What is Stress?
It’s important to realise that stress is an essential part of everyday life and it’s a healthy, positive bodily response to a stimulus. This could be from trauma, an injury or accident or even a shitty day at work. This response is carried out via various mechanisms to keep us safe and protect us in times of danger. This reaction is what we call our ‘fight or flight’ response, triggered by our sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
However, if we become chronically stressed, it loses any positive affect, and can become more harmful to our health, impacting all areas, including digestion, sleep, hormone cycles, and so much more!
Chronic stress can really make us unwell. We are just not designed to live with stress ALL THE TIME!!
However, life these days means that many of us are constantly stressed with kids, work, the endless juggling, deadlines, messages, traffic, lack of quality sleep, lack of downtime, screens and so on. Throw in a health problem and a psychologically stressful life event on top of this and you have a layering effect which compounds the issue.
A client may wonder why we might spend 15 or 20 minutes of our first consultation talking about their stress levels when they have come to me with say, bad PMT or IBS or need help to manage their diabetes or their weight.
Make no mistake, stress has an influence of all of these issues.
Let’s look at a couple of them here.
Weight – Stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline) change how your body uses food as fuel. It can raise blood sugar, reduces your ability to burn fat and increases your ability to store fat! Fantastic or what😕
Put very simply.....
High stress = high cortisol = high insulin = elevated blood glucose levels = increase in abdominal fat.
Gut & Digestion - stress impacts how well we digest our food and more importantly how well we absorb the nutrients from our food. Long term stress can lower hydrochloric acid levels which are a very important factor in digestion. Quick tip - if you burp or bloat very soon after food or feel like food just sits in your stomach (particuarly high protein foods like meat) then you may have low hydrochloric or stomach acid levels.
For some though, it can increase acid production and when that acid is forced up out of the stomach into the oesphagus this will cause reflux or GERD. Acid in the stomach is good, when it gets out of the stomach then it causes problems.
It can also increases irritable bowel symptoms and can contribute to dysregulated bowel movements, either constipation or loose stools or sometimes a combination of both.
Female Hormones – if we are chronically stressed the adrenal glands need to produce a lot of cortisol. It does this at the detriment of other much needed hormones such as DHEA (important for energy, fertility and libido amongst other things) and progesterone (to counterbalance oestrogen and is important for an even mood and to reduce anxiety).
The raw materials needed to make progesterone and DHEA are used up in making cortisol. Why? Because cortisol is seen as the life saving or ‘flight or flight’ hormone and takes priority.
This can lead to hormonal balances such as oestrogen dominance with its symptoms such as heavy bleeds, mood swings, breast tenderness, water retention and bloating.
Some signs that would indicate that stress is an issue for you (I ticked a lot of these myself🙄)
- I frequently bring work home at night
- Not enough hours in the day to do all the things that I must do
- I feel that there are too many deadlines in my work / life that are difficult to meet
- My self confidence / self esteem is lower than I would like it to be
- I frequently have guilty feelings if I relax and do nothing
- I find myself thinking about problems even when I am supposed to be relaxing
- I feel fatigued or tired even when I wake after an adequate sleep
- I have a tendency to eat, talk, walk and drive quickly
- I experience mood swings, difficulty making decisions, concentration and memory is impaired
- My sex drive is lower, can experience changes to menstrual cycle
- I find myself grinding my teeth
- Increase in muscular aches and pains especially in the neck, head, lower back, shoulders
- I am unable to perform tasks as well as I used to, my judgment is clouded or not as good as it was
- I find I have a greater dependency on alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or drugs
- I find that I don’t have time for many interests / hobbies outside of work
In the next part of this blog I will give lots of scientifically proven lifestyle and dietary recommendations on managing and dealing with stress.