What stress is actually doing to your body.

I have three patients who have been on my mind a lot lately. All three have quite different stories, experiences and symptoms, but they all share one common thread that is impacting on their ability to really thrive – and that common denominator is STRESS.

Let’s face it, 2020 has been stressful.

stress, anxiety, depression, thyroid, autoimmune disease, inflammation, inflammatory disease, diabetes, hypertension, blood pressure, heart disease, gestational diabetes, adrenal fatigue, adrenal exhaustion, health, wellbeing, HPA axis, gut health, digestion, IBS, IBD, women's hormones, vagus nerve

I saw a Facebook post recently that said “2020 is what happens when you mix your tarot deck with cards against humanity.”

I know that many of you reading this will have had a very different experience; some of you may have even taken the opportunity to slow down, take stock and perhaps make a plan for change in your life moving forward.

However, I am aware of many others that feel like they were dealt a rough hand and have struggled with unemployment, isolation, chronic stress, anxiety and depression.

So what actually IS stress?

Really it is any physical, mental or emotional strain that forces the body to adjust in some way. You can also consider stress as ‘distress’, where situations or events challenge or exceed our ability to cope.

I find that many people don’t really have a true concept of what stress is. It can include over-exercising, eating an inflammatory diet and not getting enough sleep, as well as the more obvious stressors such as school, work, family and relationships.

And then there is the classic patient who tells me they aren’t stressed, they are just “really busy”.

Those of you out there with a grade 1 or 2 iris or an anxiety tetantic structure, who thrive on being busy, I’m talking directly to YOU right now. If you struggle to sit still, be quiet and really be in the moment, then your sympathetic nervous system is switched on, and this means the stress response is alive and well in you. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

When we think of stress more broadly as a physical, mental or emotional distress, it’s easy to see the far-reaching impact it can have on our daily lives.

The stress response.

The stress response is a cascade of events that starts in the brain, specifically in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (HP).  Numerous organs in the body receive messages from the HP including the adrenals (A), ovaries/testicles (O) and thyroid (T).  (You may have heard of the HPA, HPO and HPT axis, and now you know what they stand for).

Let’s start with the HPA axis.

Our initial reaction to stress is a result of the HP stimulating the adrenals to produce cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.  We need these hormones to mobilise the body to run away from the threat and get ourselves out of immediate danger.

In doing so, it essentially shuts down other bodily processes that it perceives as less important. For example, your stress hormones:

  • shunt blood flow away from the digestive tract to the arms and legs so you can run away, leading to a variety of digestive complaints
  • increase blood glucose levels dramatically as your liver starts to break down glycogen stores so you have the energy required to deal with the stress

These last two points are really important for anyone with an autoimmune or inflammatory condition such as diabetes, as well as those who have weight or digestive issues.  Your stress levels are making these issues worse.

And guess what else this stress response brings to the party?  Pro-inflammatory cytokines (particularly IL-6 for the other nerds like me out there) that lead to oxidative stress.  Hello autoimmune and inflammatory conditions! You can read more about the role of gut health and inflammation in the development of these diseases here.

Our lizard brain.

The problem is that the amygdala, our reptilian (or lizard) brain, is not smart enough to tell the difference between running late for work and a bear running straight for you. The same cascade of signalling and hormone production will happen in both instances, although perhaps to slightly less of a degree in the first if you can keep things in perspective!

If you’ve ever been in a car accident, you will remember your initial reaction where you may have tried to correct to miss the other car (that was quick thinking action of cortisol) and then later when you were sitting on the side of the road, you got the shakes as the shock kicked in (that was adrenaline).  Adrenaline is slightly slower to come to the party in the stress response and it hangs around a bit longer than cortisol.  These are really normal and required physiological responses if you are in a car accident, but not so much if you are simply stuck in traffic.

Finally, anything that affects the HPA axis also affects the HPO (think hormones, period issues, worsening perimenopausal/menopausal symptoms, libido) and HPT (the thyroid is our master metabolic regulator). Stress reaches literally every organ and body system.

A quick note on adrenal fatigue.

The stress response I’ve described above is really the initial ‘alarm’ phase, but when people get stuck in a cycle of chronic stress, it can lead to what has been termed ‘adrenal fatigue’.  HPA axis dysfunction is actually a much better name than adrenal fatigue because it is the signalling that gets dialled down over time, rather than an issue with the adrenals themselves.

When you reach the exhaustion phase of the stress response, where stress hormones are reduced, we no longer have enough cortisol and adrenaline to get jobs done in the body. For example, the adrenal cortex slows the production of glucocorticosteroids, resulting in reduced blood sugar control that can develop into type 2 diabetes. Neurotransmitters including serotonin and GABA are suppressed leading to an increase in anxiety and depression. The immune system becomes depressed resulting in a reduced capacity to bounce back from illness. And of course there is more… but I think you get the idea.

We need our stress hormones, just in the right balance – not too high, not too low. 

Case studies.

I mentioned 3 patients at the start of this blog post. The first is a woman with autoimmune disease with a history of significant trauma. She is constantly in fight or flight mode and we have only managed to stem the inflammation to prevent a flare in her symptoms to date. We are unlikely to see a better result until we can find a way to stimulate her vagus nerve (see below for what this is and how to achieve it).

Another patient has type 1 diabetes and we were really lucky to be able to observe patterns in blood glucose in response to different stimuli (food, exercise and stress) thanks to a continuous glucose monitor. There were visible changes with exercise (long distance running), and significant spikes with stressful events and higher carbohydrate foods that had snuck back into the diet.  Remember ALL of these things are a physical stress on the body, impacting on gut and immune function as well as overall health and wellbeing.

The third patient is currently 22 weeks pregnant with her first baby and has been recently diagnosed with gestational diabetes.  I am hoping she reads this blog post and can understand just how significant being “busy”, along with other physical stressors such as poor sleep and dietary choices, are for her pregnancy and health.

What you can do to offset the stress response.

The first thing I need to say about stress, is that it is not always a negative thing. Stressful events can bring about positive change when you view them as a learning experience. It all depends on your perspective and how you perceive stress.

It is your individual interpretation of stress that will determine its potential health impact.

I want you to go back and read that last sentence again. It is important.

The vagus nerve.

I often talk to patients about switching on their vagus nerve. Never heard of it? Google it and have a look at an image. It is the longest nerve in the body that goes from the brain to every major organ including the gut and it is a two-way communication route (so your gut literally communicates with your brain and vice versa).  If you are stressed and your HPA axis is engaged, your vagus nerve is switched off and you are in fight or flight mode. Want to be in rest and digest mode?  Then you need to find your zen!

How do I find my zen I hear you ask?

What do you LOVE to do? What gets you in the zone where the rest of the world just drifts away into the background? This is what you need to do.

For me it is singing, especially in harmony with others. It takes me to my happy place.

For others it might be gardening, sewing, catching up with friends, hugging (been in short supply this year), art, music, restoring furniture or cars, the list goes on… The key is to find what YOU love to do and DO IT EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Here are some other sure-fire scientifically proven ways to engage your vagus nerve:

  • yoga (I highly recommend Gen at Harvest Yoga in Rutherlgen)
  • meditation and mindfulness (I love brain sync and the tapping solution)
  • gargling
  • singing (even if you are terrible at it)
  • deep diaphragmatic breathing
  • eat foods that make you salivate (this one isn’t too tough is it?)
  • get enough good quality fat in your diet e.g. olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, oily fish (it triggers the release of CCK – a hormone – which is a potent vagal nerve stimulator)

Final thoughts.

I hope this blog helps give you a better understanding of how stress can impact your health and inspire you with some strategies to help reduce its impact.

It really comes down to making the time and space for YOU. Ditch the guilt (because I know you feel it!) and understand that when you are fit, healthy and happy, you will be able to serve others better.

Need some more help? I am a Naturopath specialising in women’s hormonal health, autoimmune and inflammatory conditions. If you are ready to get your mojo back, book an appointment today.