Breaking the Stress Cycle Stress Series - Part 3

You can’t address all of your stressors. The last thing we want to do is increase stress by trying to tackle stress. Rather, the goal is for you to recognize the different types of stressors in your life so that you can prioritize where to start.
Katherine Andrew Headshot

By Katherine Andrew, MPH, RD, LDN

How your Brain Responds to Stress

So why do these things even matter?

 

Let’s talk about your brilliant body…Your adrenal glands are two little organs that sit atop your kidneys. They produce a small % of sex hormones (more after menopause), manage blood pressure, regulate electrolytes, and respond to stressors. When your brain (hypothalamus & pituitary) senses danger, it tells your adrenal glands to release cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, setting off a cascade of reactions.

 

The release of adrenaline results in an increase in heart rate, and loss of CO2, while cortisol signals an increase in blood pressure and release of blood sugar (note this happens independent of food!) These are all part of your body’s alarm reaction and we call this system of communication your HPA axis (Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal).

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Recognizing high levels of cortisol, your body then works to calm everything down and restore balance. This requires breaking down your own thymus gland, skeletal muscles, skin & amino acids from diet to provide energy. Meanwhile, your body is also working to minimize or halt what it considers non-essential functions such as sex hormone production, digestion, thyroid function, and in turn metabolism.

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First, I want you to see that this whole process is intended to help protect you from what it thinks is dangerous. And, that it goes to a LOT of effort to keep you safe, including breaking down your own tissues for support.

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What your brain recognizes as stressful is going to be different from person to person, and for you from day to day. What’s more, this whole reaction might even be triggered from an activity that you consider healthy but your body is overwhelmed by.

Your body’s response to stress is designed to HELP and protect you in the SHORT term. Many of the immediate effects are your body’s way of taking care of you from danger. But when stress hormones (including cortisol, adrenaline, estrogen, parathyroid hormone, serotonin, and aldosterone) are chronically elevated your body and health start to break down in one way or another.

- Katherine Andrew

How your Body Responds to Stress

Remember, all stress translates to the same process in your body-it does not matter whether your stress is coming from lack of sleep, over exercising, or just being a parent.

Here are some of the more common effects of stress that I see in practice:

  • Decreased digestive & liver function from a decreased production of stomach acid & digestive enzymes, and suppression of gut motility. Cortisol also increases the permeability of the gut lining, leading to new food sensitivities and immune reactions. ⁠
  • Increased bacterial, fungal, or parasitic overgrowth. Due to decreased HCL, enzyme production, & gut motility, an increase in proinflammatory bacteria, and decreased blood & oxygen flow to the gut, the bugs & bacteria that we want moving along end up hanging out and multiplying in our intestines. ⁠
  • Increased Blood Sugar Imbalances due to increase in glucose every time cortisol is released, and decreased sensitivity to insulin from that constant influx of glucose independent of food. ⁠
  • Impaired Sleep from a disrupted daily cortisol rhythm, decreased liver function & increased blood sugar irregularities. ⁠
  • Impaired Thyroid function & Metabolism. Increased cortisol interferes with the conversion of inactive thyroid hormone (T4) into active thyroid hormone (T3), slowing down metabolism. ⁠Increased cortisol also increases muscle breakdown.
  • Hormone imbalances in part from decreased pituitary function, decreased thyroid function, and decreased progesterone …leading to estrogen dominance, low libido.⁠
  • Decreased Immune function. Increased cortisol and decreased digestion leads to decreased lymphocytes and an increase in inflammatory cytokines. ⁠
  • Disrupted Mineral Balance. Stress will decrease magnesium, vitamin C, B vitamins, and zinc, and cause imbalances with sodium, potassium, calcium, copper, iron, Vitamin D, & others. These imbalances then lead to sex and thyroid hormone dysfunction, anemia, & more.

What does this translate to symptomatically? 

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep 
  • Inability to Detox Caffeine or Alcohol
  • Shakiness, Brain Fog
  • Extreme Cravings
  • Constipation, Bloating, Reflux, Nausea
  • Weight Gain or Loss
  • Frequent need to Urinate
  • Irritability, Short Tempered
  • Muscle Fatigue, Inability to Recover from Workouts
  • Chronic Anxiety
  • Head Hair Loss, Body Hair Growth
  • Feeling Wired and Tired, Low Energy
  • Acne, Eczema
  • Shortened Menstrual Cycle, Spotting, Heavy Bleeding
  • Low libido

Breaking the Cycle

I want you to remember that your body’s response to stress is designed to HELP and protect you in the SHORT term. Many of the immediate effects are your body’s way of taking care of you from danger. But when stress hormones (including cortisol, adrenaline, estrogen, parathyroid hormone, serotonin, and aldosterone) are chronically elevated your body and health start to break down in one way or another.

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Most of my clients don’t even realize the different stressors that are affecting their health. And, that no matter where the stress is coming from (poor sleep, undereating, hormone imbalances, your job, trauma, or your family life, for example), it all translates to the same cascade of reactions in your body. So when you hear “stress” as it relates to health, I want you to think bigger than just your busy lifestyle. ⁠⁠

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By no means do I expect you to address all of your stressors. The last thing we want to do is increase stress by trying to tackle stress. Rather, my goal with this series is that you can recognize the different types of stressors in your life so that you can prioritize where to start.

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This series is meant to help you KNOW your stressors, ADDRESS what you can, and become more RESILIENT to the rest.

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So here’s my suggestion. Read through this list.  Then, pick one, just ONE, and work on that until it feels easier, until you crave how it makes you feel. Then, and only then, can you move on to another.

 

  • Create more margins in your day
  • Incorporate diaphragmatic breathing
  • Make time for restorative activities (art, reading, gentle yoga, music, journaling)
  • Reflect on what habits and behaviors help you address stress better and prioritize those
  • Set boundaries and stick to them
  • Stimulate the vagus nerve (by humming or gargling, cold showers, or laughter)
  • Practice embodying a peaceful and whole mindset
  • Spend time in community that uplifts & supports you
  • Aim for 7+ hours of sleep every night
  • Find a consistent sleep schedule (ideally as close to the schedule of the sun as possible)
  • Exercise before noon
  • Get bright sun exposure within 30-60 min of waking
  • Turn off screens at least 30 minutes before bed
  • Try not to eat the bulk of your calories at dinner
  • Turn off Wifi for the night
  • Explore your eating patterns and behaviors as much as or more than the foods you are eating
  • Focus on maximizing foods rather than eliminating
  • Incorporate as much diversity in your diet as possible including animal and seafood proteins, fats, vegetables, roots, fruits, and legumes)
  • Minimize inflammatory oils
  • Pair carbohydrates with fat and protein
  • Eat enough of all macronutrients for your levels of stress & physical activity (be honest with yourself on this one)
  • Find a way to move your body that you enjoy and that doesn’t cause pain
  • Include at least 1-2 rest days/week in your routine
  • Find time for slow walks
  • Eat protein & carbs within one hour of exercise
  • Learn the phases of your hormone cycle & use that to work with your body
  • Work with someone to address & eliminate digestive issues
  • Minimize caffeine, alcohol
  • Remove environmental toxins as possible (self care, beauty, and household products)

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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