The stress effect on digestion, weight, hormones and sleep | Part 1
Why does stress effect my digestion, weight, hormones and sleep?
April is Stress Awareness month. We all recognise that stress is the curse of the modern age and that it is “not a good thing” to experience day to day. But do you fully understand the impact that stress has throughout your body?
In this first article I’ll explain just how stress can contribute to many aspects of ill health today, and in Part 2 I’ll provide the naturopathic tools and techniques that should form part of your day-to-day life to help prevent stress taking a hold.
When we think of stress, it is really the physiological reaction that occurs in the body to a perceived sign of danger. Known as the “fight or flight” reaction, this was important when humans lived as cavemen and literally had to run away from dangerous animals. In the 21st century, danger lies in far different ways, but the body still perceives these as dangers: emotional stress, worries about finances and relationships, infections from viruses and bacteria, trauma from surgery, general busy-ness and doing too much, excess strenuous exercise, poor diet contributing to oxidative stress and inflammation.
Short term stress is a good thing. It provides the ability for the body to “fight or flight”.
It creates a surge of adrenaline that makes the heart beat faster, the lungs work harder to pump oxygen and nutrients to cells that require it, pupils to widen to enhance sight and much more. If you’re preparing to deliver a speech or for an interview, this short term adrenaline release can give you the buzz you need to perform better.
The problem arises when the stress response is not switched off and the short-term stress response becomes chronic long-term stress. Cortisol becomes the major hormone released, and long term this is damaging to health. The following are just some of the consequences that can occur when we may incur long-term stress.
Weight gain and fat storage, especially around the abdomen. The stress response (meant to be short term and create immediate energy needs), causes the release of stored glucose. Too much glucose causes the subsequent rise in insulin, and this inhibits fat breakdown and promotes fat storage of the excess glucose. Cortisol also slows down your metabolism.
Reduced collagen production can impact all cartilage in the body such as skin, bones, ligaments and tendons. The greater the release of cortisol, there appears to be a lower production of collagen. Skin can start to lose its elasticity and look tired. There may be an increased risk to injury (eg damaged tendons) and a subsequent slow recovery. And since bones require collagen for strength, chronic stress can be a factor in maintaining strong bones, especially into later life.
There is an increased risk of high blood pressure. The natural stress response, that helps the body survive dangerous situations, causes a temporary rise in blood pressure to pump blood swiftly around the body. Long-term stress response can cause blood pressure to rise. It is considered that stress increases the choice of unhealthy habits like drinking more caffeine and eating more sugary and unhealthy foods, and together all these actions will have an impact on blood pressure.
Poor metabolic health brought about through yo-yoing blood sugar levels, increasing insulin release, insulin resistance and potentially longer term contributing to type 2 Diabetes (T2D). Just like high blood pressure, stress itself encourages poor eating habits too, so it is likely to be a combination of the excess cortisol together with poor dietary habits that can lead to blood sugar imbalances.
Poor Sleep Habits
Many people start to experience difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep. Then struggle to wake up and get going. Cortisol is required as part of the natural circadian rhythm- it should be high first thing in the morning to give us our “get up and go” for the day ahead. But when cortisol is called upon to respond to high levels of stress, it can upset this natural rhythm and cortisol patterns can become skewed (sometimes low in the morning making us feel tired on waking) with high levels at night when we’re trying to unwind and go to sleep. Again, poor diet and imbalanced blood sugar levels also play a part.
When the body is in “fight or flight” it inhibits digestive secretions. Digestion is a non-essential function when the body is trying to escape danger! Digestion is part of the para-sympathetic arm of the nervous system, known as the “rest and digest” phase for a reason. Poor digestion has a knock-on effect throughout the whole digestive system, contributing to an increased risk of pathogens, imbalanced gut microbiome, leaky gut and irregular bowel movements (too loose or too slow).
Increased Risk of Infections
Cortisol will impair the immune system , reducing the production of white blood cells that fight pathogenic invaders.
Much of modern disease is due to inflammation. It is considered that most people have a degree of low-grade inflammation simmering away under the surface. Longer term, this can trigger symptoms to appear above the surface. Long-term stress and cortisol – together with poor dietary choices – will increase the inflammatory response. Whether it is skin irritations, aches and pain or the start of greater inflammatory conditions (most end in “itis” like arthritis, dermatitis).
Rather than alarm you, the intention of this article is to highlight why it is important to find tools and techniques to proactively manage stress and to provide the additional nutrients required at this time, so that it does not over-stimulate the body. The body will do its utmost to keep everything in balance, but longer-term it can become overwhelmed by the demands placed on it. Next week in Part 2 I’ll provide the naturopathic tools and techniques that should form part of your day-to-day life to help prevent stress taking a hold.
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