Is stress affecting your health?
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
Have you ever wanted to change a habit that you know isn't good for you, but haven't found the motivation to adjust your lifestyle?
How do you know whether a lifestyle choice causes a stress response in the body? In turn, how do you know if chronic stress is impacting our health? A lack of awareness and understanding connecting chronic stress to a present state of health may be the stumbling block in generating necessary lifestyle changes. We may even have lost touch with certain cultural practices that helped decrease our stress levels.
- A Japanese tradition holds that after a woman delivers her baby, she is relieved of all household duties. Recuperation from labour, the challenges of breastfeeding and caring for the newborn take priority instead.
- Mealtime in France can often go on for hours. Children and adults reconvene together during meals allowing for increased socialization, rest and bonding time. Families who take time to eat often cook from whole foods, and relax more while they eat.
- The siesta, a common activity in Spain (and through Spanish influence, in many Latin American countries) allows the mind and body to recuperate. Rest is not being lazy; it's a powerful way to adapt when we are working hard.
- Other cultural practices that promote health include bike commuting in Holland, meditation practices, nutritive and medicinal herbal teas consumed in China, and shinny hockey in Canada.
Cultures with ingrained naturopathic principles help people reduce their stress levels. In this global world that we live in, taking smart practices from different cultures and making them our own can go a long way toward avoiding the effect of stress.
Equally important is to help people recognize that their health conditions are linked to stress. Making the link between a disease and one's lifestyle creates awareness and motivation for change.
The time to change is now. Why not adopt changes during one of the most stressful times of the year. Start your resolutions early. If you can do it now, you can do it at any time! In a previous column we defined stress and examined the various ways in which stress can appear in our lives. Because the effect of stress is often insidious and symptoms often overlap other health conditions, it can be difficult to determine the impact of stress.
To better understand, let's review some of the most important symptoms that may indicate that stress is taking its toll:
Higher cortisol levels associated with increased stress, can affect serotonin levels (a "happy hormone" produced by our digestive system and brain). When serotonin levels are low, we can become depressed, anxious and crave sugar (chocolate, alcohol, etc.) and starches (bread, pasta, muffins, etc.). Clinical observations also show that cravings for sweets and carbs (especially if combined with salty cravings) can also be associated to wavering adrenal gland function.
Weight gain or weight loss
Stress affects a person's weight differently depending on their metabolism and cortisol levels. Chronically high cortisol levels can lead to fat redistribution often with increased mid-section weight gain, but can also cause muscle breakdown leading to difficulties maintaining healthy muscle to fat ratios.
Research shows that stress can cause a decrease in immune mediators (such as natural killer cells and secretory IgA), and reduce the number of friendly bacteria (Bifidobacterium and lactobacilli) that are found in our digestive tract, all of which normally help prevent and help fight off infections.
By affecting the emotional centre of the brain called the amygdala, stress hormones can lead to mood swings, easily feeling overwhelmed, anxiousness, or feeling down (anywhere from seeing only the negative to full blown depression).
It is a little known fact that cholesterol is used as the building block to make numerous hormones in the body (including cortisol). In a chronically stressed system, our body will attempt to make more cholesterol to meet the increased demands of cortisol production. Among many other factors, excess cholesterol, in turn can increase the risk of plaque formation in the arteries.
High blood pressure
According to Samuel Mann MD, psychological stress can provide an explanation for about 20-25 per cent of people with high blood pressure. Dr. Mann found that it is not the more evident forms of day-to-day stress that is linked to high blood pressure, but rather the emotions that are repressed (and often that we are unaware of). His research contributions have provided an important framework that has helped me establish specific treatment plans for patients experiencing high blood pressure resulting from repressed emotional states.
In addition to decreased sex drive, people often experience decreased motivation and loss of competitive edge.
The hippocampus area of the brain is an important component in memory formation. Stress, especially chronically high cortisol levels can decrease our ability to remember.
The hormonal balance between cortisol, growth hormone and melatonin is a very important to maintain restorative sleep. Cortisol, for example, is normally lowest at bedtime, enabling our body and mind to shut down for the night. But increased stress particular if higher in the evenings due to eating late, arguing with your spouse, watching an intense movie, overdoing mentally challenging work, or exercising too late can all cause raised cortisol levels leading to insomnia.
Acid reflux, burping, gas, abdominal bloating, diarrhea or constipation, and pain in the stomach or abdominal area, can be associated with stress. As it turns out, our digestive tract contains its own nervous system that contains 100 million sensory neurons. Nervous stimuli from a stress response can change the digestive tract's wave-like muscle contractions, blood flow and secretions such as acid, enzymes and bile. Our state of mind, whether relaxed or stressed, directly effects the co-ordination of these processes.
Since the observation that bacteria H. pylori was associated with stomach ulcers, the previous correlation between stress and ulcers was discounted by conventional medicine. Nevertheless, I continue to see a strong link between stress and ulcers. The old saying "what came first, the chicken or the egg" also applies here. As discussed above, stress shuts down immune function that would normally keep bacteria in check. Therefore, even though the symptoms of stomach ulcers are well treated with anti-microbials (either antibiotics or herbal medicines), it is important to improve ones immune system. Reducing our stress levels may be one of those ways.
Stress causes abnormal secretions of LH and FSH by the hypothalamus, which coordinates ovulation and the secretion of progesterone and estrogen from the ovaries. This can lead to an irregular menstrual cycle, excess or lack of menstrual flow, mood changes and other symptoms prior to menses (pre-menstrual syndrome, aka PMS), and infertility.
Due to the changes in immune function, hormone levels, gastrointestinal function (as discussed above), as well as other changes, stress eventually causes decreased energy levels. Cortisol levels may also interfere with thyroid function and blood sugar levels thereby contributing to further fatigue. Keep in mind that these symptoms of stress can also be caused by other medical conditions. Please consult your medical doctor or naturopathic doctor to properly obtain a diagnosis of your symptoms. Addressing the root cause of the stress and learning adaptation techniques that suit each individual is paramount. Adopting cultural practices such as taking naps, and enjoying Canadian winter activities only a few great ways of reducing the effects of stress. In conjunction with lifestyle changes, specific vitamins and herbal remedies in medicinal doses can be administered to address symptoms and health conditions resulting from stress and for those who find it difficult to adapt to every day stress.
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Thursday, December 2nd 2010 in Times & Transcript.
Back to Dr. Gleixner’s full list of articles.
Interested in learning more about other unique concepts?
See Dr. Gleixner’s bio.
Ready to book an appointment?