Stress is an all too common occurrence in our modern-day lives. Chronic pain, environmental circumstances, relationship difficulties, poverty, project deadlines, money woes, etc. Regardless of the kind of stressor, our bodies respond with the same age old biological response.
That is, the initiation of a complex nervous and endocrine response, resulting in stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, with the subsequent release of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol from the adrenal glands.
In an acute situation of dire need the neuroendocrine response is essential however, once the acute threat has passed however, cortisol and adrenalin return to their normal secretion rhythms.
Unfortunately, stressful situations in modern life are not limited and stress is likely to form a common part of our everyday lives. Deadlines, exams, rush hour traffic, mortgage payments, delinquent teens, sick or debilitated parents, relationship ups and downs, etc. Long term over stimulation of this stress response process results in dysregulated and chronically elevated levels of these ‘stress hormones’. This has far reaching implications for almost all bodily functions and it takes a physical toll on the adrenal glands.
Click ‘read more’ to read in detail the effects stress can have on your body, from weight gain, tiredness, mood and more.
Stress weight gain and diabetes
Under stress, the secretion of adrenalin increases the breakdown of fatty tissues into triglycerides for easily accessible energy; it also increases the mobilisation of glucose from the liver. What this means is that adrenalin tells the body to release all its stored glucose to allow for quick production of the energy need for the “emergency situation”. This results in an elevation of blood sugar which in turn triggers insulin secretion and raised insulin levels. When the immediate stress is over, the adrenalin dissipates, but cortisol lingers to help bring the body back into balance. One of the ways cortisol gets things back to normal is by increasing our appetite, so that we replace the fat and carbohydrates used up when under stress. Insulin secretion is also increased to get the glucose back into storage. This long term exposure to cortisol can lead to weight gain, as appetite, glucose and insulin levels are continuously increased.
Insulin acts like a key, allowing the cells to uptake glucose for energy. However, with long term chronic exposure stimulated by stress, the body’s cells become resistant to the insulin key. This results in chronically high blood sugar levels alongside similarly high insulin as the body attempts to ‘force’ the cells to uptake the excess glucose. Long term, the pancreas, which makes insulin, becomes worn out and type 2 diabetes occurs.
Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes can cause serious secondary conditions such as weight gain, kidney and nerve damage, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Depressed Immune Function
Chronic stress diminishes the immune response making us far more likely to succumb to cold and flu and even more serious illnesses such as cancer. Stress induced high blood sugar and insulin resistance also provides the perfect nutrient dense environment for the proliferation of opportunistic bugs. When under stress, we are also more likely to make poor dietary choices and sleep less which all contributes more to depressed immune function.
Cortisol activates nearly every biochemical pathway involved in the resorption and loss of bone. Cortisol specifically inhibits osteoblast activity, or bone building; it suppresses production of the protective hormones oestrogen and testosterone; it activates osteoclasts , causing bone to be broken down and resorbed; it decreases mineral absorption in the gut, so you won’t be absorbing the minerals you need to build bone; and it increases calcium loss through the urine. Mineral supplementation and drugs used to inhibit bone resorption, such as Fosamax, will always fight a losing battle to high cortisol.
Believe it or not cortisol is actually made from progesterone. The more stress you are under the more progesterone your body ‘steals’ in order to make more cortisol. This can leave women with a stress induced progesterone deficit. This has far reaching implications for women including infertility, the whole gamut of PMS and oestrogen dominance symptoms such as endometriosis and fibroids. Men don’t get off scot-free; high cortisol also plays havoc with men’s hormones. Among other actions cortisol is thought to increase the activity of an enzyme called aromatase which catalyses the conversion of testosterone into oestrogen. High aromatase activity has been associated with prostate enlargement, sexual dysfunction and depression in men.
Tired all the time
Feeling tired and depressed often goes hand in hand with being under stress. It can be attributed to poor nutrient intake and high nutrient need, but is also directly attributable to the effect that cortisol has on our ‘metabolism’ hormones – the thyroid hormones. One way that high cortisol inhibits thyroid function by is by inhibiting TSH. TSH is a chemical message made by our hypothalamus (the ‘master gland’) which tells the thyroid gland to make thyroid hormones. Not only does cortisol garble the messages that the thyroid receives, but it also reduces the conversion of the inactive T4 thyroid hormone to the metabolically active T3 thyroid hormone. If that isn’t enough, high cortisol may also increase the production of T3’s evil twin, reverse T3. This isomer of T3 binds to the cell receptors blocking the ability of T3 to bind and initiate a response. The net outcome of this is low thyroid function with the tell tale signs of fatigue, depression, dry skin and hair, cold intolerance, stubborn weight gain and mental fog.
Down in the dumps, can’t sleep and can’t remember where I put the car keys
Anybody who has been through a period of high stress can testify to the impact that it has on mood and sleep patterns. Although a biological association between depression, anxiety, insomnia and high stress has not been definitively established, it does appear to correlate to the poor blood sugar control, hormonal dysregulation and thyroid disturbance initiated by stress.
Something we do know is that long term exposure to cortisol results in damage to an area of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the memory centre of the brain and it also modulates the release of cortisol. Exposing the hippocampus to chronic stress leads to loss of neural branches called dendrites and subsequently to memory loss. It may also play a part in the dysregulation of cortisol output and a more pronounced and prolonged stress response. It would also be fair to say that as we get depressed, the depression itself stresses us. It exaggerates our negative thoughts, which increase our perception of threat and stress, which increases our cortisol output, which in turn would further cause disorder of brain functioning.
One of the functions of cortisol is to keep us very alert in times of danger, so high levels of cortisol at night will cause insomnia. There are two types of insomnia. In the first, you have trouble falling asleep because the cortisol levels are already too high; in the second, you fall asleep but then wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. This second type occurs because the elevated level of cortisol has caused a reactive drop in blood sugar after dinner. This drop in blood sugar tells the adrenals to secrete adrenalin to mobilise some glucose, but it also stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and wakes you up.
Long term stress is the enemy of proper digestive function. It reduces blood flow to the parietal cells in the stomach lining which produce hydrochloric acid (HCl); reducing blood flow reduces HCl production. This has vast implications for the health and function of the digestive system. HCl is very acidic and after saliva is the second digestive secretion to tackle the large job of breaking down food. HCl is also needed to activate the enzymes that are secreted by the pancreas. Without adequate HCl food does not get sufficiently broken down and large food molecules enter the intestines. These larger molecules are then partially broken down by intestinal bacteria. These bacteria are not clean burners, rather they release gaseous effluent which irritates and inflames the gut lining. This causes bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation, cramping and may cause people to think that they are allergic to everything! High cortisol and stress are also potential causes for the development of peptic ulcers and inflammatory bowel diseases.
As we can see, chronic or prolonged and severe stress is not our friend. Combating stress is the most important health promoting activity we can undertake. Ensuring regular physical activity, spending time with loved ones, laughing and discussing problems and stressors with others can go a long way toward reducing stress and the damaging effects of this modern day affliction
Of obvious importance is ensuring a well nourished body, supplementing when necessary and eating regular meals with adequate protein, fats, minerals and vitamins.
Luckily the plant kingdom has supplied us with specific herbs which harness the power of nature to support us in the battle against stress and its terrible ramifications.
Herbal medicine harnesses the unique and therapeutic properties of plants. Adaptogens are special plants that contain natural, biologically active substances or “organic chemicals” which help the body to adapt to and resist the ill effects of stress.
Adaptogens were classified by the ancient Chinese as the most effective plants to increase physical and mental capacity, reduce fatigue, improve resistance to diseases and extend lifespan. People discovered that using adaptogens is vital during times of physical and emotional challenges. In China, adaptogens were used by soldiers right before battle. In Siberia, the same plants were used by hunters before long, dangerous journeys. The Tibetan monks were able to get by without food and warm clothes, living high in the mountains for many days using these plants. The reason for naming these herbs “Adaptogens” resulted from the scientific discovery which proved their effectiveness in helping the human body to “adapt” or to “adjust” to the strains and changes of daily living. By adapting to changes in the environment, mankind has survived. Scientific studies have shown that the humans (and other organisms) that are able to adapt best survive longer.
The true versatility of herbs is portrayed in the specificity of the family of adaptogens. As well as helping to support adaptation and balanced hormonal levels, each particular adaptogen has its own ‘specialities’ which may make it the better choice for you.