Why Your Body Needs—and Wants—Stress
So often, we get the message that stress is the ultimate enemy—that to be healthy is to work to excise all stress from our lives. But the thought of doing so is typically stressful in and of itself—and potentially counterproductive: Stress is a part of normal functioning, and our bodies are designed to manage it, according to New York-based naturopathic doctor and clinical nutritionist Dr. Doni Wilson. As we age, and take on stressors both within and beyond our control, it can become too much, though—the key is learning which levers to pull to support your body as it does its thing. Below, Wilson gives us a primer on stress at the cellular level, signs of excess stress, and strategies for rebalancing.
A Q&A with Doni Wilson, N.D.
What is oxidative stress, and why should we care about it?
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells, and inside of the cells are mitochondria, which take the food and nutrients we consume and turn them into energy. We use that energy to think and walk around and do all the stuff we do. Inside our cells is where oxidative stress occurs: It’s a chemical reaction that happens when our mitochondria are at work. In an engine analogy, oxidative stress is the exhaust, and too much of it would be toxic to our cells.
Just like regular stress, our bodies normally have a certain amount of oxidative stress. We’re trying to get to zero oxidative stress because oxidative stress is also protects us from injuries and infections. It’s only an issue when things get out of balance, and we have more oxidative stress than our bodies are able to recover from.
What are the symptoms of too much oxidative stress?
Antioxidants help to counteract oxidative stress and keep our normal functioning in balance. (Our bodies make antioxidants, plus we can consume them in fruits and vegetables.) Fatigue is a big signal that this system is out of balance, which makes sense: If there’s too much oxidative stress and the mitochondria can’t make energy, we’re going to feel tired.
What we commonly think of as signs of aging—gray hair, wrinkles, achy joints, dark circles—are also signs of too much oxidative stress that is overriding mitochondrial functioning.
How do you test for oxidative stress?
There are specialty tests for oxidative stress. The simplest is a urine test that measures what’s called 8 OHdG, which research shows is a good indicator of oxidative stress. If you see that your 8 OHdG is high, and you’re feeling tired and achy and run down, these could be symptoms of high oxidative stress, and you might work on getting more antioxidants into your system.
How do you relieve your oxidative stress when it becomes too much, and are there other ways to measure what’s working or not?
AVOID CERTAIN EXPOSURES
My approach is to first try to remove the root causes by figuring out where the excess oxidative stress is coming from and looking for ways to avoid or correct those exposures. Maybe the big oxidative stressor is a lack of sleep, too much sugar in the diet, or toxin exposure. I start by talking through a patient’s environment— food, air, water quality. Where could you potentially make different choices aimed at reducing oxidative stress? Maybe that’s installing a water filter, or adding more healthy fats into your diet to help cut back on your sugar intake. There are some things you can make a choice about, and other stressors in life that you have no control over—so it’s important to make adjustments where you know you’re able to do so.
CHANGE UP YOUR DIET
Once we’ve reduced exposure, we can move on to adding in foods that are high in antioxidants, like berries. Really anything fresh and colorful—from dark greens to pomegranate—contains antioxidants. Even cauliflower has antioxidants (yes, white’s a color).
Then I look at supplementing. Common antioxidant supplements include vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, selenium; these nutrients are regularly included in multivitamins.
Stronger antioxidant supplements include CoQ10 and glutathione. Our bodies make both CoQ10 and glutathione, and for the most part if we have a healthy diet and we’re not over-stressed, our bodies produce enough. But we know that some people, based on their genetic tendencies, make less CoQ10 or glutathione (they’re not able to recycle their CoQ10 and glutathione as effectively, which means they have lower levels available). That’s when a supplement makes the most sense.
I’ve worked with various kinds of CoQ10 in my practice over the years. As with any supplement, you want to be able to evaluate whether a given form is working or not—does the supplement get to the right part of the body to do its job? With CoQ10, after you swallow the substance, you want it to get into the cell, and more specifically, into the mitochondria. A lot of labs and companies have worked hard to figure out how to do this; now, the supplement MitoQ is thought to get into the mitochondria more effectively. I’ve been testing MitoQ on myself and with patients for almost a year, and anecdotally, patients report feeling better.
There are also tests to measure CoQ10 levels (unfortunately not a part of standard lab work), either in the blood or urine, which can show if levels are low—and, with retesting, how the body responds to a given regimen change. A lot of my patients like seeing these tangible results, along with looking out for potential changes in the way they feel—do they have more energy, has their sleep pattern shifted? In my practice, we are constantly measuring, implementing changes, re-measuring, and seeing what makes a difference.
What are the most impactful lifestyle changes for addressing excess oxidative stress?
I use the acronym CARE to describe a stress-remedy program:
“C” is clean eating.
“A” is adequate sleep. It’s really amazing how when we get seven-and-a-half to nine hours of sleep, our oxidative stress simply decreases; and if we don’t get enough sleep, our oxidative stress increases. This seems obvious and yet so many of us don’t get enough sleep.
“R” is for reducing stress or a remedy, which includes things like meditation, mindfulness, any activity that helps our bodies get an anti-stress message, even if it’s just for sixty minutes (or sixty seconds).
“E” is for exercise. Exercising too much can become a stress, so you want just the right amount of exercise where you’re getting your body moving and relieving stress however you enjoy it most.
Doni Wilson, N.D. is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, natural health expert, nutritionist, midwife, and author who believes it is possible to be healthy, even when we are stressed (which she explores in her book, The Stress Remedy, offering guidance on how to reclaim optimal health with the approach she has used to help thousands of patients). Specializing in gluten sensitivity, intestinal permeability, adrenal stress, insulin resistance, neurotransmitter imbalances, hypothyroidism, women’s health issues, autoimmunity, and genetic variations called “SNPs”, she has helped her patients overcome their most perplexing health challenges and achieve their wellness goals by crafting individualized strategies that address the whole body and the underlying causes of health issues.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.
Related: How to Handle Stress