The Gut Series - Part 2

Today we’re going to be discussing stress and its influence on digestion, metabolism and mood!

You may think of coping mechanisms for stress as more of a psychologist realm of treatment, however, stress plays a significant role on our digestive health, appetite, blood sugar balance, immune system and body weight.

It is time to prioritize our health and start by taking time for ourselves. Prioritizing your health starts with taking adequate time to sleep, rest, move, practice gratitude and practice healthy eating habits with quality foods.

When stress becomes distress

There’s no doubt that we live in a world that is constantly “connected.” Technology has drastically increased our stress levels with the expectation of never “logging out” or “shutting down.” Even on vacation, most people still have automated e-mail responses and chances are, still responding or checking up on the tasks one may be accountable for. Am I right?

When you are stressed, whether it’s from daily life events or from serious danger, the body reacts in the same way! Our body enters the flight or fight mode that I mentioned in the first segment. When responding to a temporary threat, our sympathetic nervous system reacts. When the threat is no longer present, your body quickly resets to it’s former calm state (parasympathetic).

If triggered too often or never has the recovery time it needs, our body’s response to stress can stop working efficiently and do more harm. That is because the body is consistently on high alert and if we never “turn off” neither do our stress responses. This can then turn into chronic symptoms or even medical conditions. As a result, the havoc plays on your hormones, digestion, immune system, metabolism, brain, mood and pretty much everything else!

Let’s briefly review the HPA-Axis

The Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA-Axis) organs regulate the flight or fight reaction (sympathetic state) and regulate balance in our body and mind (parasympathetic state). When under chronic stress, any one of these glands can demonstrate dysfunction leading to hindered metabolism and immune system distress.

The hypothalamus gland’s primary role is keeping homeostasis (keeping balance through the body). It also plays a role in satiety, regulates body temperature and impacts caloric burn at rest. It also plays a role in our circadian rhythms, sleep cycles, fatigue and thirst regulation!

The pituitary gland plays a significant role on the thyroid which is a major metabolic organ. The pituitary gland releases many hormones that regulate fluid, sexual function, growth, mood instability/anxiety, pain management and caloric burn.

The adrenals are our primary stress agents. They are two shaped walnut glands located above the kidneys that release cortisol and stress chemicals both epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine.

 

The HPA-axis works in a feedback loop. Chemical signals released from the pituitary and hypothalamus stimulate cortisol production in the adrenal glands during stressful events. The release of cortisol leads to reduced activity in the pituitary and hypothalamus. Not enough cortisol tires out the adrenal glands which are desperately trying to pump out epinephrine and norepinephrine. On the contrary, too much cortisol can lead to the complete shut down of the HPA-axis telling your pituitary and hypothalamus that your system is already saturated. This leads to an immune-suppressing effect.

If you haven’t noticed a slight theme here…stress is numero uno! Holy smokes I can’t stress this enough… see what I did there? 😉 Stress hits our gut and immune system big time and what’s normally associated with stress? Good ol’cortisol!

Cortisol: Our ‘Frenemy”

Cortisol has received a bad rep as the ‘stress hormone” and its true, when its too low or too high problems abound. In the defense of cortisol – he isn’t the villain. Cortisol is actually an essential survival hormone that is responsible for regulating the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. It also affects the responsiveness of your immune system to infection and inflammation, your hormonal balance, sex drive and reproduction.

Cortisol has two primary functions; regulate and react. In regulatory mode cortisol helps promote the coordination of circadian events such as our sleep/wake cycle and food intake. Cortisol peaks in the morning allowing for a natural awakening where we hope one would wake up feeling “well rested.” A healthy cortisol response will gently fall throughout the day allowing for a deep and uninterrupted sleep that evening. We all have a natural energy drip that wears off as the day goes on and replenishes itself while we sleep! This is known as CAR – cortisol awakening response. In the reactive mode, cortisol does not have a predictable flow. The peaks of cortisol come in response to emotional or the physical stressors that an individual is facing.

 

4 signs of excess cortisol:

  • Apple body or excess abdominal fat
  • Immune resistance less susceptibility to cold/virus
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety

4 signs of insufficient cortisol or adrenal fatigue

  • Low energy
  • Brain fog
  • Increased histamine response (more susceptible to seasonal or food allergies/sensitivities)
  • Bloating
Are You In Overdrive Or Exhausted?

There are two categories in which we can divide our stress response – and sometimes both (yikes!) In overdrive mode, we have too much cortisol that is chronically elevated and then in exhausted mode, we have very little to no cortisol when it should be elevated.

 

Overdrive: This is the mode most of us spend our time in, the amped-up mode. The constantly on the go, feeling like the to-do list never ends and running around like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off. You’re constantly going pedal to the metal! In this case, its time to take your foot off the accelerator and start hitting the brakes.

Exhausted: This is mode where you’re completely burnt out; you’ve hit the wall. This is where you always feel exhausted, your metabolism, hormones, mood, focus etc are all in low reaction mode – basically trying to save energy. In short, your body’s ability to tolerate stress malfunctions.

 

When under chronic stress or dealing with demands that are high, your adrenals will continue to be the priority of the HPA-axis. In this state, cortisol doesn’t successfully provide the negative feedback to the HPA-axis telling it to stop stimulating your adrenals. Instead in a state of chronic stress, the HPA-axis continues to drive in reactive mode by stimulating adrenals and stress response while reducing expression of regulatory hormones for metabolism, energy, sleep, libido, sexual hormone, mood, and more. Working on ways to reduce stress or turn off overdrive mode will serve to shift the body back into optimized regulatory function.

How Different Areas Of The Body React When We’re Too Stressed

There’s no question that its when stress turns into stress overload that we start experience problems. Whether you’re in overdrive or exhaustion mode, the body takes a hit. Here’s a quick glimpse of the problems that arise as a result from stress overload.

 

Brain Fog: Too much cortisol and too little disrupt your memory, focus and even willpower. If you’re not getting enough sleep either this can further cause difficulty with memory and concentration.

 

Chronic anxiety, stress, sleeping problems, overwhelm: While short term “wiredness” can keep you on alert for the short run, in the long run it can translate to anxiety, over-sensitivity, feeling constantly overwhelmed and on edge. This can lead to depression, sugar cravings, weight gain and cognitive problems.

 

Digestive problems: Chronic stress or anxiety indirectly causes changes in your gut microbiome. One way is that it can drive imbalances of excess or deficiencies in secretory Iga (helps produce our daily feel-good mood). When you’re in a chronic stressed state, your body will focus on the task at hand by diverting the energy elsewhere other than where it needs to be: in the gastrointestinal tract (GIT). This can leave food to sit undigested in the stomach, resulting in poor absorption of nutrients. A particularly concerning chronic consequence of this is small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. The longer food stays within your GIT, the more bacteria feeds and has a chance to multiply. Kind of like leaving food out in a warm and moist area too long, mold will start to grow.

 

Sugar, fat, cravings and belly fat: When cortisol is chronically elevated your body holds on to the calories you consume and turns them into fat. This fat can be found around your waist, around your organs and then gets stored as cholesterol. The body stores it because you need constant energy to keep up with the mandatory stress response and turns into sugar cravings because they provide fast fuel!

 

Hormonal problems: When your stress response activates, your body will diverge energy away from hormone production by making cortisol from the shared building blocks of your sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone). If this is in constant go-mode this can result in hormonal imbalance, low libido and often fertility too. Think of it this way, if you were being chased by a bear, would the body care about its ability to procreate? Whether you are actually being chased by a bear or you are stressing about a meeting or exam, your body reacts the same way. The body’s last priority when dealing with a threat is procreation.

 

Immune system and autoimmune diseases: The immune system will immediately protect you from danger but long-term activation will take a toll on the body, leaving the immune system confused. This can result in responses from allergies, hives, cold, flu to more serious cases where the body attacks itself such as autoimmune diseases.

 

To conclude, being “on” all the time doesn’t always work out in our favor. The chronic overload and over-reactive stress response pushes your body beyond it’s natural capacity to bounce-back quickly. Therefore, if the body is not taxed or overworked by both physical and emotional stress which we have shown, drives the cortisol reactive mode, the individual will maintain optimal energy, sleep and immune function. That sounds more like a win to me!

 

Stay tuned for our next segment where we share strategies through therapeutic supplementation and innovative practices to help the body build back up its resiliency!

Kayla Di Gaetano

Performance Coach