We all know that stress is bad for us, right?
It can even make our hair turn grey!!! I’ll explain how that works below.
It’s also very often the trigger for chronic gut issues.
In fact, when I take a detailed history during my first session with a client, I find that over 70% of them remember an episode of intense stress before getting sick, or sicker (this is often a light bulb moment…something that they had never paid attention to before).
It might be the stress of University, the death of a loved one, a divorce, financial stress, moving country, a stressful job, a bad relationship, or a combination of these etc.
Yet, I find that most people who are trying to improve their health put ‘stress relief’ at the very bottom of their priority, after supplements, diet, nutrition, etc.
I think this is because most people don’t really understand what happens in the body in times of stress, especially chronic stress.
There is also a lot of misconception around stress relief. My first experience sitting in an uncomfortable position ‘trying’ to meditate was far more stressful than relaxing! The truth is that there are many more ways to reduce your stress, and most don’t involve any need to be a contortionist 😉
Let’s take a look at various effects that stress has on the body, and why stress reduction should be at the very top of your list if you want to improve your gut health and overall well-being.
Note: Although we often associate stress with external stressors (like a stressful job, etc), you can also have internal stressors, which can lead to the same long term issues described below. This includes gut infections (parasites, SIBO, etc), food sensitivities causing inflammation, chronic viruses (like EBV), etc.
1- INCREASE IN CORTISOL
Here’s how your body responds to a stressful event:
The hypothalamus senses stress and sets off a hormone cascade that leads to the activation of your fight or flight response (via the sympathetic nervous system).
As part of this response, the adrenals pump out extra hormones, like cortisol, and your body goes from the parasympathetic state of relaxing, digesting and healing to a survival state.
Your body’s energy is shifted from activities not essential to survival – like growing beautiful hair, digesting and repairing itself – to instead focusing its resources on meeting the increased stress-induced demand for cortisol and adrenaline.
This is good if we need to escape from a bear… but it becomes a problem when we are in a constant state of stress, running on high cortisol on a daily basis (stressful job, bad relationship, young children, etc).
2- IMMUNE SYSTEM SUPPRESSION
When cortisol levels are chronically high, the immune system is constantly suppressed, which means you have no defence against viruses, bacteria and toxins.
Not only does that mean that you might be more susceptible to colds and flu, but viruses that have been dormant in the body for a long time (even 20 years later) can become reactivated (like EBV, Herpes Simplex, etc).
Stress has also been linked to Leaky Gut, which causes a host of unpleasant symptoms like fatigue, headaches, joint pain, skin issues, and of course gut symptoms.
Leaky gut can also lead to auto-immune diseases like Hashimoto’s, which can then lead to SIBO and sluggish digestion, causing a vicious cycle… because SIBO can then cause leaky gut, and Hashimoto’s!
When your cortisol is chronically high, you also become more susceptible to gut infections, including SIBO, parasites and yeast (like candida)… and bam, you go from being fairly healthy to feeling bloated, tired, brain fogged and irritable!
And all that because of stress.
Over time, cortisol levels will start to drop as your body is not able to sustain the demand, causing fatigue.
4- HORMONAL IMBALANCES
The high demand for cortisol will eventually ‘steal’ the resources needed to make progesterone, leading to an imbalance between oestrogen and progesterone.
This can lead oestrogen dominance and symptoms like anxiety, mood swings, PMS, weight gain, endometriosis, tender breast and insomnia.
5- NUTRIENT’S DEPLETION
When you are stressed, you burn nutrients like there is no tomorrow.
Some key nutrients that will deplete very quickly, especially if your diet is not optimal or if you are not absorbing nutrients due to poor gut health, are magnesium, zinc and vitamin Bs.
6- TURNING GREY!?
Have you ever noticed some grey hair appearing after periods of stress?
Unfortunately, that’s not a myth!
We talked a lot about cortisol, but during times of stress, your body also produces a lot of norepinephrine and dopamine, 2 stress neurotransmitters.
A gene called MAOA needs to remove them from your system and a natural by-product of that process is hydrogen peroxide. That by-product is in turn removed by your master antioxidant, glutathione.
If the stress continues, or if you are already low in glutathione for other reasons (lots of toxins, gut issues, etc), your body can’t keep up and the excess hydrogen peroxide will discolour your hair, turning it grey, or if the stress persists, white!
Unfortunately, this excess of hydrogen peroxide can also cause damage to your brain.
In other words, stress is serious!
7- CARB CRAVING, DEPRESSION & INSOMNIA
Why is it that when you’re stressed, you crave carbs and sugar? There are a number of reasons for that, but let’s focus on the one that’s related to tryptophan and serotonin.
Serotonin is your ‘feel-good’ hormone. To make it, you need tryptophan, which comes largely from carbohydrates. There’s some in protein, but the tryptophan from protein does not cross into the brain easily.
Here’s what makes tryptophan so complicated, and so interesting! There are 2 places it can go. The calmer you are, the more of your tryptophan goes toward making serotonin (making you feel good and optimistic). The more stressed out you are, the more of your tryptophan goes toward making quinolinic acid, a substance that’s bad for your brain.
So not only are you feeling depressed from the lack of serotonin, but you are making a substance that actually damages your brain!
And then, as serotonin is used to make melatonin (your sleep hormone), you might also struggle to sleep!
In other words, if you’re under a lot of stress, you crave carbohydrates because your tryptophan is being stolen, and your body is desperately trying to get more!
By implementing stress reduction techniques, you can turn your tryptophan into feel-good serotonin and sleep-well melatonin, instead of sending it down the road to make brain-harming quinolinic acid.
I hope I convinced you that indeed stress IS bad for you, and that stress reduction, as well as learning stress coping techniques that work for you, are really important for long term health and happiness!
HERE’S TWO STRESS BUSTING TOOLS YOU CAN TRY
1- Supplements. There’s a lot of options on the market. Here’s our favourite:
2- You can learn some simple Stress-Busting Tools in my Exclusive Digestion Series.