How stress affects our digestive system and our hormones
Stress is everywhere in our society, especially with snap lock downs and boarder closures along with the pressure to be vaccinated (I'm not anti vax) but I am seeing so much stress in regards to this with my clients and people that I meet. This is triggering so many emotions - sadness, grief, anxiety and anger.
This can lead to so many health issues which I will cover throughout my blog. Our stress levels need to be managed well, if our stress is not managed and is left untreated it can cause many of our hormones to become out of whack which affects our digestive system, menstrual cycle, thyroid health, blood pressure and can lead to burnout (adrenal fatigue/dysfunction).
It's never been a big secret that stress causes illness the truth is, some stress is normal … but chronic stress (what we deal with day to day over a long period of time) can do a lot of harm to our bodies. Stress can also take a major toll on your health, paving the way for illness and disease.
Stress and inflammation
But now it seems pretty clear that "chronic psychological stress" can affect your body's ability to regulate its inflammatory response. This is because one of your body’s key stress hormones – cortisol – also plays a role in controlling inflammation.
Inflammation is associated with practically every disease process affecting our bodies!
Cortisol and DHEA are known as our stress hormones and are made in our adrenal glands which sit on top of the kidneys. Even though the adrenals are the size of a sugar cube, and weigh as much as 3-4 paper clips, they can dramatically affect how we feel.
Cortisol causes many health issues especially if it is out of control
- Waking at 3 am and having trouble getting back to sleep
- Waking up exhausted
- Afternoon tiredness – needing a 3 pm pick me up as it increases your cravings for sweets.
- Weight gain especially around the middle
- Brain fog
- Menstrual cycle dysfunction
- Digestive health
How stress affects our digestive system
Exposure to stress results in alterations of the brain-gut interactions 'brain-gut axis' which ultimately leads to the development of a broad array of gastrointestinal disorders including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and other functional gastrointestinal diseases, food antigen-related adverse responses, peptic ulcer and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The major effects of stress on our gut physiology include:
- Alterations in gastrointestinal motility – diarrhoea, constipation or both
- Increase in visceral perception – stomach ache, heart palpitations, feeling the need to urinate
- Changes in gastrointestinal secretion – causing low stomach acid, low pancreatic enzymes, poor liver detoxification, sluggish vagal nerve function
- Increase in intestinal permeability – leaky gut
- Negative effects on regenerative capacity of gastrointestinal mucosa and mucosal blood flow
- Imbalance in our intestinal microbiome – our gut microbiome has an overgrowth of bad bacteria, viruses and fungus.
IBS represents the most important gastrointestinal disorder that is characterised by chronic or recurrent pain associated with altered bowel motility. The diagnostic testing for IBS patients include routine blood tests, stool tests, coeliac disease serology, abdominal sonography, breath testing to rule out carbohydrate (lactose, fructose, glucose) intolerance which diagnoses small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO.)
IBS and SIBO share many similarities and are often interlinked - see my blog on IBS for more in depth details about these conditions. These two conditions are very common in my clients that I see in clinic or online.
When evaluating for the stress-induced condition in the upper GI tract, the diagnostic testing includes mainly blood tests and gastroscopy to rule out GERD and peptic ulcer disease. The therapy for these conditions is mainly based on the inhibition of gastric acid by proton pump inhibitors and eradication of Helicobacter pylori-infection.
These conditions can also be treated naturally and successfully. Naturopathy allows me to use both herbal medicines which target and reduce these symptoms along with dietary changes and nutritional supplements to heal your digestive system.
Probiotics may profoundly affect the brain-gut interactions 'microbiome-gut-brain axis' by reducing the development of stress-induced disorders in both the upper and lower gastrointestinal tract. There are so many probiotics on the market (it can be so overwhelming) it is important to have the probiotics that you specifically need prescribed for you during your consultation.
How stress impacts our thyroid
Your thyroid works in tandem with your adrenal glands. The impact of stress on the thyroid occurs by slowing your body’s metabolism. This is another way that stress and weight gain are linked. Your GP or specialist will order blood tests which will only show Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) on your blood panel. This is the common one tested, TSH is made in the pituitary gland not the thyroid gland but will still give a good indication of what is happening with your thyroid gland.
When thyroid function slows during stress, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) hormone levels fall. Also, the conversion of T4 hormone to T3 may not occur, leading to higher level of reverse T3.
It is important to have your TSH tested along with your thyroid antibodies so that I have more knowledge of what is going on behind the scenes - so to speak. Testing can be ordered through my clinic.
Prolonged stress may crop up as depression or anxiety when both are actually hypothyroid symptoms. Anxiety can increase which is a common symptom of a hyperthyroid (over active).
The most common thyroid disorders are autoimmune disorders where the body attacks its own tissue, in this case the thyroid gland. There are two types, Graves’ disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Insulin resistance and issues balancing blood sugar often occur alongside hypothyroidism. Increased levels of glucocorticoids lower the levels of TSH in the blood. A delicate balance between stress hormones and cortisol must exist for proper thyroid function. If this delicate balance changes, your thyroid symptoms may increase.
How stress impacts our insulin resistance
Chronic stress, poor dietary choices which causes insulin spikes over and over, may lead to insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome. In insulin resistance, the insulin stops doing its job of removing sugar out of the blood which causes chronically high blood sugar. This is often a precursor to diabetes. High cortisol and chronically high insulin cause the body to deposit fat, mostly in the belly, hence ‘the muffin top’ or ‘stress belly’.
How stress affects our menstrual cycle
Our bodies stress response places a negative effect on our hormones which leads to hormonal imbalances. Last year and early this year I treated a lot of ladies who had irregular cycles – they either missed a month or had two periods within that same month. Some high school students experience delayed periods due to exam stress or stress related to being in their senior years.
A missed period, heavy bleeding, excess cramps, hormonal acne/breakouts and anovulation (no ovulation) are all signs something is wrong with your hormones and stress is a huge contributing factor. The impact of stress on ovulation which affects progesterone production. Progesterone kicks in after ovulation and progesterone helps to regulate your cycle. Progesterone is needed to prepare your uterus to prepare for a fertilised egg, if there is no fertilised egg, progesterone levels drop and menstruation begins.
Chronic stress can lead to estrogen dominance as it eats up the available progesterone in your body. Estrogen dominance causes
- Low libido
- Mood swings (PMS)
- Anxiety and/or depressed moods
- Weight gain – particularly on your thighs, hips and midsection
- Heavy periods, fibroids
- Breast tenderness, fibrocystic (dense) breasts, hormone dependant breast cancer (or prostate cancer in men).
- Estrogen imbalances can block your thyroid receptor hormones
- Brain fog
Our body's stress response places negative effects on our hormones which leads to imbalances. In order to have a regular menstrual cycle, your hormones need to be balanced and released at the correct time each cycle.
How stress affects perimenopause and menopause
Once we reach our mid-forties most of us have been running on empty for many years which leads to burnout or fatigue. Some of us are working full time or part-time, juggling parenthood either being a single parent or married and raising a family, caring for sick or elderly family members or living the single life once again. During this time most of us have established our career either as a professional, working for some one else or working for ourselves in our businesses. This all causes varying amounts of stress on our bodies.
High cortisol also lowers estrogen levels, which can result in the deposition of fat, also sometimes called that ‘menopausal middle’. When estrogen is lowered from unrelenting stress and cortisol production, all the female hormone imbalance symptoms such as:-
- Hot flashes or hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Mood swings can get worse
- Anxiety, panic attacks
- Vaginal dryness
- Weight gain – around the middle due to cortisol levels being high
- Cardiovascular disease due to oestrogen withdrawal. High blood pressure, weight gain, increased lipid levels (cholesterol), irregular heart beats - arrhythmia and tachycardia often present during this transition.
Lifestyle tips to reduce stress
Our lifestyle can have a large impact on our mood, behaviours and feelings. How we live our lives can also affect stress levels and it is important to understand what to do and what not to do for a healthy balance:-
- Follow an anti-inflammatory diet – this is available through my clinic as I support these changes with healthy, nourishing recipes and weekly meal plans. As I have mentioned above stress causes a lot of inflammation on our bodies.
- Herbal medicine works beautifully to support all of our bodies needs during stressful times. I have a lot of liquid herbs in stock in my dispensary that I can make for you to support you during your times of stress, anxiety, hormonal imbalances and digestive issues.
- When we are stressed it’s very easy to get into the habit of have a couple wines or beers etc after work or each night whilst cooking dinner. Try replacing this with soda water with lemon or lime in your wine glass pr a cup of herbal tea at night. Have a wine or gin and soda at the weekend.
- Some of us like to start our day with a couple of cups of coffee or an energy drink, looking for that caffeine hit before starting our busy day. Have one coffee during the day (mid-morning is better for your adrenals) and start your day with a cup of warm lemon water or green tea (Matcha is great for reducing anxiety), try a herbal tea or have a homemade smoothie for breakfast.
- Getting enough sleep (7-9 hours reduces cortisol levels).
- Regular exercise – aerobic exercise reduces cortisol but heavy exercise can increase inflammation – it’s a fine line here with our exercise routine. I do recommend exercise of your choice once you’re making progress with your treatment plan. So if F45 is more to your liking then that’s okay once we have your stress levels under control.
- Introducing a morning ritual (routine) which can include – meditating, affirmations, journaling.
- Practicing yoga.
- Booking a massage – aromatherapy massage which is really relaxing.
- Box breathing exercises or deep breathing.
- Walks along the beach – barefoot on the sand or going for a bush walk. Being out in nature is a great way to de-stress and get back in touch with you which is so important.
Don't forget to catch up with your girlfriends
It is essential to catch up with your girlfriends as women and men respond to stress differently. Researchers at UCLA have termed the woman’s response to stress as ‘tend and befriend’ in contrast to the usual fight or flight response. This means that women, under stress will take care of the children and the home and look to their girlfriends for help and support. This allows our bodies to produce more oxytocin which is the ‘feel good’ hormone which reduces our stress hormone cortisol.
Are you needing support to reduce your stress levels? Would you like to get on top of your digestive issues? Are you looking for hormonal freedom?
Consultations are available Wednesday - Saturday. Please book online. I have discovery calls available too - these can be booked online as well.
Yours in health,
Katrina - Naturopath