Fight or Flight? Understanding the Stress Response

Written by Dr. Jewel Alfoure, ND

The Classic Stress Response

The stress response is a sympathetic response in times of acute emergency. Generally, it is known as a fight or flight response. There is an increase in blood flow to the brain during that response. The increase in blood flow results in a better capacity to think clearly and find a way to run or fight efficiently. 

There's an increase in the production of neurotransmitters, like catecholamines, in times of stress. Those catecholamines help individuals perform better physically.

For the eyes to see better, our pupils dilate in a state of danger. Though that enhances our vision, our peripheral vision will reduce due to the dilation. Such vision is better when running away and avoiding obstacles is necessary. 

Due to the increase of what we call catecholamines, epinephrine and norepinephrine. The response is followed by an increase in blood flow to those large muscles. The large muscles are further supplied with a large amount of sugar. Increased cortisol levels spike up blood sugar and shunt blood to muscular tissues.

There's also an increase in perspiration, an increase in muscle tone, a decrease in salivation, a drop in the blood flow to the gastrointestinal system, an increase in energy metabolism, an increase in the inflammatory response, and an increase in the ability to run away. All those are built-in factors to function optimally in periods of short-term stress. 

Periods of short-term stress include running away from a predator in the forest. The problem begins to occur when running away from a predator becomes an everyday, continuous occurrence (1). 

Modern-Day Stress Response

Modern-day stress is very different from the regular stress of being chased by a predator in the forest. After all, a situation like being chased by a predator results in either getting caught or making it safely away. Chronic stress, however, is very different because it leads to a manifestation of burnout that can be emotional, physical, and mental (2). 

The Stages of Stress 

The first stage is a stage of satisfaction in everyday daily living. After that, it is point zero, where there is nothing other than the regular, predictable everyday stressors.

Stage two is the stage of the onset of stress. This is when we have a couple of more complex situations that we need to look at. Those situations may require special attention, but they are not above what we consider relatively normal. In those situations, the days can be a little tricky. However, there is satisfaction at the end of the day. There is always recovery, which occurs at resolution. 

Problems occur when we reach the third stage of stress, which is the stage of chronic stress. In this stage, one experiences many issues and so many situations that need special examination. In such a state, one feels incredibly stressed frequently; the end of the day doesn't bring resolution. So there's this continuous stage of stress, low grade, but taken home, at the end of the day, to stay with us until we resume work the next day. 

Sometimes, stress can take a very different shape. For example, those stressors go away at work when stressors are in the family. However, for some, problems are happening at home and work. In those cases, chronic stress moves into the stage of burnout, which is an endless amount of stress that never leaves the daily experience. 

Stress becomes a typical manifestation of life. To the burned-out individuals, it appears as though no intervention is there to take care of stress. So it's the stage of not being able to see a way out, ever. This is a problematic state because, in this state, the body can’t deal with the stress anymore. 

In the stage of complete burnout, stress starts to bring on health issues. So we've moved from emotional and mental exhaustion into physical manifestations of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and lack of capacity for the body to start to react naturally to stress. Those situations are situations in which the body can no longer go back to normal. However, the body is still so depleted that it can’t continue mounting a stress response. This is a hazardous stage for physical, mental, and emotional health (1,2,3). 

What Stops Us from Progressing to Unhealthy Stress 

Adding outlets to your life to help you deal with stress is very important. The first outlet for helping you deal with daily stress is routine. Unfortunately, the routine can be mundane and hard to maintain. The practice saves our body by getting our body's physiology ready. Training keeps our body by getting our physiology accustomed to a specific schedule. A schedule makes the body more adapted and prepared to deal with what you have next.

If you can have some time to meditate, spend time on your own and be able to hold on to some kind of spiritual practice, then you can perform a lot better because your body can anticipate some sort of rest, some sort of routine that it can always go back to when it's stressed. 

Underestimating the power of stress means stressing the adrenals a lot more, stressing out the brain, especially when depriving the body of natural states of recovery. Those states include the eating of healthy nutrients, the inclusion of healthful physical activity,

The inclusion of regular sleep hours and some downtime when you can focus on some kind of spiritual practice. All of those are essential pathways for a low-stress life or, at least, a life that's full of positive stressors.

Naturopathic Stress Support

Saffron is a botanical product that comes from the stigma of a flower. And so, as a botanical agent, it's costly and price. However, studies show that saffron has mood enhancement capabilities that stem from its natural ability to inhibit the reuptake of neurotransmitters (4). Inhibiting the reuptake of neurotransmitters is the primary method used by pharmaceutical agents to enhance mental health. Saffron is shown to be an anxiolytic and an antidepressant agent (5). 

Additionally, it has been demonstrated to improve sleep, and because of its capability to improve sleep and the stress response, it's shown to be beneficial at maintaining heart health. Other positive aspects of saffron include its capacity to act as an antioxidant and an agent of enhancement for overall well-being (6).

On the other hand, Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb used as an adaptogen for thousands of years. The herb is shown to alleviate stress and anxiety by directly modulating cortisol levels and supporting healthy blood pressure levels. Additionally, its capacity to reduce cortisol levels controls blood sugar and saves the body from dealing with blood sugar spikes due to stress. That capacity to enhance the body's ability to deal with stress often shows itself in improving sleep quality and daytime alertness (7). Other studies demonstrate the capability of ashwagandha to improve thyroid health and maintain the body in a healthy immune state during periods of stress (8, 9). 

Maintaining Heart Health During Stress 

For those who suffer from high blood pressure, it might be good to take some time to do breathing exercises during work. Breathing exercises don't need to take a long time, and they can be five to 15 minutes in length. They only involve you being aware of your breath and taking long enough breaths for you to feel relaxed. Most of us end up shallow breathing in times of stress. Those shallow breaths are known to enhance the stress response. Slowing down your breathing and taking a moment to breathe deeply can be enough for you to reduce your heart rate and control your blood pressure (10).

Blood pressure control can sometimes require pharmaceuticals. Some of the agents that control blood pressure include GABA. GABA is a natural amino acid found in food, and it's known to enhance the heart’s capacity to maintain healthy blood pressure control (11). As an anti-anxiety agent, it decreases cortisol promotes healthy waking and sleep brainwaves, and has been demonstrated to act as an antidepressant. It's also shown to have anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory benefits. Additionally, like ashwagandha, it enhances the immune system in periods of stress. Unlike ashwagandha, though, GABA’s pathway enhances the immunoglobulin IgA, our mucosal immunoglobulin. IgA is one of our most important, essential initial forms of innate immunity, and it helps us neutralize things even before the body can fully recognize them (12). 

All of the agents regulating blood sugar and maintaining healthy cortisol levels enhance immunity due to their capacity to control blood sugar. Conversely, blood sugar is known to decrease immunity. Many of the pathogenic agents, like pathogenic bacteria, highly thrive on sugar. Therefore, the first step to maintaining a healthy immune system is maintaining healthy blood sugar levels (13).

Other botanicals that are great at maintaining mental health include Holy basil. Holy basil is shown to aid in maintaining a healthy mood, decrease dark thoughts and increase the capacity of individuals to concentrate. As a mental health agent, it's shown to be an anti-anxiety and antidepressant agent. The efficacy of holy basil is linked to its capacity to balance the brain's neurotransmitters, mainly dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin (14, 15, 16).


Additionally, it is shown to enhance gastrointestinal health and cardiovascular health in times of stress. Some studies demonstrate its ability to prevent stress-induced ulcers and stress-induced increases in blood pressure in times of chronic stress. It also contains many phytochemicals that can help the body decrease the damage due to inflammatory agents and heal further after the stressor is gone (17).

Another botanical agent that enhances performance during times of stress is Rhodiola. Rhodiola is an adaptogen. It improves performance and vitality in times of high physical fatigue. It also shows capacity in dealing with mental fatigue and boosting energy levels. Chronic stress-related irritability, tension and burnout are all conditions that are shown to respond positively to the supplementation of Rhodiola. Historically, the plant was used for depression and anxiety, but one must not forget that the plant is a promoter of overall health. Mild to moderate depression, anxiety and mood disorders have been shown to improve with the addition of Rhodiola (18, 19). 

Rhodiola has active compounds that are anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, and immune-stimulating. Overall, it's shown to enhance the capacity of the body to continue performing at times of stress while keeping the body as strong as possible in times of recovery (20). Therefore, having a balanced diet in times of stress is extremely important. Some of the essential enhancers of the stress response are trace minerals.

Minerals that are very important for maintaining a healthy stress response include magnesium, selenium and zinc. Magnesium, for example, is essential, as a deficiency is directly linked to an increased susceptibility to stress (21). In addition, it is shown to promote sleep as a muscle relaxant. It also appears to enhance GABA naturally and reduce blood pressure. Magnesium also aids in mounting a healthy stress response as it's shown to activate hormones that maintain mental health and decrease depression.

Exposure to stress causes the muscles to be tenser from a physical standpoint. Magnesium is required for the relaxation of muscles. Some preparations of magnesium come with a glycine group. The glycine group is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is relaxing to nerves. When combined with GABA, magnesium and GABA enhance blood pressure control significantly and maintain cardiovascular health in times of stress (22, 23). 


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