I want to talk to you about how stress impacts your mind and your body and how changes to your diet and lifestyle may help.

Stress can from some so many sources and affect us all in slightly different ways. Stress is linked to: waking in the night; blood sugar imbalance; anxiety and low mood; impaired gut health; reduced nutrient absorption; weight gain; hormone imbalance and autoimmune conditions.

Acute vs chronic stress

So, what is stress? There are two forms: acute stress and chronic stress. An example of acute stress could be exercising for 40 minutes with a raised heart rate which causes a physiological stress on the body. As a result, the immune system is activated and releases white blood cells into the blood stream. This can be beneficial because any pathogens that are circulating at the time can be detected and killed. An acute response is short term and your immune system goes back to monitoring within a few hours.

When we think about it, most of us think of mental stress as feeling anxiety, possibly losing the ability to cope in certain situations. It might affect our sleep and we may feel tired or irritable the next day. We might work full-time and have children to look after and a mortgage to pay. Some of us might have the responsibility of looking after elderly parents. These are all things that we just get on with but are we aware of the toll it is taking on our bodies? This type of stressful environment leaves us in a state of chronic stress.

Blood sugar imbalances

What we eat and how we eat can put stresses and strains on our bodies but it will also affect our brain health. One such example is a woman in her mid-forties. She is working full-time, has two teenage children and an elderly mother with dementia whom she cares for. This person is tired all the time, especially in the afternoon, and sometimes appears bad tempered and moody to her husband and children. She also feels irritated by the slightest things and is waking at 3am with a racing mind. All of these behaviours could be put down to her work and family situation.

What people can’t see is the fact that she isn’t having any breakfast and is waiting till mid- morning before she has a strong coffee and a piece of toast. She thinks she is having a healthy salad at lunch because she has gained some weight around the middle but her lunch contains very little protein or complex carbohydrates to keep her going till dinner. She’s so tired in the afternoon that she needs another coffee to pick herself up. She then has a large meal later in the day which is full of starchy carbs and a large piece of protein. Finally, at the end of the day she feels much better and is wide awake.

The fact that she feels like she has more energy after a meal is not a good sign because it means she let her energy levels drop too low before her meal. It is good to feel hungry but not excessively tired. This type of behaviour is very common and it indicates her blood sugar levels are on a roller coaster throughout the day. You might think that your blood sugar levels are fine because you have had your fasting blood sugar checked and it is within a normal range.

Unfortunately, if you are still experiencing these symptoms, then you have a problem with blood sugar imbalances no matter what the test results say. Not only is this putting a strain on your adrenal glands which produce adrenalin and cortisol when you are under stress but it affects your pancreas which has to pump out insulin every time there is a blood sugar spike to get your blood levels back to normal.

Brain stress

Your brain is also being put under stress by your eating behaviours. Its primary source of fuel is glucose and when blood sugar levels are allowed to fall, say when you don’t eat for long periods of time, your brain is deprived of fuel. This can cause symptoms such as difficulty concentrating and irritability along with feeling dizzy or faint. Over time this lack of fuel will damage your brain. Normally, our bodies will produce cortisol which will raise blood levels of glucose but if our adrenal glands are constantly being put under stress, these glands don’t perform as well as they should and the cortisol isn’t there when it’s needed. Having lots of sugary snacks can also damage the brain.

A major source of stress for some people is waking in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep. Here blood sugar levels are too low and so to balance this, the body releases cortisol from the adrenal glands. This stimulates our liver and muscles to release stored glucose to raise you blood sugar levels. It is when these supplies are low that the body has to rely on adrenalin which is our fight or flight hormone. A surge of this hormone in the middle of the night can wake us up suddenly and can also make us feel very anxious for no apparent reason.

Food can alter the neurotransmitters in our brain. When we eat starchy food such as rice or potatoes, we produce serotonin and GABA which can make us feel sleepy after we have eaten. Over time the receptors on the surface of our cells that should respond to insulin and let glucose in don’t respond as well. These cells are still telling the brain that they need fuel and the brain is getting the pancreas to produce more and more insulin in response to high blood sugar levels, but the glucose is staying in the blood stream.

This state of high blood glucose causes diabetes and the high levels of insulin and glucose damage the brain’s circulatory system and tissues.

Increased gut permeability

When a person is subject to chronically high levels of stress, they regularly have high levels of stress hormones circulating around their body. These hormones divert blood and oxygen away from the gut for the fight or flight response. This is to allow the body to take evasive action to get away from danger. Unfortunately, your body doesn’t know the difference between running away from a predator and sitting in a queue of traffic when you should be at a meeting. 

A chronic lack of nutrients and oxygen can cause the gut lining to become more permeable and this can lead to increased gut permeability. Here larger particles of undigested food as well as toxins and bacteria can get through to the blood stream. The immune system then detects these as foreign invaders and attacks them which can result in inflammation around the body.

Stress and weight gain

Another negative outcome from chronic stress is weight gain. When our bodies are under stress, we need to ensure that we have enough energy to deal with any stressors and our adrenal glands are instructed to release cortisol to make sure we have enough glucose to do this. When we don’t use up this glucose, it gets stored as fat around our major organs. This energy is more accessible when we need it. Unfortunately, stress also stops us from using this stored fat and so the problem just gets worse and worse.

In our hunter-gatherer days, this type of response was beneficial because we wouldn’t always have had a regular supply of food. The increase in weight would have triggered an inflammatory response which would have been used to heal wounds or fight infections. In modern times, the increase in visceral fat produces its own kind of inflammation. The fat is a metabolically active organ in its own right. This can affect your hormone levels as well as releasing pro inflammatory proteins that can cause pain and inflammation around the body.

Other factors putting stress on our bodies

There are many other factors that can cause stress and inflammation in the gut. These include viruses, bacteria and parasites. Medications and antibiotics can also cause the tight junctions that maintain the integrity of the gut wall to become damaged. Changes in our sex hormones oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone as well as thyroid hormones can also cause damage to the gut wall and the resulting inflammation can put stress on the body. Our genes and the environment we are living in also play a part in contributing to the amount of stress placed on the body.

Food intolerances and stress

Food intolerances such as to those of gluten and dairy are common causes of damage to the intestines leading to general inflammation in the body. They can also reducing the absorption of nutrients.

When the gut is exposed to gluten, this triggers the production of zonulin which causes tight junctions in the gut wall to open up causing increased gut permeability. In a healthy person, these junctions would close up but in somebody who is susceptible to food intolerances or is exposing their body to these foods often, it can put stress on the body and cause inflammation. These types of foods also damage the intestines, into the body. It may also lead to an autoimmune response where the body begins to attack its own tissues.

An increased stress on your digestive system can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as constipation, bloating, fatigue, headaches, joint and muscle pain. Our environment, including what we eat, can cause us serious health problems and it is important to get to the root cause of your symptoms to avoid any further damage. If you would like help with any health concerns raised here, please feel free to contact me. 

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