrenaline, and cortisone – their location, function, and clinical applications.

Yet, witnessing the clear link between adrenal hormones and disease manifestation in real life was a revelation. Perhaps it wasn’t due to a lack of clinical experience, but rather a new perspective.

The concept that chronic stress can correlate with a multitude of modern health issues felt refreshingly novel.

In recent years, through various articles exploring functional medicine, I’ve consistently emphasized the undeniable impact of stress on both physical and mental well-being.

Stress comes in two flavors: acute and chronic.

Acute stress can be triggered by emergencies, life-altering events like sudden illnesses, terminal diagnoses, or significant personal losses. Financial setbacks, job terminations, or academic failures can also deliver devastating blows. The saying “turning your hair gray overnight” vividly captures the stress-induced physical toll.

These events leave people emotionally and physically drained, plunging moods and potentially leading to anxiety, insomnia, and even depression. The road to recovery varies depending on individual personalities, life experiences, psychological resilience, support systems, and access to medical or therapeutic interventions.

While some individuals bounce back quickly, others require more time to heal.

This blog series will delve deeper into the science behind stress, its impact on our health, and explore functional medicine strategies to combat stress and promote optimal well-being.

Let’s understand the silent culprit behind many modern-day health challenges!

Beyond Acute Stress: The Silent Threat of Chronic Stress

Acute stress – it’s a common experience, easy to identify. But today, let’s explore a stealthier foe: chronic stress, the culprit behind “Chronic Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome” discussed in the book we mentioned earlier.

The human body is a marvel – a complex system with built-in self-protection, feedback, and repair mechanisms. Organs and systems work in delicate harmony, with disruptions in one impacting others. For example, imbalanced adrenal hormones can affect thyroid function and even sex hormone production.

Think about it: during an emergency, your digestive system, mood, and sleep take a backseat. Lack of appetite and insomnia are common – the body prioritizes stress response. This is manageable for a short while, but chronic stress leaves you depleted. You might experience sudden weight loss, fatigue, and a general decline in well-being.

Over time, neglecting hydration, nutrition, emotional management, and potentially seeking professional counseling can lead to a downward spiral. Long-term anxiety, insomnia, depression, and restlessness can cripple everyday life – affecting work, studies, and overall quality of life. This could be a point where seeking medical support becomes crucial.

In this blog series, we’ll delve deeper into the science of chronic stress, and its impact on our health, and explore functional medicine strategies for stress management and optimal well-being. Stress is the often-overlooked culprit behind many modern-day health challenges.

Chronic Stress: Is “Hustle” Hurting You?

We all know what acute stress is now – that fight-or-flight response to immediate threats.

But lurking beneath the surface is another beast: chronic stress. It stems from the everyday pressures we face – work deadlines, financial burdens, and family expectations.

The prevailing attitude?

“This is just life. Nobody has a smooth ride.”

We brush off problems, telling ourselves, “Suck it up, you can handle it,” or, “You’re young, you’ve got the energy.”

Working late, burning the candle at both ends – isn’t that just how we’re supposed to live today?

After all, “water flows downhill, and people strive upwards.” The pressure to succeed, fueled by a desire for advancement or parental expectations, can be immense.

Individual differences play a role, of course. Some boast strong physical and mental resilience, allowing them to thrive under pressure. But many of us aren’t built that way. We struggle with constant difficulties, especially when faced with controlling parents or spouses who pressure us to “reach our full potential” (often for their own benefit).

This relentless, invisible pressure creates a suffocating environment. We’re left with one option: keep pushing forward, not just for days or months, but for a potentially endless stretch.

However, this blog series isn’t about accepting this as our fate.

Here, we’ll explore the science behind chronic stress, how it impacts our health, and discover functional medicine strategies to help you manage stress and reclaim control.

“Hustle culture” might be glorified, but at what cost?

Let’s work towards a life where success and well-being can coexist. Join me on this journey to understanding and overcoming chronic stress.

Understanding When “Success” Becomes Stress

The pressure to succeed seems to start young. School, extracurriculars, exams, awards – the relentless pursuit of achievement leaves many children overwhelmed, breathless and unhappy.

We rush from school to work, then juggle marriage, children, and the constant expectation to excel in every aspect of life. Who has time to prioritize someone else’s or even their own feelings when “winning” is all that matters?

But this relentless pursuit often comes at a steep price.

Burnout, and mental health struggles – are these the trophies of success?

Sadly, witnessing this pressure takes its toll on others as well. Some personalities, driven by perfectionism and a need for control, seem to actively “court” stress. People pile on additional burdens, further tormenting themselves and those around them.

However, pressure isn’t always a villain.

Positive stress, like the excitement of planning a wedding, can be motivating. Yes, the meticulous details and pursuit of perfection might feel like shedding layers of skin, but ultimately, it’s fueled by joy. As the saying goes, “Sometimes, it’s not worth it to care about what others think.”

Now, let’s turn to the darker side: negative stress.

Exams, careers, relationships – from family to spouse, parents to children – interpersonal dynamics can be a major stressor. We often underestimate the profound impact of strained relationships on our well-being.

Imagine a constant, dull ache – the feeling of a metaphorical knife slowly digging into your heart and soul. This is a burden many carry silently, unknowingly contributing to adrenal dysfunction.

Can healthy adrenal function truly survive under the crushing weight of constant pressure?

Read along to discover functional medicine strategies to combat stress and promote optimal well-being.

Join me as we navigate the complex relationship between pressure and health, aiming to achieve success without sacrificing our well-being.

The Downward Spiral: How Chronic Stress Steals Your Health

As we discussed, during the initial stages of acute stress, your adrenal glands kick into overdrive, pumping out adrenaline to help you cope with the threat. You feel hyperactive and energized. However, this is a temporary fix.

The Hidden Depletion:

Over time, especially if you’re unaware of the importance of proper nutrition, the body’s reserves of energy and essential nutrients become depleted. Remember, your adrenal glands need raw materials to synthesize hormones. Without them, their function begins to decline.

The consequences of this decline are far-reaching. Reduced adrenaline secretion leads to a cascade of problems:

Digestive Issues: 

Low gastrointestinal function translates to loss of appetite, further exacerbating nutrient deficiencies.

Thyroid Imbalance:

Reduced adrenal function can disrupt thyroid activity, leading to fatigue and sluggishness.
Strained Relationships: The constant state of low energy can negatively impact your relationships with your partner and others.

Weakened Immunity:

Chronic stress compromises your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and illnesses.

Poor Sleep and Concentration:

The inability to relax and recharge both sleep and focus will inevitably suffer.

Chronic Stress: The Silent Saboteur

What’s truly alarming is how easily chronic stress goes unnoticed. Like a frog in slowly boiling water, we get accustomed to the rising temperature, unaware of the danger until it’s too late.

A Personal Awakening:

I fell victim to this pattern for many years. My competitive nature, coupled with a belief that youth was a shield against consequences, led me to push myself relentlessly. It wasn’t until a serious illness forced me to reassess my life, that I realized the path I’d chosen was leading me towards a life I despised.

As the saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” This blog aims to equip you with the knowledge and tools to identify and manage chronic stress. By understanding these principles, you can re-examine your own path and make informed choices to create a life that prioritizes both success and well-being.

Let’s work together to break free from the cycle of chronic stress and reclaim control of your health!

Practical Strategies for Stress Management

Now that we’ve explored the detrimental effects of chronic stress, let’s delve into actionable solutions!

The Power of Proper Nutrition:

There’s a reason I say it three times: nutrition, nutrition, nutrition! Aim for a balanced, nutrient-rich diet as the cornerstone of your health. Remember, both physical and mental well-being thrive on a foundation of essential vitamins and minerals.

If dietary limitations make achieving optimal nutrition difficult, consider incorporating well-chosen health supplements to bridge any gaps.

Mastering Your Mindset:

Developing healthy coping mechanisms for managing emotions and relieving stress is crucial. Sometimes, saying “no” is the most empowering choice. Be it to others who take advantage of your kindness or even to yourself, setting boundaries is essential.

Respect Yourself, Respect Others:

Remember, relationships are a two-way street. Respect is paramount – both giving and receiving it. Unwavering tolerance and selflessness aren’t sustainable. Protect yourself, learn to communicate your needs, and find ways to coexist peacefully with others.

Release the Pressure Valve:

Find healthy outlets for stress – activities that allow you to release tension before it builds up and overwhelms you.

A Journey of Self-Discovery:

I hope this article serves as a springboard for self-exploration. Reflect on what truly makes you unhappy or stressed. Start small, identifying areas where you can make positive changes. Unraveling the knots of chronic stress is a process, but remember, “a single step back allows you to see farther ahead.” Many of the challenges we face are self-inflicted. Taking responsibility for our own happiness empowers us to make the necessary adjustments.

A Glimpse into the Science:

As a bonus, here’s a relevant excerpt from my book, “How Much Do You Know About Hormones?”:

“Cortisol, secreted by the adrenal glands, is known as the stress hormone. It acts as a protector during crisis situations, enabling us to cope with difficulties. It follows the ‘fight-or-flight’ principle. In emergencies, it elevates heart rate and blood pressure, diverting blood flow to muscles for enhanced escape or fighting abilities. However, this comes at a cost. Gastrointestinal function and blood supply are reduced, leading to lower thyroid activity and a decrease in overall daily metabolism. While focusing on defending against immediate danger, cortisol diminishes the brain’s learning and memory functions, and weakens the body’s immune system.”

By understanding the physiological impact of chronic stress, we can take proactive steps to protect ourselves and promote optimal health.

Are We Stealing Our Own Health?

Our bodies are equipped with incredible self-regulation mechanisms. Think of the “fight-or-flight” response – a temporary surge of hormones to help us navigate a crisis. This is perfectly normal.

However, the modern world throws relentless stress our way, both consciously and unconsciously. We subject ourselves to chronic high-pressure situations, gradually depleting our body’s ability to produce cortisol, the key stress hormone.

The Cost of This Chronic Stress Manifests in a Multitude of Ways:

Sleepless Nights and Restless Minds:

Insomnia, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating become unwelcome companions.

Gut Gone Bad:

Digestive issues like reduced appetite and impaired absorption can lead to nutrient deficiencies.

Weakened Immune System:

Constant stress cripples your body’s defense system, making you more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Allergies and autoimmune diseases can also take root.

Brain Fog:

Learning becomes a struggle, and memory fails you.

Exhaustion and Depression:

Feeling constantly drained and unmotivated is a tell-tale sign of adrenal fatigue.

Reaching for Stimulants:

Coffee and tea become crutches, a desperate attempt to stay awake and function.
These problems are further compounded by poor nutrition. An imbalanced diet lacks the essential components your body needs to synthesize hormones. This creates a vicious cycle, accelerating metabolic decline and premature aging.

The “Progesterone Steal”:

Functional medicine sheds light on a fascinating phenomenon.

Pregnenolone, a precursor to several hormones, is vital for cortisol production. When faced with chronic stress, your body redirects pregnenolone away from other crucial hormones, like progesterone and DHEA, to meet the urgent need for cortisol. This “progesterone steal” creates a domino effect:

Progesterone Deficiency:

This imbalance can contribute to infertility and hormonal issues.

DHEA Deficiency:

DHEA plays a role in energy production, immune function, and mood regulation. Low levels can have a significant impact on your well-being.

Testosterone Decline:

Men experience a decrease in testosterone, impacting everything from muscle mass to libido.
Estrogen Imbalance: Even estrogen levels can be affected, contributing to hormonal imbalances in both men and women.

This is why we see a rise in premature aging and fertility struggles among younger generations. We’re essentially “stealing” from our future health by constantly being in a state of stress.

I will continue this blog series to dive deep into the science behind chronic stress, explore its impact on our hormones, and equip you with functional medicine strategies to combat stress and promote optimal health.

Let’s work together to break free from this cycle and reclaim control of our well-being!

H Zeng

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