Stress & Allostatic Load

I want to talk a little bit today about stress. Stress and our lifestyle. Stress and our environments. Stress and our jobs. Stress and our family. Stress and our body. And all the other pockets of life where stress may find a niche. I get the feeling (personally, and from the hundreds of folks I’ve seen over the years) that we are all brought up to learn that if we’re not stressed just enough, if we’re not busy enough, if we’re not productive enough then WE are not enough. And I’m calling bullsh*t on that.

It took the better part of my late twenties to learn that stress has zero place in my life, and most of it was optional to take on in the first place. Stress doesn’t serve me. It doesn’t solve anything. It makes absolutely nothing better, and it overall makes me a less flexible person. My entire educational “career”, some 25 years, was enormously stressful. So stressful that I developed chronic digestive trouble that, at the peak of my graduate school finale, allowed me to eat nothing other than mushroom broth and eggs (seriously). It was ridiculous how much stress seeped into my lifestyle and physiology. Here I was, a nutrition and herbal medicine student wasting away and nutrient deficient at 105 pounds and finally, I decided that nothing was worth my health. I decided to stop almost everything in one day. I quit my part time job. Moved out of my house and to another state altogether, and took 6 months to set the intention to mindfully finish my degree, seek the guidance of an Ayurvedic practitioner and functional medicine MD and sleep, relax, and let go of needless stress. It was a scary step, but after I made the decision, everything worked. And it actually took 3 years to fully recover. 6 months was just the start of a long and intentional journey.

I see a lot of students in my practice now and, although they’re not 100% drowning under debilitating stress, they’re pretty close. I see a lot of young professionals who feel like if they don’t work 50-60+ hours a week they’ll never get ahead. I see new parents struggling with the new responsibilities of raising children while juggling jobs and social obligations and I see seasoned professionals stuck in stressful careers because they don’t feel like they have the flexibility to make a change.

Here’s the thing: we all have what is called an “Allostatic Load”. This is the expense accumulated by tissues and organ systems for sustained arousal resulting from chronic over activity (or inactivity) of physiological systems that are normally involved in adaptation to environment change. Basically it’s how much stress we can take on at any given point before we break down. When we have chronic stress, this builds up in our body and breaks down our organ systems. It leads to chronically elevated inflammation throughout the body that can lead to any number of autoimmune imbalances and even shortened life span. Constant environmental demand requiring sustained stress invokes a biological transformation or brain signature that may be long pasting. This is the biological cost for being forced to adapt to adverse psychosocial or physical situations. And it can start at any age.

The expense that we pay for a stress filled lifestyle may be enhanced anxiety, depressive illness, post traumatic stress disorder, cognitive consequences, malnourishment and increased blood pressure (to name a few). Is what you’re doing worth these long term costs? I would encourage you to seriously consider how you spend your day to day life, and if there is persistent stress recurring, what can you do to either eliminate, decrease or tolerate this more efficiently? Obviously, there are stresses in our life that we can’t just eliminate. But there are ways that we can adapt our response to make chronic stress not as damaging to our body such as daily meditation, mindfulness, taking time to cook and prepare nourishing foods, movement and exercise, seeking counseling or taking frequent vacations. It’s amazing what a few deep breaths can do to calm down our nervous system, and what saying “no” can do for our over-packed, demanding schedules. Take a moment to evaluate what is really serving you, and what is not. Make some changes if you need to!

The only different between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.

-Ellen Glasgow


Lindsay Kluge M.Sc, CNS, LDN |

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