THE BLOG

Grief, Stress and Your Adrenals

04/29/2013 04:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2013

If you've read my bio, you know that we live in Boston, the home of the celebrated Boston Marathon -- and recently, home to a bombing, and then a very dramatic police chase that ended in the death and wounding, respectively, of two law enforcement officials. I was shocked and saddened by what happened, however, everyone grieves a little bit differently. For many, grieving includes visiting the site of the bombing and leaving a memorial. Others yearn to spend time with friends and family. For others, it involves an act of kindness toward others.

But grief can do funny things in your body. Depending on our personal makeup, grief is often interpreted as a stressful event. For example, when grieving, individuals may eat more than usual or, alternatively, lose their appetites. During an acute stressor, it's quite common to lose one's appetite. Long-term stress tends to increase one's appetite. Let's explore why.

In the short term, the stressor initiates a chain of reactions that includes shutting down your digestive system. Remember facing that lion? When you're reacting to stress, the last thing you should do is eat because it diverts blood flow toward the stomach and away from the lower half of our body. This is important because we need increased blood flow to those muscles in order to run! And, while modern-day stressors don't typically involve lions, our bodies are programmed to respond this way whether it's life or death, or not. Thus, it makes sense that when you encounter an acute stressor, or grief-causing event, that your appetite is suppressed.

How long you remain in the acute stress response is another matter, and is unique to each individual: how you process things, your body type, how resilient you are, and any number of other factors. At some point, if the stressor goes on long enough, you may convert (through a complex chain of events) into a chronic stress response, which, over time, can make you sick.

Having chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which ultimately deposits fat in your belly (this is known as "angry fat" since it secretes inflammatory substances, which further throws your system out of balance), insulin resistance, diabetes, elevated C-reactive protein, and more.

So I wouldn't be surprised if you're thinking: But if I'm sad, I can't do anything about that, and I just have to wait for the grief to pass, right? Well, yes... and no. You are right; your grief will pass when it should, and despite whatever emotional or spiritual work you do to grieve, it will take as long as it takes -- regardless, there's good news. It is possible to untie the relationship between grief and experiencing it as a stressor that can harm you physically.

We've talked about breathing before. When encountering an acute stressor, one of the best things you can do is to breathe. Both the "in" and "out" breaths matter, but what also matters is that the length of the "out" breath is longer than the duration of the "in" breath. Breathing like this decreases your body's sympathetic nervous system response (i.e., fight or flight), and supports activation of the parasympathetic response (i.e., restoration and relaxation). Try it now! (I'll wait.) What's really cool is that your pulse will actually slow down on the "out" breath, and if you do this breathing for a sustained period of time, your pulse will get more even and regular.

Another tip is to avoid eating foods that are highly processed. Of course, this is when you want them the most, I know. But processed foods are more difficult to digest, and may to lead to increased inflammation, raise your blood sugar, cause more processing work for the liver and the gut, and also take the place of those nutrient-dense calories you so desperately need during this time of increased stress.

The third tip I'll offer is to make sure you move your body, in whatever way you like. Doing something that raises your heartbeat for 30 minutes a day will help release endorphins, which can make you feel physically better in the short term. It also burns off nervous energy, improves cardiovascular health, and can lead to loss of fat.

The grief may still be there, and that's OK. But it's important that your reaction not lead to long-term, negative effects on your health. Our city's newly-adopted catchphrase says it best: "Boston strong." As we move past the recent tragedies, we should all work to keep ourselves healthy so we can best help our communities. Next week, we'll get back into the intestines and explore what's going on in that long tube that's crammed into your body. This week, as a Bostonian, I'm taking a moment to breathe. You should, too.

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