Let’s talk about stress, baby. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things, and the bad things, that maybe. Let’s talk about stress.
Anyone else have Salt-N-Pepa in their head now?
Seriously though, I wanted to take some time today and talk about stress, because I firmly believe that managing stress is one of the most critical steps we can take towards living a healthy life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stress lately, as exactly 2 years ago I had a complete breakdown which was entirely stress related. I was still at nutrition school, working full time, and attempting to get my blog set up. On top of that, the holidays were coming, there were parties, and friends to see, and shopping to do. My to-do list was like 2.5 miles long, and it felt daunting. There was one particular night where I had made these grain-free granola bars, with the intent to photograph them and share the recipe on the blog. I also had a big research assignment due the next day at school, and I had a ton of work left to do on it. It was going to be a late night.
Well, my wonderful, loving boyfriend could see I had a lot on my plate, and thought he’d help me out by cutting up my the granola bars I had just made and putting them away. A normal reaction would have been to thank him, except he didn’t know that in my mind I had plans to cut them a certain way, and then style them for a photo shoot. This was the straw that broke this camel’s back. I lost it over a kind gesture and granola bars. Tears ensued, and all rational and logical thought was out the window. I was a mess, this clearly was not normal, and I recognized a need to get control over my stress before granola bars were no longer my biggest problem.
Stress can be defined as what a person feels when they PERCEIVE that life’s demands exceed their ability to meet or adapt to those demands. I’d definitely reached that point, and I know that many others are trying to cope with their excess stress every single day.
Let’s take a closer look at what stress is.
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stressors can be defined as short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. For example, if you see a bear on the trail ahead of you while you’re hiking, your body will release stress hormones which direct the blood into your extremities so that you can run away from danger. Once you perceive yourself to no longer be in danger, your stress hormones will subside, and your body will return to what is called “rest and digest”. This is normal.
Frequently, modern life exposes people to long-term stressful situations leading to more serious health conditions. Chronic stress begins in the same way that the acute stress, occurs. Many chronic stress-triggers are easily recognizable, such as unmet life expectations, pressure to get a promotion, financial troubles, sitting in traffic, overcrowded shopping malls, or an argument with a peer.
Then there are the less easily recognizable chronic stressors, including poor diet, swings in blood sugar, environmental toxic chemicals, autoimmune conditions, food intolerances, gut dysbiosis, medication use, and over exercise – just to name a few.
Since the human body is an amazing specimen, if you are met with chronic, prolonged stress, your body will likely go through stages of adapting to these stressors. The stages of stress-induced damage were first studied by a Canadian doctor, Hans Selye. His work gave us a greater understanding of how stress affects the body, and he helped us understand that if stress is prolonged and severe it may lead to the development of an adrenal insufficiency. Dr. Selye calls the body’s mechanism for dealing with stress the General Adaptation Syndrome (G.A.S.), and it involves three stages:
Stage 1 – The Alarm Reaction:
During the first phase of the stress reaction, alarms are activated and the adrenal glands are capable of making significant amounts of hormones, primarily adrenaline and cortisol to mount an appropriate stress response. Increase arousal and alertness are needed to combat the stressor. The body prepares to “fight” or “flee”.
Stage 2 – Resistance Phase:
With ongoing stress, the adrenals strive to keep up with the demand to produce more stress hormones, but now at the expense of other hormones including DHEA and the sex hormones. Pregnenolone, the master adrenal hormone and precursor to sex hormones and cortisol, is shunted towards the production of cortisol. This is known as the pregnenolone steal or cortisol shunt.
Stage 3 – Burn-Out (or Down) Phase:
Eventually the body runs out of substrate material to produce stress hormones and cortisol levels decline, along with other key hormones, namely DHEA and sex hormones. Individuals in this stage will feel extreme fatigue, diminished libido, irritability, and depression among many other symptoms.
HOW STRESS AFFECTS THE BODY
Stress can undoubtedly cause a variety of symptoms. Unfortunately, symptoms of stress can be non-specific, so at first glance, it might not be obvious that chronic stress may be at the route of a specific health complaint. But it’s very likely that if you went to your doctor complaining of any of the following, that stress would be at the root of each symptom:
- Fatigue, or tired all the time, including difficulty falling asleep, or waking up.
- High blood pressure
- IBS, heartburn, constipation, or any digestive-related symptom
- Infections or chronic illness. Maybe you get sick all the time, and it takes you forever to heal.
- PMS, missed periods, infertility, crazy heavy or painful periods, PCOS or uterine fibroids
- Thyroid issues
- Difficulty gaining or losing weight, with specific fat accumulation around your abdomen.
- Intense sugar and carb cravings.
See what I mean by non-specific? Any of the above symptoms may not appear to be stress-related at first glance, but I assure you that stress is definitely a significant culprit. If you see a health practitioner for a remedy or medication to help you with any of the above, but the topic of stress doesn’t come up at all, I highly encourage you to seek some additional help, because no pill or procedure alone is going to help eradicate the root cause of your symptom.
My role as a nutritionist is to help you manage stress to help restore balance in the body, as reducing stress levels and teaching you how to manage stress effectively is a key component of preventative healthcare.
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STRESS AT WORK IN YOUR BODY
I could talk forever, about each of the above symptoms and how they are related to stress, but I get a feeling that the length of that blog post might be stress-inducing just to read! So, I wanted to pick out a few of the key symptoms that I have found to be some of my client’s biggest health complaints, and elaborate on how stress can be at the root of imbalance.
Stress & Your Digestive System
Let’s imagine you’re at work, and you’re eating lunch. Perhaps it’s leftover spaghetti and meatballs from last night’s dinner. As per usual, you’re eating at your desk while you check your emails. You’re about halfway your meal, and into your inbox pops a scathing email from one of your clients – you know the kind that’s typed in all caps.
Immediately you the feel blood rush to your head, and a pit form in your stomach. This my friend, is stress. For the rest of the afternoon you can’t shake that stressed out feeling you got from your client’s email, and your stomach is now in knots. You may start to feel nauseas, or like you will need to run to the bathroom for an unexpected poop.
That email may have been the trigger, but it had the ability to ignite a stress response that effectively shut down your digestive system. In the event that this happens on the regular, or you have other stressful triggers in your life, you may find that your difficulty digesting food, or frequent irritable bowel symptoms, can all come back to stress.
Why does this happen? When you’re stressed, your body’s innate reaction is to try and get away from danger as fast as possible. To do so, it will shunt all energy away from bodily systems that it deems as “unnecessary”, and it prioritizes energy to the nervous system and extremities. The digestive system is one of the bodily systems that gets “shut down”, because you’re not likely going to stop for a hamburger when you’re running away from a tiger.
Over time, if prolonged stress ensues and your digestive system remains in a shunted state, the tissues can actually weaken. It makes sense when you think about it, as your digestive system needs to be operating fully in order to extract nutrients from your food. And, if blood is the carrier of nutrients to organ tissue, and blood is being shunted towards your extremities and away from your digestive system when you’re stressed, then overtime your digestive organs will not be getting the nutrients it needs to be healthy.
Stress & Weight Gain
So you’ve tracked down that box of donuts in the staff lunch-room, and given into your craving. It’s now insulin’s job to take sugar out of your blood, and drive it into your muscles to be used for energy. Except if you’re not actually in a state of acute stress, i.e. running away from a bear, and you’re really just sitting in traffic, or at your desk, you’re not going to be using up any of the stored energy in your muscles. Your muscles then signal to the insulin that there is no room for any more glucose. But insulin has to put this excess glucose somewhere, so it’s next best bet is fat, and specifically fat around your waistline. So that muffin-top that is pouring out of your favourite pair of jeans, is a direct result of your body coping with chronic stress.
Stress & Your Immune System
Have you ever fallen sick in and around the holidays when your stress levels might be at an all time high? And maybe when you get sick you find that you’re sick for a really long time?
Your gut and immune system are intricately linked. Approximately 80% of your immune system is located within your gut. As your gut is like an inside tube that is open to the pathogens of the outside world, your gut’s immune system needs to be thriving and healthy in order to avoid illness.
Your gut not only contains its own specialized immune cells, but the particular strains of friendly gut flora that reside in your intestines are also critical for overall immunity. Without these good bacteria, the immune system cannot do its job effectively, and is essentially defenseless. Research has shown that stress has a significant influence on the balance of intestinal flora. Stress has the ability to change and alter the function of the friendly bacteria in our gut, and can actually impair or suppress the function of our immune cells.
I know we covered a lot, so if you have any questions at all, please leave them in the comments below. If you’re looking for more ways to help manage your stress, download my 50 Ways to Manage Stress Guide using the box below. Or if you’re looking for a more personalized approach, be sure to visit my Work-With-Me page to learn how we can work together to collaborate on a health action plan specifically for you.