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Are stress and chronic fatigue related?

Updated: Jan 19

This article looks at how daily stress impacts upon the release of cortisol, when this is circulating in the body all day long it can lead to long term or chronic fatigue. We explore how yoga, which includes poses, breathwork and meditation can encourage the whole body along the road to internal homeostatis, or balance. We start with how stress has affected a friend of mine and her daughter to see how stress and chronic fatigue are related.

My friend’s daughter was having a really hard time. Her job had become stressful due to people leaving and her young children were going through a phase of “I don’t want to go to bed”. She found herself feeling overwhelmed. She was tired in the evenings and yet so wired she couldn’t sleep. My friend wondered whether her daughter was beginning to show signs of chronic fatigue and whether her stressful lifestyle was a cause.

The thing is, when we are constantly stressed, we have cortisol being released into our blood stream all day long. Cortisol release is part of the sympathetic nervous system enabling us to be responsive and deal with problems. Cortisol also controls our sleep cycle, it encourages sugar to be released into the blood and messes with our metabolism or how we process food. When we have cortisol being released all day it remains at a level right into the evening. This keeps us awake and then the lack of sleep makes us tired. This is how the daughter felt, tired but wired with the constant stress and feelings of fatigue.

The daughter also found herself feeling separated from her mum, her friends and even, at times, herself. These are also signs of chronic fatigue. She couldn’t think straight and needed extra cups of coffee in the afternoon as her energy levels crashed. Any kind of exercise was too much for her and exhausted her more.

How can yoga help with Chronic Fatigue?

A researcher called Tyagi in 2016 found that regular yoga practice actively reduced the levels of cortisol in the blood. This led to a reduction in the amount of stress that accumulated over time. He reported that yoga could provide holistic support; physical, psychological and chemical. However, when chronic fatigue symptoms are apparent, gentle movement is useful. Chair yoga can prove helpful or slow and gentle movements that require laying down on the mat throughout the class rather than strong poses and fast vinyasa styles of yoga.

Slow, mindful asana (poses), with pranayama (breathwork) and meditation are helpful. These, when combined, introduce us how to look inside ourselves, how our body feels as we move it, otherwise known as interoception. By regularly being curious how the left side our body feels, for example, in comparison to our right side, brings about homeostasis. In other words, balance within our physiology and psychology. This can help chronic fatigue symptoms.

An additional and little known understanding is that from this we may be a little more likely to seek more ways to help us balance and deal with the stresses that life deals us. In this case, the more the daughter practiced yoga the more likely she would be to look for ways to help herself and reduce the symptoms of chronic fatigue. Regular practice of yoga can help reduce the levels of cortisol in the blood, this helps to reduce stress and reduces the likelihood of chronic fatigue. However, if chronic fatigue is apparent, slow, mindful yoga incorporating pranayama and meditation may be helpful in reducing the overall levels of cortisol and helping reduce the feelings of exhaustion.

“Yoga is as much for the nervous system as it is for the muscles and joints” Kristine Weber. Exercise yoga, or yoga as we currently know it, has fitness as its goal whereas innercise or resilience yoga has nervous system resilience as its goal. Through interoception, or the option to pause and see how the body feels, allows the body to build connections with the brain. If we can sense what is inside it helps us to reduce chronic illness as it helps us to reach internal homeostasis.

Daily gentle movement and deep breathing aids chronic fatigue as they work on the lymphatic system and the lymph fluid that has built up due to inflammation. This system gathers the waste products, such as bacteria, viruses and damaged cells, from the lymph nodes back into the blood. The lymph nodes can be found in the neck, just below the collar bone and in the groin and the lymphatic system moves about 4 litres of lymph every day. Thai Yoga Massage has been proven to be very beneficial in improving immunity through the dynamic use of yoga poses and massage.

The cumulative effect of practicing yoga every day, or at least weekly, is where we see neuroplastic changes because repetition changes the brain. Yoga practice increases grey matter which can be translated to positive affect, self-regulation and stress reduction. Gard 2014 Streeter, 2012 This is all well and good but how does a busy woman put some time aside to enable her to practice some self care?

4 Ways to set up a habit that you would like to practice regularly and that is true to your values. The ideas below are from a book called Atomic Habits by James Clear.

1 Firstly, start small, with something that is really easy. This might be taking your first cup of tea or coffee of the day and sitting on your mat for one or two minutes whilst you take a few sips. Then packing away the mat and leaving it to the next day. You may find that after you have done this for a couple of days you feel like trying some moves out. So, take it easy and make the moves easy and enjoyable, like lying down and taking your knees to your chest and gently rocking from side to side.

2 Then, make your new habit attractive. Find somewhere really nice to practice, where you maybe have a nice view, or make a lovely warming drink to have by your side or keep on your pyjamas if you are practicing in the morning.

3 Next, make it frictionless, and by this, I mean having things to hand when you want to practice. So, keeping your mat maybe behind the sofa if you are practicing downstairs, not having to dash upstairs and get it out of a cupboard.

4 Lastly, make it satisfying. After your practice reflect for a moment on how you feel. Has your practice brought you a sense of calm? Have you had some enjoyable movement today? Is your reward in tune with your values i.e. a bath, time to read a book, a walk in nature?

In conclusion, there are some real arguments for developing a daily yoga practice. It is enhanced when you include breathwork and meditation. There are four simple steps to take to make it a habit using the ideas from James Clear. The last time I saw my friend she gave me an update on her daughter and it was lovely to hear that she had recognised that yoga could be part of her life. She couldn’t believe what a difference it had made, not only to her suppleness and strength but to her nervous system resilience and she had worked with her GP to stop her medication for anxiety.

A quiet, meandering river surrounded by trees and foliage, the river is reflecting the sky and the trees
Are stress and chronic disease related?

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