In this episode re-release from June 2020, Dr. Toni and Dr. Lisa discuss: the benefits of some stress in your life; how stress becomes toxic; and how it impacts your libido, energy, mood, memory, immunity and more. Discover how to test for stress hormone imbalances and what you can do about is using lifestyle changes, meditation, exercise, nutrition, herbs and more.

In this episode, we cover:

  • What stress is and why you need good stress
  • How your adrenal glands work
  • What cortisol, your main stress hormone, does in your body
  • How you can test your adrenal function
  • How you can decrease toxic stress and the negative impact of stress on your hormones and health

Why is stress important to talk about?

  • There are downstream effects in body from stress, including hormonal changes
  • Stress is related to up to 90% of all illness 
  • Chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide
  • More than 75 percent of all physician office visits in the U.S. are for stress-related ailments and complaints

Your ability to handle stress can be impacted by: events in your childhood; genetics; and tendencies and learned behaviours from your family and loved ones.

How Some Stress Can Serve Us In the Short-Term

Stress can be both physical and emotional. Not all stress is bad!

Why do you have stress? You need it to survive!

If you came across a predator like a bear in the wild, the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system response) kicks in the release of adrenalin and results in:

  • Heart rate and blood pressure increases
  • Blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow to large muscles (arms and legs)
  • Pupils dilate to see more clearly
  • Blood flow to your core organs of digestion is shut down since it’s not a priority
  • Reproduction and fertility is on hold so your energy is focused on immediate survival

Ideally, stress is temporary, allowing your stress hormones to go down and your body has time to recover and repair.

When Stress Becomes a Problem

Stress can become chronic when you are presented with one stressful situation after another and don’t have time to recover. It is important to note that it can be triggered by perceived threats or actual threats. Stress can build up and be too much for your system to handle, especially if you’re experiencing a combination from different sources like:

  • Being stuck in traffic
  • Running late for work
  • Doing a presentation at work
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Managing kids and home life
  • Dealing with sick kids or ill parents

Good stress has positive effects in your body!

When stress is very temporary and you’re looking forward to something that gives you “butterflies” in your stomach, like going for a job interview, writing an exam or going on a date, it can be a good thing for your body!

Good stress can:

  • trigger feelings of reward in your brain after it is over 
  • support your immune system by increasing heat shock proteins 
  • increase your wound healing ability and effectiveness of vaccination
  • increase your resistance to infection and cancer
  • reduce inflammation and allergic reactions
  • boost your energy
  • support your productivity (to a point)
  • control your sleep-wake cycle
  • regulate blood pressure
  • manage how your body uses carbs, fats and protein

Sources of stress can include:

  • Mental (worry, anxiety, depression, past trauma)
  • Chemical (medications, heavy metals, toxic chemicals, mold exposure, chronic bacterial or viral infection)
  • Physical (dehydration, vitamin deficiency, fasting, pain, injury, structural misalignment, lack of sleep, time zone change)

What are your adrenal glands and what do they do?

Your adrenal glands are triangular-shaped glands located above your kidneys that produce your stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol (among other hormones as well).

  • Cortisol reaches its’ maximum level 15 minutes after a stressful situation occurs and:
    • Increases gluconeogenesis (increases blood sugar levels breaking down glycogen in liver)
    • Decreases insulin sensitivity
    • Decreases growth hormone
    • Decreases T3 thyroid hormone
    • Decreases your immune system and inflammatory response
    • Increases fat and protein metabolism

3 phases of the stress response curve: 

  • Alarm phase – adrenalin increases then decreases after acute stress
  • Resistance phase – cortisol increases and stays high with longer term stress, like work or school deadlines, car accidents, illness or death of loved ones
    • Can have you feeling hot and wired with issues like: 
      • Too much nervous energy and unable to wind down 
      • Feeling warm or hot
      • Sweating at night
      • Different parts of your body feeling red and inflamed
      • High blood pressure
      • Weight gain in the mid-section
      • Needing caffeine or sugar to increase your energy and keep going 
      • Needing alcohol to unwind in evening
      • Getting sick as soon as you relax or go on vacation
  • Exhaustion phase – cortisol decreases as you get into burnout
    • Can have you feeling cold and tired with issues like:
      • Fatigue and exhaustion
      • Feeling weak
      • Get dizzy upon standing
      • Experiencing low blood sugar
      • Dark circles under the eyes
      • Tongue and face appear pale and puffy due to retaining water

Are you stuck in the Resistance phase of the stress response curve?

How do you make the “Resistance” phase of stress tolerable instead of toxic?

  • Chronic stress can be manageable with enough personal resources and support system
    • Tend and befriend
    • Spending more time feeling zen and relaxed in the spa in your mind (parasympathetic nervous system) instead of staying in the emergency room in your mind (sympathetic nervous system)
  • Toxic stress can happen when you don’t have personal resources and/or support system to deal with it and can result in:
    • uncertainty and feeling lack of control
    • physical and mental illness

Your normal daily/diurnal cortisol curve:

  • Cortisol is highest in morning in response to morning light, giving you energy to get up and take on the day
  • It decreases over the day and has an inverse relationship with melatonin (your sleep hormone)
  • If cortisol is high at night, then melatonin can’t be properly produced and released by pineal gland

The World Health Organization (WHO) is bringing attention to the problem of work-related stress. WHO is updating its definition of burnout in the new version of its handbook of diseases, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) which will go into effect in January 2022. The WHO:

  • specifically ties burnout to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”
  • defines burnout as “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

Chronic toxic stress causes your brain to change! 

  • It shrinks your hippocampus and impairs memory
  • It weakens the connections in your prefrontal cortex (your rational self) to decrease your concentration, focus, impulse control, decision making ability, regulation of stress response
  • It increases activity in your amygdala resulting in more hypervigilance, more sensitivity and reactivity to stress (like a toddler having a tantrum)
  • It induces cerebrovascular changes and increases: neuro-inflammation, oxidative stress and blood brain barrier permeability resulting in brain fog, mood disorders and accelerated aging of your brain tissue.

Other negative health effects from chronic toxic stress include:

  • Weight gain in midsection
  • Blood sugar issues and increased risk of diabetes
  • IBS including gas, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Reflux and heartburn
  • Muscle tension and headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Reduced immunity
  • Mood disorders
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Lower bone density
  • Accelerated aging

How are your hormones impacted by stress?

  • You need the appropriate amount of cortisol for your thyroid to work properly
  • If stress and cortisol levels are high, you can’t make enough of your other sex hormones like testosterone and progesterone causing:
    • Low libido
    • PMS, menstrual cramps, headaches/migraines, irregular cycles

How do you find out what is happening in your body?

Testing for stress hormone imbalances includes:

  • Orthostatic hypotension
  • Pupillary response
  • Questionnaires like Identi-T Stress Assessment
  • Lab tests for adrenal function
    • Urine – DUTCH and CHI testing for cortisol production and breakdown plus other hormones, multiple samples throughout the day (4 or 5 point testing)
    • Saliva – multiple samples throughout the day (4 or 5 point testing)
    • Blood – cortisol AM is of limited value, best for testing thyroid function

How do you keep stress tolerable instead of toxic? How can you prevent burnout?

  • Keep a regular daily routine
  • Sleep – aim for at least 7 hours, avoid screens at night, use blue-blocker glasses 
  • Get enough natural light and sunlight during the day
  • Get in the right types of exercise at the right time of day, avoiding over-exercising
  • Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol, caffeine, sugar
  • Stay hydrated and consider adding pinch of salt in water
  • Practice mindfulness, meditation and journaling to reduce: worry, negative thoughts and rumination
  • Get therapy or counselling from a psychologist or psychotherapist. Also, take advantage of the Government of Canada’s free online mental health portal, Wellness Together Canada, to access free online mental health resources and support, including access to therapy, apps, meditations and more.
  • Talk to your Naturopathic Doctor or licensed healthcare practitioner about taking supplements such as: vitamin C, B vitamins, magnesium, adrenal glandulars, and adaptogenic herbs like: Siberian ginseng, ashwagandha, rhodiola, holy basil, licorice, maca, reishi, cordyceps, shatavari, schisandra.
  • Get outside: walking in nature and practice “Forest Bathing”.

Today’s Mama Must Have – 

Dr. Toni enjoys Traditional Medicinal’s Stress Soother Tea to relax and get into the “spa” state of mind. 

Dr. Lisa likes Traditional Medicinal’s Chamomile with Lavender Tea, and their Lemon Balm Tea to wind down in the evening.

Thank you for joining us today! 

What’s Else is Happening?

Dr. Toni’s next HypnoBirthing session for expecting parents looking to decrease fear and anxiety to support their natural instincts around labour and birth is happening this fall. Join her at

Join Dr. Lisa’s new Meetup group Wild Woman Adventures Toronto if you want to get out in nature, connect with other women and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Activities include: sunrise/sunset SUP, tree-top trekking, a new moon workshop and more!

Dr. Lisa’s Wild Collective in Fall 2022: get on the waitlist:

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Disclaimer: The information provided is not meant to replace treatment with a licensed health care practitioner. It is for informational purposes only. Consult with a Naturopathic Doctor or other licensed health care professional to determine which treatments are safe for you.