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Friday, September 24, 2010

Take a Deep Breath: Why Stress Can Be Blown Away

Take a deep breath. Just breathe. Keep breathing.

WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Despite knowing that the foundations of health are preventative measures, we live with a health care system that deals with us only when there is disease or infirmity. We are left on our own to figure out nutrition, exercise and the mind-body connection.

In the last year, I’ve learned a surprising amount about how much breathing is related to general health, in particular to levels of stress. (Thank you internet, Lucy Miller, Rubina Kirji, Debra Gibson  and the Westcoast Women’s Clinic.) I’m astounded at how long it has taken me to piece together some of these basic tenets of good health. Now I want to share, especially with all the women in my life who are suffering from fatigue, digestion issues, and other work-life imbalances. (Oh the boys should read this too.)

Here’s what I know and what your GP doesn’t tell you (or doesn’t know).

There’s a critical link between meditation, deep breaths and health. 

Let’s start with some body basics and definitions. (Come with me back to grade 10 biology. It’s time to fill in the blanks.)

Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through the blood and enter tissues. They turn on genetic switches that regulate everything from reproduction to emotions, general health to well being. Different glands and organs produce different hormones.

Pituitary: Master gland in your brain that controls how much of certain hormones are released

Adrenals: Little walnut-shaped glands on top of your kidneys that secrete hormones like Cortisol, Adrenaline, DHEA, Aldosterone

Pancreas: Glandular organ that produces digestive enzymes and the hormones insulin and glucagon to regulate blood sugar.

Thyroid: Butterfly-shaped gland located on the front part of the neck below the Adam’s apple that produces thyroid hormones, which regulate body energy, the body’s use of other hormones and vitamins, and the growth and maturation of body tissues.

The Adrenals Hold the Key
The hormones produced by the Adrenals play a special role in stress reduction.

DHEA: stamina, vitality, muscles
Cortisol and Adrenaline: stress, fight/flight
Aldosterone: fluid and electrolyte balance

If we are stressed out all the time, we tap out the adrenals. Why?

When you’re stressed, cortisol is released into the bloodstream. The positive effect is the quick burst of energy that lets you run away from a tiger or fight off a predator. The problem is that we aren’t often stressed because of tigers and predators. We are usually desk bound and stressing about our job, our family, or the to-do list and the lack of time.

That fight/flight cortisol triggers a set of physiological changes, such as increases in heart rate, arterial blood pressure, and blood glucose (blood sugar). It’s your sympathetic nervous system kicking in to mobilize your body in response to stress. (Stress Health and Cortisol)

Cortisol is released > sugar in the blood increases

This is the ALARM phase where we are stressed but productive. We’re wired. We have a little energy high because of this panic mode.

If we burn off the sugar running away from that tiger (or exercising), insulin takes whatever sugar is left and typically puts it back into the tissue cells (muscle, kidney, fat) to use for energy.

But when we don’t burn off the sugar in the blood, insulin stores the excess in the liver by making glycogen, long chains of glucose, and it stimulates fat cells to form fats from fatty acids and glycerol.

Since the tissue cells are depleted of sugar (energy), we crave carbs, which are an immediate source of sugar. But because the body still thinks it’s stressed, insulin continues putting the sugar into the liver, making more glycogen and stimulating more fat.

If you’re stressed, and hardly eating, but still gaining weight. This is why.

If that cycle repeats because we’re in a constant, low-level state of stress, tissue cells don’t get the energy from glucose and their sugar levels crash. We crash. We are exhausted. We’re stressed and have no energy. We can’t relax. We are wired but tired.

This is the MALADAPTIVE stage.

If the stress continues for prolonged periods, your cortisol and adrenaline levels are low. You have no energy. “I just can’t do it anymore.” You need 4-5 days of vacation before you even feel a little release and relaxation. You are burned out. Feeling burned out is adrenal burnout, or the FATIGUE phase.

Insulin resistance can take place, which is when insulin becomes less effective at lowering blood sugars.Your body either does not produce or does not respond to insulin, your cells do not absorb glucose from your bloodstream, which causes you to have high blood-glucose levels. (This is the basics of How Diabetes Works.)

You don’t want to get here!

Adrenal dysfunction can be avoided with good nutrition, reframing our stress response, minimizing environmental stressors (toxins), meditation (especially creating a relaxation response vs. fight/flight response) and exercise.

Deep meditation (purposeful, deep breathing for 20 minutes) can right your cortisol levels for 24 hours. You want that. Do it.

Can’t sleep at night? It’s likely because your cortisol levels are high. You can’t sleep because your brain and body is in a fight/fight response vs. a relaxation response.

Go to bed before 10 pm so that you don’t get that second wind that keeps you up. It’s a cortisol peak that is keeping you up.

When you have nice functional adrenal glands, your cortisol peaks around 6 am. You do not wake up tired. You do not wake up in the middle of the night. You are not overwhelmed. You are not sick all the time. And you should not have allergies and sensitivities.

Now good nutrition is tricky because very few of us understand nutrition. You know the basics:

* Do not skip meals
* Anticipate hunger and eat before (no crashes)
* Slow down and chew your food
* Don’t eat on the run

The sympathetic nervous system that creates the stress response inhibits salivation and digestive activity. When we eat on the run, the first stage of digestion (salivation) is not working. Nor is the digestive system. Sluggish? Bloated? This is why.

You want to initiate the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates salivation and digestive activity. Eating bad food while relaxed is better for you than eating good food when you’re stressed out. When you’re relaxed, the body can extract the nutrients and convert them into energy properly. When you’re stressed, your whole system is under stress and underperforming.

If you’re stressed, take 10 deep breaths. Pause right now and do it. I’ll wait.

Now, of course, you have to eat but you need to choose low GI foods, foods low on the glycemic index that don’t convert to sugar quickly:

* whole grains (whole wheat is not the same as whole grain)
* brown rice
* quinoa
* beans, lentils

These foods stabilize insulin.
Avoid white flour, white rice, white sugar.

Go for protein—pasture-fed (free range) meats, wild fish, eggs—dairy, which all stabilize blood sugar.

Choose good fats (from plant sources vs. animal sources). Eat 6 almonds.

Plus, pay attention to how you combine foods in a meal. Certain things go better together and make for easier digestion (for example, combine fruit with protein or good fat).

Avoid fruit juice (we give this to diabetics when their sugar drops). You don’t need the sugar spike.

Chocolate, caffeine and alcohol are all incredibly difficult for your body to process if it’s in a state of adrenal fatigue. Just don’t do it. If you’re trying to correct poor health or stress, you’re only cheating yourself by indulging. Help your body out. Supplements, exercise and medication alone can’t do it.


Go for a combination of weights, cardio and flexibility. And if you are in adrenal fatigue, make sure that you’re not over exercising. If you are exercising, and feel good for a shot time but then crash, you need less exercise until your adrenals recover.


Take a deep breath. Just breathe. Keep breathing.

Breathe with your whole body. Let your stomach inflate. Feel your diaphragm fill to capacity. If you’re taking shallow breaths, or not letting the lower part of your diaphragm do it’s job, your brain takes this as a cue that you’re under stress. Short breaths. Panic. Sugar energy. Run. You have to break this cycle. At least for 20 minutes a day.

Can’t do 20 minutes? Find time for 10 deep breaths a day. While you’re waiting for the bus. Getting in and out of the car. Waiting for the photocopier. What do you do throughout the day that could act as a trigger to take a small pause? Find it. Do it.

20 minutes a day resets your cortisol levels for 24 hours. You’re going to like that and sleep better.

Neuroscientists are only beginning to understand the powers of the brain. We now know that the meditating brain is a brain with increased capacity for positive emotion. Just what we need to fight stress.

What the Dalai Lama knows about neuroscience.

Simply breathing can lead to better health.

Who’s going to join me in my 20-minutes a day meditation resolution?

With all my years of yoga I somehow still manage to forget about breathing. Thanks for the reminder. I’m in for your deep breathing revolution.

Best post evar. I’m in!

Thanks for sharing. Now, I’m inspired to breath!

Hi Monique,

Thanks for this great post. I completely agree that our society and health system is negatively fixated on the treatment of disorders—often when they’re too advanced in their hold on us—to the exclusion of preventative practices that could save us from costly/time-consuming/undereffective “fixes.” We don’t prioritize small daily routines (like breathing), thinking they take too much time or are somehow not drastic (or marketed) enough to be worth our while. To honour your post, I commit to a 20-minute breathing and stretching routine today.


Such a smart post. Thanks for outlining it all so clearly. It really makes perfect sense. I’m now going to share it with far too many women in my world who need it.

It is rather shocking how many of us need this post. Thanks for sharing it with others.

Excellent article! I’ve copied the juicy bits on to a Word document and posted it on my desktop under the title, “The Monique Manifesto” as a reminder to do those very things..

Breathing is definitely a big stress reliever. I always take natural/organic supplements that ensure my nasal passages are clear so that I can in fact, get the deep natural breaths that are much needed.

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