What is Stress?
Stress is a major factor behind health issues, 75 – 90% of doctor visits are for ailments tied to stress. But what is stress exactly: it’s any physical, mental or emotional factor that causes tension in the body and initiate the fight or flight response. It triggers chemical, behavioral and physical changes. There are two main forms of stress:
1-mental stress: which is the psychological experience of distress, how to perceive our internal and external environment and can include negative thoughts, worry, fear, anxiety and overwhelm.
2-Physical stress: which is the physiological distress that originate in the body: intense workout, food intolerance, toxins, poor sleep, injuries. Stress can be real or perceived and represents the short term solution for heightened circumstances, but when our entire lives are heightened circumstances, then that’s becoming a problem.
What is happening in your body during stress?
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) governs the body’s internal activities such as breathing, our heartbeat and digestion. It includes the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Under stress, the SNS is activated which triggers the fight or flight response to conserve energy for survival. The PNS or “rest and digest” controls digestion, sexual arousal, salivation, urination and defecation, and this system slows to a halt when the body is stressed. the PNS is supposed to kick in to gear during eating but stress and an activated SNS inhibits this function. So its either stress or digest – why is this?
Several things start to happen when stress is perceived: the hypothalamus tells the pituitary glands to release adrenal hormones including cortisol, as the fight or flight response is activated, it responds by accelerating your heart rate, blood flows to the muscles and brain, and the liver breaks down sugar instead of sending bile to the gallbladder. It also activates norepinephrine, which is released to tell the adrenal glands to make adrenaline, which works together with epinephrine to responds to stress by increasing blood pressure. At this point the body prioritizes escaping danger, whether or not it’s a real danger. These cascading effects cause digestive enzymes to stop flowing and the production of stomach acid decreases. So all the things necessary for digestion are not happening. Not only is digestion compromised but constant elevated blood sugar create other problem to deal with.
Stress can be acute or chronic. Acute stress is considered normal, it can help us perform on an elevated and focused level and enhance performance. But after the first surge of adrenaline if the stressors are still present, it can activate the HPA axis and turn into chronic stress. Under an activated HPA axis, the body is kept in a state where it responds to ongoing stress by releasing more stress hormones including corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus which stimulates the pituitary to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) for the adrenals to release cortisol, to keeps us in fight or flight.
Beyond impacting the gut and digestion, the ongoing production of these hormones can negatively impact the body in a variety of ways as it becomes depleted and health conditions rise up:
- poor digestive function
- increased belly fat
- food intolerances & allergies
- leaky gut
- elevated blood sugar
- increased inflammation
- dysbiosis, altered microbiome
- Increased risk for GERD, acid reflux, ulcers and aggravated IBS symptoms. increased risk for SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth)
- lowered immunity and hormonal dysfunction
- Digestion: Digestive enzymes stop flowing, the production of hydrochloric acid decreases, oxygen and blood is diverted away from the gut to key organs. The stress response is an immediate need and damages gut functions. Bloating, acid reflux, altered microbiome and nutrients malabsorption results. Over time it increases the wear and tear on the body that accumulate with chronic stress.
- Increased belly fat: Stress triggers the release of cortisol, cortisol raises blood sugar to get the body ready to escape danger, but in our current times, stress isn’t because we are running away from a chasing lion.. so the increased level of blood sugar that isn’t used as it’s originally planned for, increases visceral abdominal fat. This can become a dangerous cycle as it produces inflammatory cytokines, prolonged inflammation from increased visceral fat can increase the risk for heart disease, vascular disease, poor blood sugar control and insulin resistance, depression and dementia.
- Food intolerance and allergies: when the body is stressed it releases histamine, a chemical involved in the body’s inflammatory response, which impacts physiological functions in the gut. Under stress it intensifies allergies and makes the gut more sensitive, increasing food intolerances and flare-up as a consequence. Food intolerances and allergies also send stress signals to the roof. When cortisol level is high and blood sugar is soaring, the body becomes more sensitive to various foods.
- Chronic stress causes leaky gut: by weakening the mucosal barrier in the small intestine and causing inflammation, which contributes to the development or aggravation of leaky gut. The intestinal lining is covered by a mucus layer called mucin, which role is to protect the lining against pathogens and any type of damage. But chronic stress disrupt this function as the inflammation it triggers from impaired digestive functions can break down mucin and the tight junctions of the intestinal lining overtime, causing intestinal permeability. Then, bad bacteria and food particles leak into the bloodstream which also triggers the immune system. Inflammation is a process where vasodilation occurs, it increases blood flow to the area and also increases the permeability, or leakiness of the lining. So, the resulting inflammation makes things even more “leaky” as the tissue layer widen to let white blood cells rush to the site to repair the problem, but with chronic stress there isn’t anything to repair and the gut stays continuously leaky. It’s a vicious circle – bacteria and other particles continue to find their way across the epithelial barrier, never switching off the immune system.
- Elevated blood sugar levels: as we’ve seen above, stress triggers the release of cortisol which raises blood sugar level for immediate use by muscles to escape a danger. But when stress becomes chronic this is the danger: cortisol from stress prevents the body from producing insulin which carries glucose into your cells, because it believes it will need quick access to this sugar for the flight part of the fight or flight response, as a result, ongoing elevated blood sugar levels can set the body up to insulin resistance.
- Increased inflammation: Stress increases inflammation and inflammation creates more stress. Under acute stress, cortisol suppresses non-essential functions to fight or flee, such as digestion and immune functions, but when stress turns chronic, pro-inflammatory cytokines don’t turn off, the cycle of stress and inflammation becomes upregulated, leading to chronic inflammatory conditions. It also makes it harder on the gut to absorb nutrients, it compromises the communication between the gut and the brain (gut-brain axis) and their biochemical processes, which can lead to anxiety, depression and chronic gut conditions.
- Dysbiosis and altered microbiome: As stress compromises digestion (point 1) it affects the gut microbiome and ultimately decreases the amount of healthy bacteria, affecting bacterial diversity and leaving room for pathogens to overgrow. The more stressed a person is, the less healthy good bacteria exist in their gut. Both physical and emotional stress can affect the gut microbiome.
- Increased risk for GERD, acid reflux, ulcers and aggravated IBS symptoms: Impaired digestion is a contributing factor to exacerbated GERD symptoms. A damaged gut lining allows the stomach lining to come into contact with stomach acid more often and increase the chances for pathogenic overgrowth, which can lead to the formation of ulcers. Stress generally triggers a sensitive gut and can easily aggravate IBS symptoms.
- Increased risk of developing SIBO: Part of rest and digest is the activation of the MMC (migration motor complex). It creates muscle contractions (peristalsis) to clean up the residues in the small intestines moving bacteria or waste to the colon. During stress regular peristalsis is slowed and bacteria may not be swept out of the small intestine effectively, so the slower the transit time, the greater the risk of developing SIBO .
- Chronic stress suppresses immunity and hormones: Long term cortisol release from stress suppresses immune functions. After long term chronic stress, either physical or mental, the body develops set points, which are habitual responses by the body to activate the HPA axis. At a low set point, the brain will react with the full stress response, even to smaller stressors. At this stage the body is stuck in survival mode with no off-switch and our nervous system is constantly upregulated. The body gets used to a certain level of chemical stress and works to maintain the status quo. As it doesn’t know when and if it will end, the body adapts to the stress and so is our lifestyle, which deregulates our hormonal system and suppresses immune functions.
8 Tips for stress reduction
Stress is part of life and eradicating it is simply unrealistic, but we can become mindful of our stress level and what our triggers are, and implement relaxation and coping strategies to better help us deal with stress:
- Exercise often, to relax your body + mind and improve your mood.
- Eat a balanced diet composed of whole foods. Nutrition impacts our gut which in turn impacts our mental health. Bad dietary choices can actually increase stress.
- Meditate and practice deep belly breathing, to help you slow down and keep you grounded on the present moment
- Express gratitude daily to remind yourself of all the good and the abundance that surrounds you, which has a calming effect
- Learn new ways to regulate your nervous system, starting with being consciously aware of your stress triggers and build small new habits everyday to down-regulate an overactive nervous system. Breath through it, use journaling, take a bath or go for a walk.
- Wander in nature as often as you can. It has many proven benefits for our mental and physical wellbeing. It can help our physical body, improve our cognition, change our brain and encourages mindfulness and gratitude
- Practice calming body-mind activities such as yoga, tai chi, qigong
- Add adrenal supplements to your daily routine such as ashwaganda, rhodiola, holy basil, maca and reishi mushroom to support the adrenal glands and balance cortisol level.