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How Does Stress Affect The Body? 3 Ways It Impacts Us, 6 Action Points

The idea that stress has a negative effect on the body is hardly new and not an idea that is in dispute. But how does such an idea help us in taking action? This is where it can be helpful to acknowledge that stress can impact a person’s health a a variety of ways, but tends to be driven by all three main features of the stress response.

The Stress Response: Why It Gets Deployed

First, a note on the stress response. This is an evolved shift in physiology that is deployed whenever the system perceives that the upcoming need for energy is greater than the energy that is currently available. To meet these perceived demands, it 1. pumps out adrenaline to mobilize energy from reserves (eg. the liver and fat stores), 2. opens up the gut lining in order to grab more sugars and salts, and 3. disinvests in any activity that is metabolically costly and not needed for immediate survival. The combined effect of these physiological shifts is that we are able to meet requirements well beyond that we’d otherwise be able to using our baseline energy availability.

But it comes at a cost, especially when deployed on an ongoing basis. Here’s what happens:

  1. A) The adrenaline production, if sustained, can spike our blood glucose. This is where we can end up running with excess sugars in our bloods (even when not consuming a high-carbohydrate diet) and cells can only gobble this up at a certain rate. Cells must protect themselves against taking up too much energy at one time and, indeed, they do; they exhibit insulin resistance as a protective mechanism. This may not happen in each organ system at the same rate, which is where we may see different problems between one person and the next, but all scenarios of insulin resistance result in the pancreas having to pump out more insulin that would otherwise be needed. A classic scenario here is that the immune cells or the ovaries may not exhibit the same level of insulin resistance and so they are given too much stimulus; this results in a pro-inflammatory state with hormonal imbalance. Insulin resistance in other cells can then lead to key areas not recognizing that they do actually have access to energy; increased hunger/carb cravings are the result.B) Adrenaline can leave us ‘wired’, which can affect mood, concentration and sleep.
  2. The opening of the gut lining is thoroughly under-discussed but a huge contributor to the undesirable effects of stress. Although this activation of the SGLT (sodium and glucose linked transporters) does allow us to grab the sugars and salts, which help us during acute stress, it also allows little fragments of dead bacteria to enter the bloodstream. These fragments are known as as endotoxins and lipopolysaccharides (different names for the same thing). These endotoxins downregulate hormone receptors, in particular the cortisol receptor, and drive inflammation; although they cannot cause an infection (they are only fragments of bacteria), they possess bacterial DNA and our immune system responds to this. The immune response involves a lot of nitric oxide; this can be helpful in the right places but, in these circumstances, it induces competition with oxygen. This can chronically limit energy production, which ironically leaves the body with lower energy availability and encourages further stress responses in compensation.
  3. Reduced investment in health-promoting tasks is another major effect of the stress response. The main focus here is digestion, detoxification and other cellular healing events (all of which are energy-intensive, but do not contribute to survival TODAY). While this is another example of the elegance of the human stress response – temporary disinvestment here will free up energy to handle upcoming emergencies – problems are guaranteed if this ‘temporary’ response is deployed long-term. The gut becomes a zone of chaos (driving inflammation, and a scenario where activated immune cells ‘steal’ energy and leave us with lower energy availability and, once again, encourages further stress responses in compensation). Our cells may become subject to increased toxic burdens, limiting function. Ultimately, our system falls into a state of disrepair; exactly which zones experience dysfunction first will vary from one individual to the next.

Taking Action: What Can We Do About This?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing stress (and limiting its effects on metabolism). However, there are some principles that apply to all:

  1. Reduce workload. Most individuals will not appreciate how hard they are working and the impact this has, because we don’t ever have the time off to
  2. Undertake ‘rewiring’ of the central nervous system. This relates to ‘stored stress’, where the alarm centres of our central nervous system (eg. amygdala and brain stem) exhibit out-of-date reflexes to sensory signals. As long as this is the case, we can expect a situation where everyday signals induce the stress response and will do so until such reflexes are updated. The irony here is that our system is very capable of updating these reflexes, just not while we are under stress. But we’re stressed due to these out-of-date reflexes. Somatic approaches, eg. Conscious Connected Breathwork, Somatic Experiencing, etc, can be particularly helpful.
  3. Support cortisol activity. We so often hear that cortisol is bad and that we should lower cortisol. This is misguided. yes, wherever there is stress there is cortisol and, yes, people with higher levels of cortisol are likely to see worse outcomes over time. But it is am ambulatory hormone, released because it is needed. Cortisol is a hormone that helps us cope with the stress response, reduce the inflammatory costs of the stress response and helps turn it off once it is no longer needed. I’ve written more about this here but, in summary, its helpful to consider increasing cortisol availability (eg. Licorice Root) or supporting activity of cortisol receptors (eg. Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Eleuthero/Siberian Ginseng, Korean Ginseng).
  4. Get good sleep. Simplest advice, but not always the easiest to implement. It may require changing the pre-bed routine (slowing down, avoiding blue light), or may call for adding Magnesium (magnesium shortage means you have no fair chance of sleeping well) or, at least in the short term, using herbs that help calm the system. Also the lower workload, the ‘rewiring’ work and the cortisol support (already mentioned) can also here. In any case, there are few things that will help the stress response more than 8 hours of good quality sleep.
  5. Avoid unnecessary insults. If your system is already under stress – that is to say, perceiving that its upcoming energy needs are greater than its energy availability – then anything that either increases demand or lowers availability is only going to add to these challenges. Consider the role of high-intensity workouts (contrary to the no-pain-go-gain ethos, more likely to harm than help when the system is already taxed in meeting energy requirements) and think about walking or restorative yoga instead. Consider long gaps between meals (which forces the body to deploy more of a stress response to mobilize energy until the next input).
  6. Ensure mitochondrial energy metabolism is optimised. If there are blockages/limitations here, then you will have less energy availability at baseline and this will call for more of a stress response to meet demands. An Organic Acids Test will set you back around £220/$290 but provide clear and actionable points on if you are short in any specific nutrient that the mitochondria needs for optimal energy production.

Bottom Line

There will always be more too this, of course, but these starting points will go a long, long way to reducing the rate that we deploy the stress response and on limiting the consequences it would otherwise have on our metabolism.


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