How to Identify Which Stressors Are Impacting Your GutSep 01, 2022
STRESS. Even the word gives most of us prickly feelings. We have a visceral reaction to the mere mention of stress. Why? What happens to your body when your stressors overwhelm your ability to cope with stress? What exactly is a stressor? How does that impact your overall health? In this post, we will discuss the stress response and its relationship to gut health, 4 triggers for the stress response, and how to manage the stress response.
The Stress Response System
When most people mention the word stress they associate it with feelings of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. The word stress is actually referring to the overall stress response. This is your body’s response system for dealing with perceived threats. Every time your body perceives a threat, whether it's real or just your perception, there is a cost, a price to pay, to re-establish balance and ready the system to deal with the next stressor. This cost is referred to as the “allostatic load.”
Your body is very well equipped to deal with immediate threats. It’s the chronic, daily stressors that we experience in the 21st century that are really contributing to our chronic disease epidemic. So what exactly happens to your body when it perceives a stressor or threat? The stress response is managed by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis for short) and the system is designed for one purpose: to quickly mobilize resources during a threat. It does this by activating your sympathetic nervous system and ultimately increasing your blood sugar. The idea is that your muscles and body need quick energy in the form of glucose to be able to run away or fight the threats. Well, what if the threat isn’t a tiger that you can literally run away from?
The daily threats, such as financial stress, work stress, and relationship stress, take a toll on your metabolism and actually take away precious resources that your cells would otherwise use for basic functions, such as growing your hair, digesting your meal, and supporting your immune system. Your body will always prioritize your immediate survival even at the cost of your long-term health. In other words, your overwhelming workload can absolutely be contributing to your fatigue, anxiety, and gut issues.
If you recall, one of the key pillars to gut health is the gut-brain connection. The stress response is the “brain” side of the gut-brain connection. In this way, chronic stressors can affect your gut health. And vice versa. More about that in a bit. To sum it up, if you want to experience long-lasting gut health and ultimately wellness, you have to address chronic stressors.
Meet Annie. She is a busy working Mom who has tried a Whole30 diet and multiple supplements, like probiotics and fish oil, to help heal her gut issues. She struggles with bloating, fatigue, and feeling really irritable. This is new for her. She has a 1 year old daughter and she always considered herself a balanced person who was able to easily manage stressful events. Since returning to work and having extra responsibilities at home as a Mom, she has steadily noticed a decline in her health. In the past few weeks, she’s also experienced alternating diarrhea, constipation, and some abdominal cramps. What’s going on with Annie?
First, let’s discuss the 4 triggers for the stress response system. What actually creates a stress response?
4 Triggers of the Stress Response System
The most common and well-accepted trigger is perceived stress. But here’s the kicker: you don’t actually have to endure a stressful event to feel stressed. Merely considering a stressful event is enough for your body to mount a stress response. Yes, this means ruminating about work on Sunday can actually raise your blood sugar before you ever even set foot into the office on Monday. My kids, if they could understand this concept, would probably say, “That’s not fair!” And sometimes, it certainly feels that way.
Circadian Rhythm Imbalances
The stress response system is very intimately linked to the 24 hour circadian rhythm of light and dark cycles. Whew, that was a wordy sentence. If you’re still following, let me rephrase it like this. Not honoring the natural periods of light and darkness with your activities can absolutely create a stress response and cause HPA axis dysfunction.
Blood Sugar Imbalances
Both hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can be both the cause and the effect from the stress response system. If blood sugar goes up quickly, then it also comes down quickly. Ever felt hangry? This is hypoglycemia and it triggers a stress response. Recall the entire purpose of the stress response system is to quickly mobilize fuel (by way of increasing your blood sugar) so you can run away from threats. What if the threat is low blood sugar? If you’re not running from anything or if food isn’t scarce, then you’re left with hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and eventually, if you don’t use the sugar, it will be stored as fat. The really annoying part is that fat cells also make inflammatory mediators, which can perpetuate the stress cycle. This brings us to our 4th trigger.
The stress response system and inflammation are closely linked. When your HPA axis perceives inflammation, they mount a response. The HPA axis triggers a release of glucocorticoids in the face of inflammation. These are your body’s natural anti-inflammatory agents and the inspiration for medications like prednisone and other steroids. This suppresses your immune system for the short-term while you hopefully deal with the original trigger of inflammation. But what about when you have chronic inflammation, such as a parasite infection in your gut? Eventually, after your HPA axis has pumped out cortisol for its anti-inflammatory effects for a long period of time, your body will downregulate the production of cortisol.
Managing the Stress Response System
So what about Annie? She has been having trouble sleeping and always wakes up tired. She manages to drag herself to her home gym in the morning but this usually means she’s running late. She quickly grabs a toast and her sweet baby girl before dashing out the door. She battles traffic while chugging her coffee on the way to daycare drop off and then work. She has another coffee to keep herself awake at work, grabs takeout for lunch, and then frantically rushes home to help her spouse prepare dinner, do the bedtime routine, and then squeeze in some alone time on the couch before bed. She usually watches TV before bed with a glass of wine and chocolate as part of her “wind down routine.” She tries not to but sometimes she’ll get sucked into Instagram stories before bed and before she knows it, it’s already 11 PM and she feels wide awake. No wonder she’s always tired when she wakes up. Where’s the coffee?
How exactly do you even begin to peel this onion? I get it. It’s confusing, layered, and not always straightforward and obvious where to begin.
Here are some quick tips to get you started. When you address the 4 triggers of the stress response, you can rebalance the gut-brain connection and solve one piece of the puzzle when it comes to your overall gut health.
Manage Perceived Stress
The first trigger is probably the most difficult one to actually address. What is your perceived stressor? Usually, I recommend that my patients do one of these four things for perceived stress: deal with it, eliminate it, outsource it, or reframe it.
If it’s financial stress, what can you do to address it head on? How can you deal with it?
Work stress? Can you find a way to reframe it or is it time to go update your LinkedIn profile?
Would hiring someone to help with household chores help? What can you outsource?
Do you need a therapist? Have you tried journaling? These options can help with reframing.
Circadian Rhythm Imbalances
I addressed solutions to this in another blog. Check it out here.
Blood Sugar Imbalances
A high protein breakfast is one of the best ways to balance blood sugar for the day and help to break the cycle of hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. Fasting is great but try to fast later in the day after an early dinner. This can help rebalance your HPA axis.
Do you need a stool test? Do you need to work with a functional medicine provider to get to the root cause of your inflammation? One easy thing to try is to do an elimination diet to see if that is the cause of some of your issues. It may be perpetuating your inflammation and sometimes giving the GI tract time to heal can go a long way to blunt the stress response.
Back to our dear friend Annie. She came to see me and didn’t even know where to begin. Based on her symptoms, we worked on sleep first. From there, we helped her to balance her blood sugar, get more help at home so she didn’t feel as stressed, and then we focused on healing her gut. After 12 weeks, she reported having more energy, experiencing less bloating, enjoying a calm and balanced mood, and complete resolution of her gut issues.