The Four Types of Stressors: Stress Series - Part 2

ALL stress, no matter what type, has a similar effect on our health. The four main types of stressors are perceived & emotional pressure, circadian disruption, blood sugar dysregulation, and inflammation.
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By Katherine Andrew, MPH, RD, LDN

Believe it or not, ALL stress, no matter what type, has a similar effect on our health.

Psychological, Emotional, & Perceived Stress

First up is the type most of us think about when we hear the word “stress:” Psychological, Emotional, Perceived Stress.  ⁠⁠Often, this stress occurs when there is a difference between what we expected, and what is actually happening. And It’s subjective!

 

It DOES NOT MATTER what is going on; if it feels overwhelming to you, it is likely causing physical health problems. What’s more, you do not have to have a diagnosis or reason to justify feeling overwhelmed.

 

Even if you don’t feel overwhelmed, I challenge you to consider what keeps your mind running. ⁠⁠No matter what is going on, or whether you feel it is justified, support can be incredible. I highly recommend working with a therapist, even if just for a season. We would all be better with counselors on our team.

 

In addition to support, it can also be helpful to address what stressors you can. This can be overwhelming, but here are some steps to start: ⁠⁠

  • Make a list of what drains you. ⁠⁠
  • Reassess your priorities and make sure it aligns with how you spend your time. ⁠⁠
  • Figure out what you can outsource – and yes, it’s worth the cost. ⁠⁠
  • Be aware of the patterns, environments and people that lead to you feeling overwhelmed.
  • Build more margins in your schedule. ⁠⁠
  • Learn to say no. ⁠⁠
  • Let go of perfection and guilt. ⁠⁠

 

Lastly, remember that the goal is not just to remove your triggers, but learn how to become more RESILIENT. Below are some questions you can ask when you find yourself feeling triggered: ⁠⁠

  1. Can I think about this situation differently? ⁠⁠
  2. Is the threat real? ⁠⁠
  3. Do I have experience handling something similar in the past? ⁠⁠
  4. Is there a person or a tool that would be helpful in this situation?

Believe it or not, ALL stress, no matter what type, has a similar effect on our health.

- Katherine Andrew

Circadian Rhythm and Disruption to Sleep

Moving on… Most of us know that stress can disturb our sleep, but did you know that poor sleep (along with other circadian rhythm disruptors) can be a form of stress itself?! ⁠⁠Your Circadian Rhythm is an internal clock that is constantly running and is critical to your health. Essentially every system in your body is coordinated by your brain’s operation of this internal clock. It can even regulate certain enzyme functions based on whether your body thinks it’s day or night. In addition to the sleep-wake cycle, your circadian rhythm also plays a major role in these functions:

  • Metabolism, Weight management ⁠⁠
  • Training recovery & performance ⁠⁠
  • Blood sugar regulation 
  • Neurological health ⁠⁠
  • Immune health, DNA repair ⁠⁠
  • Hormone function (in particular thyroid, LH, FSH, and prolactin)⁠⁠
  • Microbiome (gut) health ⁠⁠
  • Detoxification ⁠⁠

 

When your circadian rhythm becomes disrupted, it means these systems don’t operate right. And vice versa, when these systems are off, your circadian rhythm can become even more disrupted. So, not only does staying up late leave you feeling crummy, it’s actually impacting a much bigger picture.

 

Circadian disruption comes from a number of things, including: ⁠⁠

  • Insufficient sunlight or red light ⁠⁠
  • Inconsistent sleep-wake patterns, or night shift work ⁠⁠
  • Hormone imbalance, in particular low progesterone ⁠⁠
  • Liver health (affected by, but not limited to, alcohol use) ⁠⁠
  • Excessive blue light, particularly past sundown ⁠⁠
  • Excessive OR not enough physical activity ⁠⁠
  • Electric and magnetic fields (EMFs)⁠⁠
  • Gut / microbiome health ⁠⁠
  • High perceived stress 
  • Poor nutrient balance, especially insufficient carbohydrate or calories ⁠⁠

 

Maybe, supporting your Circadian Rhythm is one of the stressors that you CAN start to tackle. While it might seem like it has no connection to your health, improving your Circadian Rhythm can make a huge difference. ⁠⁠

 

Below are some ways to better support your Circadian Rhythm. But, remember the goal is never perfection!  It is unlikely that you can tackle this entire list.  Instead, I encourage you to think about which things make sense for you to work on and start there. ⁠⁠

 

  • Try to get bright sunlight early in the day, ideally within 30 minutes of waking ⁠⁠
  • Be physically active earlier in the day, ⁠if possible ⁠and avoid overdoing it with exercise
  • Make sure you are adequately nourishing yourself throughout the day rather than saving the bulk of your calories for later in the day⁠⁠
  • If you’ve been eating low carb, consider introducing more carbs into dinner ⁠⁠
  • Try to eat dinner ≥2 hours before bed **However, a small bedtime snack can actually be helpful for some people⁠⁠
  • Work with a professional to balance hormones and microbiome health ⁠⁠
  • Eliminate caffeine after noon ⁠⁠
  • Minimize alcohol ⁠⁠
  • Shut down screens 30min-1 hour before bed
  • Keep phones and computers away from the bed and out of the bedroom
  • Sleep in a cold, dark room ⁠⁠
  • Create a consistent sleep schedule ⁠⁠
  • Maximize sleep from 10pm-2am, when most people can get their most restorative sleep ⁠⁠

 

As for my fellow parents, I KNOW those late hours feel like the only alone time you have, and can be precious time with your spouse. But, do me a favor and take an audit of your night time hours… Are you using them to connect with your spouse, or to truly reset from the day? Or are you zoning out on screens for work or pleasure? I’m not saying some of that is wrong – I do it plenty!  But, I encourage you to consider whether you can re-prioritize those hours, and explore what might really bring you rest, and restoration during that time.

Blood Sugar Dysregulation

Believe it or not, Blood Sugar Dysregulation might be the sneakiest stressor of all. Most of us have a fairly poor understanding of Blood Sugar…Would you believe that it’s my ‘healthiest’ eaters who struggle the most with Blood Sugar dysregulation? I would bet you didn’t know that at times eating carbs can actually help lower stress hormones.⁠ Your blood sugar changes often, but the frequency and intensity of fluctuations is what can be a stressor. One of the primary roles of your adrenal glands is to keep your Blood Sugar within the narrowest range possible. When your Blood Sugar is too high, your pancreas will pump out extra insulin in order to help move glucose into your cells. And, when your Blood Sugar is too low, your adrenal glands release cortisol. Cortisol then breaks down your OWN organ tissue (primarily from muscle and thymus) and converts it into glucose in order to elevate Blood Sugar levels. You see, cortisol is a survival hormone and low Blood Sugar is dangerous. ⁠In other words, there are times when eating glucose can actually LOWER CORTISOL, meaning sometimes sugar can help LOWER your STRESS hormones!

 

What’s more, there are SO many factors that can raise or lower your Blood Sugar beyond dietary sugar. Any of the stressors in this series can affect Blood Sugar levels along with these other common triggers:

  • Meal Frequency: too far apart OR too frequent ⁠
  • Meal Timing: mismatched carbs and diurnal insulin patterns ⁠
  • Energy Balance: inadequate OR excessive calories⁠
  • Macronutrient Balance: in particular, carbs not paired with fat and protein⁠
  • Micronutrient Deficiencies: vitamins, minerals ⁠
  • Circadian Rhythm Disruption⁠
  • Perceived or Emotional Stress ⁠
  • Physical Activity: not enough or excessive in frequency or intensity ⁠
  • Caffeine, Alcohol, Medications ⁠
  • Inflammation, Infection ⁠
  • Metabolic dysfunction ⁠
  • Gut & Oral Microbiome Imbalances: bacteria, enzymes, parasites…⁠
  • Hormone Imbalances & Fluctuations: Ovarian, Adrenal, & Thyroid ⁠

 

As I explained, anything that causes stress on your body will likely cause some level of Blood Sugar dysregulation. True fact: perceived stress can spike my blood sugar higher than a bowl of ice cream!

 

Hopefully you also now know that sugar and carbs can even help lower stress hormones at times. Now hear me out, I am not saying to eat ALL the desserts. BUT, I see a lot of disordered mindsets around fear of sugar and carbs, and I want you to see that not only can they absolutely be a part of a very healthy lifestyle & diet, but also that extreme restriction can lead to higher stress hormones for some, especially women. ⁠The big goal is to keep your Blood Sugar as steady as possible . And to do this we minimize stress on your body. Big caveat here: Blood Sugar regulation is extremely individualized. So, what works for your friend or for me, might not work for you.

 

Here are some of the things I find most effective for minimizing Blood Sugar dysregulation:

  • Maximize meals & Minimize Nibbles: Going too long between meals and eating too frequently can both cause BS peaks and dips ⁠⁠
  • Prioritize nutrient density: Maximize consumption of mineral-rich animal and plant foods ⁠⁠
  • Balance carbohydrates with protein & fat: carbs are metabolized in a much healthier way when paired with protein or fat ⁠⁠
  • Eat enough: Insufficient calories for your activity and stress levels will cause more BS fluctuations throughout the day and at night while sleeping ⁠⁠
  • Minimize carbs in the morning: Carbs at breakfast can spike higher after a fast and lead to more variability throughout the day (there might be a different story for my morning exercisers) ⁠⁠
  • Find a balance of physical activity & rest: Exercise is a stressor that can be helpful or harmful depending on intensity & frequency. Minimize steady state cardio and excessive HIIT, and focus instead on strength training (including body weight) and adequate rest. Check out the @evlofitness podcast for great info on this topic! 
  • Work with your cycle: Most women are more carb sensitive during their luteal phase; this is a great time to focus on balanced, consistent carb consumption while maximizing protein & fat. ⁠
  • Address hormone imbalances: Insulin sensitivity can also change based on thyroid and ovarian function, and often becomes more variable as hormone production goes down with age. What’s more, production of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and conditions like PCOS, are all very closely linked to insulin and blood sugar. ⁠
  • Improve microbiome health: work with a practitioner to ID & treat bacterial, fungus & parasite overgrowth, support pancreatic enzyme production, improve MMC & more⁠
  • Improve sleep: see my previous section for more on this!⁠
  • Address & minimize (as possible) perceived & emotional stress: see the previous section for more on this!⁠

Inflammatory Signaling

Lastly is the fourth category of stress signaling triggers: Inflammatory signaling. Inflammation is a huge trigger, but one of the hardest to identify.  By the time you start experiencing symptoms, inflammation could have been brewing for years. ⁠⁠ First, It’s important to remember that inflammation is not always bad! Inflammation is actually one of your body’s ways of protecting itself. But, chronic inflammation, especially when left untreated, can put incredible strain on the body. When inflammation is allowed to go unchecked, it can damage the body by creating too many pro-inflammatory cells, such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF), interleukins (ILs), nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB), prostaglandins, and free radicals. The chronic release of these proinflammatory molecules stimulates the HPA axis and signals a stress reaction.

 

There are SO many things that could be causing inflammation for you. But, here is a list of a few things that I often see contributing to chronic inflammation so that you can take audit of what might be affecting you: ⁠

  • Poor Nutrient intake – from a lack of whole, real foods as well as under fueling ⁠
  • Consumption of Inflammatory Oils – canola, soybean, corn, safflower, and margarine⁠
  • Mineral Deficiencies – calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium & more ⁠
  • Heavy metals – chronic exposure without proper detox from mercury, lead, arsenic, & more (found in foods, medicine, water, and industrial environments) ⁠
  • Environmental Toxins & Mold – PCBs, PFAs, Glyphosate, VOCs, Phthalates, and more (found in cosmetic products, pesticides, foods, plastics and other household products) ⁠
  • Poor Gut Health – including microbiome imbalances, dysbiosis, & infections ⁠
  • Food intolerances & sensitivities ⁠
  • Perceived and Emotional Stress & Trauma ⁠
  • Circadian Disruption ⁠
  • Hormone Imbalances ⁠
  • Excessive exercise, Tissue & Joint damage⁠

 

Remember, inflammation is not inherently bad; in fact it’s a helpful process. Your goal is not to remove ALL inflammation, but to minimize chronic inflammation as a way of lowering stress.

 

⁠⁠There are so many ways to minimize inflammation and they are highly individualized. Perfectionism can also add to inflammation, so please do not try to take on all of these at once!

 

  • If you suspect gut issues, work with a skilled practitioner who can help test, identify, and treat microbiome imbalances. In the meantime, work on slowing down, breathing, and chewing your food! ⁠⁠
  • Eat a mineral rich diet, focusing on animals, seafood, roots, fruits, spices, and herbs. ⁠⁠
  • Balance Blood Sugar by including Fat, Fiber, & Protein in your meals and snacks. ⁠⁠
  • Minimize processed foods and inflammatory oils in your diet, including canola, soybean, corn, safflower, trans fats and margarine. ⁠⁠
  • Minimize soda and alcohol. ⁠⁠
  • Stimulate the vagus nerve & prioritize mental health. Research shows that meditation practice and stimulating the vagus nerve can help decrease TNF-a and IL-6. Try humming or gargling in the shower! ⁠⁠
  • Improve Circadian Rhythm. Even a 2 hour nap can lower IL-6 levels. ⁠⁠
  • Reduce toxic burden. Work on removing environmental toxins from your home which are found in things like cosmetics, personal care products, cleaning supplies, plastics, and unfiltered water. ⁠⁠
  • Identify and treat infections from mold, heavy metals, and chemicals. ⁠⁠
  • Include Rest days in your workout routine. Your muscles, joints and tissues need time to recover in order to grow. What’s more, excessive high intensity exercise or chronic cardio can trigger inflammation. ⁠⁠
  • Know your Genetic Mutations and learn what foods might be critical in supporting your body to function at its best. I love the book ‘Dirty Genes’ for more. ⁠⁠
  • Have Sex, Hug Someone, and Laugh! Oxytocin, our love hormone, can ​​lower IL-6 and boost T-regulatory cells.

*Check back in next week for the final installment of this three part series where I will share how your brain and body respond to stress and what you can do to break the cycle.

Katherine Andrew, MPH, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Masters degree in Public Health with nearly fifteen years of experience in community public health and private nutrition counseling. Her work experience includes individual and group health counseling, interactive workshops, food systems consulting, non-profit program development and management, and safe skin care advocacy and promotion. She works with clients to identify and address health concerns, navigate food sensitivities, explore body image, plan healthy meals for themselves and their families, evaluate and improve hormone health, maximize stress management, and restore their relationship with eating so they can enjoy food and thrive. Gut health, food sensitivities, hormones, family food dynamics, and intuitive eating are a few of Katherine’s passions and specialties.

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