Once upon a time in the not too distant past, humans and animals were not so different from one another. The way we lived, our community hierarchies, and the ways that we resolved conflict held many similarities. One major difference nowadays is how we have learned to deal (or not deal) with stress. Our animal cousins appear to have infinitely less stress induced health problems and so perhaps we should look to them and rediscover how to manage stress like a Zebra so that we can alleviate adrenal fatigue and autoimmune diseases.
I read a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert M Sapolsky and it highlights perfectly how we have cast aside our natural and biological stress response in favor of a prolonged reaction which is ultimately ruining our bodies equilibrium and causing a downward spiral of health problems.
I have no affiliation to this book, I just think it’s an apt illustration of the avoidable effects of stress. Also, who doesn’t love the chance to talk about zebras?
How Do Stress Hormones Work?
To put it simply, we are a series of biochemical reactions and I’m pleased to tell you that you have more control over those reactions than you might think. Each hormonal response within your body is initiated AFTER you have a thought about something. Therefore, how you choose to respond to that thought will determine what the biological response process looks like.
The timeline for the biochemical reaction looks like this:
- Thought: That’s another thing to add to my to-do list.
- Feeling: Stress, worry.
- Biochemical Response: I see your stress and raise you; double cortisol. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that feeling stays put!
On the flip side of this process, is the option that you consciously choose which feelings to attribute to the thoughts and thereby control the outcome of the biochemical response. It would look like this:
- Thought: That’s another thing to add to my to-do list.
- Feeling: *shrug* Maybe I could ask so-and-so for help, or I’ll just need to push some tasks back til tomorrow.
- Biochemical response: This is a neutral thought so I’ll remain balanced. Your hormones and emotions won’t elevate. (In addition, if it was a scenario that you could reverse the thought/feeling to a positive one, *Man, I love being busy and organizing stuff, it’ll be great to get this finished*, the response would induce an influx of happy hormones and continue that feel-good feeling).
What Is Cortisol And What Does It Do?
Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. It’s produced in your adrenal glands and when released, works alongside parts of your brain to control your level of and response to fear, anger and stress. Cortisol plays an important role in a number of things your body does, including:
- how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
- Keeps inflammation down.
- Regulates blood pressure.
- Increases blood sugar.
- Controls your sleep/wake cycle.
- Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterwards.
The best known role of Cortisol is in helping fuel your body’s “fight or flight” response.
Cortisol’s Role In Fight Or Flight Response
Fight or flight (also known as the acute stress response) is your body’s reaction to perceived danger. This can be physical or psychological. For the majority of our day, and life, our body functions in what is known as the “rest and digest” phase. This is basically a state where your body carries on with normal necessary processes and, ideally, your hormone levels are healthy.
When you are presented with perceived danger your body switches to fight or flight mode. It’s a different neural transmission that prepares us to either fight for survival or flee (also for survival!)
In the past, this danger would have been a predatory animal attacking you (head’s up Zebra, there’s a lion about!). However, these days it can be the fear of giving a presentation at work, or being stuck in traffic when you’re late.
Generally, any situation that prevents you from controlling the outcome has the potential to activate fight or flight response.
During this state, your adrenal gland springs into action. It pumps out cortisol to get you prepared to act, and in turn the cortisol demands that your body creates extra glucose so you have the energy to take action.
Signs that you’ve entered the fight or flight state include dilated pupils, pale or flushed skin, rapid heartbeat, or trembling. Understanding the process helps you look out for signs that you need to relax and regain control of your hormones.
Manage Stress Like A Zebra
As a result of the increased glucose production, your cells assume that you need it for the extra energy expelled in a survival situation. So, they stop absorbing it and leave it in your bloodstream.
Now, if you’re like the Zebra you’ll experience this fight or flight process during intensely stressful situations. They won’t be an everyday occurrence and there isn’t any aftermath, really.
Us humans, however, have evolved our lifestyles to include never-ending possibilities for stress inducing events. You slept through your alarm, your kids won’t get dressed for school, you get stuck in traffic, your boss is a jerk, you have a sick child, you can’t make rent, your marriage is struggling, your boiler breaks down, your health is going downhill, and on and on and on.
So when does your body get a chance to rebalance the stress hormones? Answer: It doesn’t. The constant over production of glucose eventually becomes too much for your cells and they just stop trying to absorb it and the door opens for Diabetes.
Clearly, the Zebra has nailed the ability to transition back into the rest and digest state of being. It would serve our health well to take heed.
What Are The Signs Of Elevated Cortisol?
Continuously high cortisol can cause a number of symptoms. Some of these include:
- Struggling to lose weight
- Actively gaining weight, mostly around the midsection and upper back
- Muscle weakness
- Severe fatigue
- Difficulty sleeping
- Poor memory or “brain fog”
- Irritability and difficulty concentrating
- High blood pressure
Collectively, these symptoms are often referred to as Adrenal Fatigue. However, this is generally not accepted by conventional western medicine.
How to Reverse Adrenal Fatigue
Whilst we may never be able to manage stress like a Zebra, there are some things you can do to both reverse or prevent adrenal fatigue.
- Stress management. Whether you need anger management classes or to adjust your mindset, it is do-able. Becoming more mindful of your thought patterns and stopping the negativity creeping in before it becomes a stress response will work wonders for your health.
- Self-care. Find what works for you in helping to relax you and give the natural boost you need to tackle tasks that normally stress you out. For me, it’s showering in the dark. It leaves me feeling physically clean and emotionally cleansed.
Whether you prefer epsom baths, massage treatments, time out on your own, connecting with nature or whatever else doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you get time and space to relax and recharge.
- Clean up your diet. Eating clean, unprocessed foods that support your adrenal glands and immune system is vital. It’s time to ditch coffee and the adrenaline pumping effects of caffeine. Try my coffee replacement recipe instead, packed full of awesome yummy goodness!
Adrenal supporting herbal supplements are also available in most health stores.
- Be supported. Working 1-1 with a functional medicine doctor allows you to deep dive into all of your lifestyle choices, health issues, and symptoms that you may be overlooking. You can book a free consultation here and I’ll help you find the right solution for YOU.
In conclusion, the similarities between man and zebra may have long disappeared but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to be learned from them. Regaining control of your stress response so that your body can find balance will help you prevent or reverse adrenal fatigue and many other health conditions.
Have you read the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers? Let me know in the comments what you thought of it!