I’m stressed! an often over used term, considering the life of “luxury” many of us lead. However, being stressed can and does have a major impact on your psychology and physiology. Your digestive health as well as your metabolism are often forgotten when it comes to coping strategies for stress. As a nutritionist I regularly encounter clients with digestive issues, skin complaints, inflammation, headaches, many of which have been brought about by stress.
When working with these clients I will often look at 4 areas- The adrenal glands, the Thyroid glands, the digestive process and exercise, as all are interrelated and one area cannot functional optimally without the others.
Let’s take a look at how the stress response in the body works and its effect. Imagine for a moment you are a cave man or woman. Making dinner, tending to the fire in you cave. There you are, minding your own business when along comes a Sabre toothed tiger who hasn’t eaten for a couple of days and you look like a tasty snack! Suddenly as you are faced with this immediate threat your body starts to take action. The fight or flight response takes over as you don’t want to get eaten.
The physiological response of your body when this occurs is as follows:
The adrenal glands (which are situated just above your kidneys) release adrenaline and cortisol hormones and these hormones change the way the body functions when faced with danger.
1) Your pupils dilate – in order to help you see better. As cave dwellers we didn't have electric lights way back then! Thankyou Thomas Edison!
2) Your heart rate increases so more blood is pumped around the body to generate more energy to the muscles so that you can run faster
3) The concentration of Your Blood sugar increases so the body can provide the muscles with this increased need for energy
4) The process of digestion is temporarily halted- as digesting a meal is not on the top of the priorities when you are just about to get eaten!
So, when you are stressed, you often feel like your heart is beating out of your chest, you sweat as more blood rushes to the muscles and you get hot. You may get digestive upset, such as indigestion and lower abdominal pain and bloating.
Suddenly the Sabre toothed tiger sees a much more tasty looking Gazelle and turns its attention away from you. In doing so your stress goes away and you can quickly and easily return to your activities. Helped by the hormone cortisol which enables your body to return to “normal”
This “acute” stress response works very well. However, in the 21st century, where we live in a fast paced, mindset that needs most things to be done yesterday. The stresses that we encounter are different BUT your body does not know the difference between a sabre toothed tiger or juggling working full time from the kitchen table during lockdown whilst simultaneously trying to help your children complete school work and encourage your toddler not to stick a metal object in the plug socket all done when you are chairing a meeting via zoom and the internet connection has decided to play up.
What impact does this long term stress have on your body?
Initially the hormone adrenaline prepares your body to take action and can sometimes minimise your desire to eat. Then, once this wears off cortisol may then lead your body into thinking it needs more energy to “run” and this is where you may encounter the desire to eat higher carbohydrate foods as your body maintains this “fight and flight “response.
The graphic explains the cycle that stress can have on your body.
This is where another hormone is linked- insulin. As you eat higher carbohydrate foods, the blood sugar rises and the pancreas secretes insulin to deal with this. However, if you eat excessive carbohydrates you may get spikes in your blood sugar. Excessive carbohydrate overload could lead to excess insulin and this then leads to a drop in blood sugar leaving you feeling fatigued and lethargic as more sugar has been taken out of the blood than required. Then, .Any excess sugar that is not used is converted to fat- often linked with abdominal fat which is also linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
So even if you are maintaining energy balance a high level of stress may lead to accumulation of abdominal fat
What strategies could you use to help?
Essential nutrients are easily depleted when chronically stressed. The hormone cortisol overrides all other hormones and so “steals” vital nutrients for itself. This can then have an impact on other areas such as digestive function – as there are fewer vital nutrients to manufacture the digestive enzymes in your body and so you may start to encounter some digestive upset- bloating, gas, pain, constipation or diarrhoea, indigestion. Leading to leaky gut syndrome, which in turn can lead to inflammation and other chronic health issues. Many people will turn to antacids, these treat the symptoms but do not actually tackle the cause.
By working to address this nutritionally, maybe taking digestive enzyme support and improving your nutritional status this may be beneficial. Mindfully eating your food to support the digestive process. Eating a diet in highly nutritionally dense foods which contain essential vitamins and minerals that are required to help support the function of the adrenal glands is really important.
Another link with stress which people often overlook is the thyroid gland. This bow tie shaped gland situated in your throat releases the hormone thyroxine which is responsible for controlling your body’s metabolic rate. Thyroxine has an impact of a whole host of functions- breathing, body weight, body temperature, bowel health and digestion- the list is endless! Chronic stress has been shown to have an impact to reduce the body’s ability to metabolise the hormone thyroxine and raised cortisol reduces the production of thyroxine. Fatigue, constipation, slow digestion, weak hair and nails, weight gain are just a few of the issues related to a poor functioning thyroid gland. A healthy gut bacteria and digestion has been shown to help with thyroxine synthesis. So, if you are in a chronic stress full situation you will not only need to address the situation but also support key areas of your body to help to cope with the stress.
Therefore, tackling the external factors that cause the stress initially must also be paired with supporting the fantastic internal machine called the human body in order to fully address the situation and have optimal health.
Ways to deal with chronic stress
1) Firstly identify the cause. - take a moment to write it down and try to think of ways that you can change or reduce the stress externally. You may not be able to change the stress totally but you can change your physiological and psychological response to it.
For example, I had a client who contacted me with digestive issues and weight gain. It transpired she got very stressed sitting in traffic on the commute to work – she often ran late as she felt fatigued in the morning (a sign of stress) and over slept then missed breakfast. From our discussions it transpired that she did go to bed quite early but spent an hour on social media. Putting an app timer on her phone did not work as she could over ride this. But she used her mobile phone as an alarm clock. So, the solution was to use a small analogue alarm clock and remove her phone from her room. This enabled her to go to bed, sleep well, get up and have a nutritious breakfast. She left the house earlier and missed the rush hour and got to work feeling stronger both emotionally and physically. Her breakfast maintained her stable blood sugar which in turn helped to reduce her carbohydrate cravings. and provided her with vital nutrients to support her. We worked on her digestive health and now she is far more able to face her sabre toothed tigers!
The stress response is very draining on key nutrients- Magnesium- irritability, poor sleep unable to relax. B complex vitamins to help with metabolism. Vitamin C and zinc. All are easily depleted during physical and psychological stress.
Eating foods rich in these is a good place to start- lots of fresh foods. As unprocessed a diet as possible with a good quality multivitamin
2) Another area to help is to maintain a steady blood sugar.
As discussed earlier many people under stress may not initially feel hungry, and may miss breakfast for example. Or, grab a coffee and an energy drink both of which are stimulants. Sometimes they may then choose heavy carbohydrate foods which causes peaks and troughs in an already un balanced blood glucose profile. They then feel more exhausted. They can not focus, work through lunch and then get home collapse in front of the TV cannot be bothered to cook and grab a take away which are often high in carbohydrates.
Skipping meals is one of the worst things you can do if under chronic stress!
Other areas to try:
Focus on eating nutritionally rich foods and avoid too many carbohydrates
Support your digestion by mindfully eating and taking digestive enzymes and probiotics
Eat a good breakfast ideally with some protein
Try not to leave huge gaps between meals and eat protein rich snacks such as nuts
Look at your lifestyle. I often work with clients on breath work, yoga and mindfulness to help them as well as nutrition.
You may not be in control of a situation but you can be in control of how you deal with the situation and providing your body with fantastic nutrients to support your adrenal glands, thyroid gland and digestion could be one way to start.