Stress 101 Part 2: The Effects of Stress
In part 1 of the Stress 101 series, we discussed the numerous sources of stress in our lives. Today, we are going to discuss the effects of stress on our bodies. You'll find that many of the sources and effects of stress overlap, kind of like the chicken and egg question. It can be difficult at times to determine which came first when it comes to certain sources and effects. For instance, did lack of sleep cause more stress in the body or did your sleep suffer because of the stress you were under from another source? Sometimes, we many never know the answer, but other times, we can discover the answer through deeper reflection.
The Effects of Stress:
When we are stressed, our body burns through nutrients more rapidly, making it vital that we replenish our stores with real, whole food (not necessarily vitamins...they aren't one in the same). When our nutrient levels are depleted, we have fewer resources to help arm our body with in order to beat and combat stress. Plus, a stressed environment in our bodies also messes with our hunger hormones (insulin and ghrelin), leading to cravings and overeating of the wrong types of foods. This is why I recommend eating in a PFC balanced manner.
If we our stressed, our sleep usually suffers as well. Sometimes, our minds race at night when we are stressed, causing us to be unable to fall asleep. Additionally, if our cortisol/melatonin patterns are disrupted from stress, we will also have a hard time falling or staying asleep. This is usually the more common factor at play. Our cortisol levels (our stress hormone) are meant to rise in the morning and wake us up and slowly fall throughout the day as melatonin rises to help us fall asleep at night. Stress interrupts and disrupts this regulatory pattern, creating trouble with sleep. When we don't get enough sleep, we stand no chance at lowering the inflammation levels caused by stress in our bodies. You can read more about sleep here.
I've already mentioned insulin and ghrelin and how they are effected by stress, as well as cortisol and melatonin. However, other hormones are also effected from stress, including our sex, thyroid, and adrenal hormones. Our sex hormones regulate our respective genders, and if those are off in any way, we suffer the effects. Thyroid hormones are also delicate as well, and our thyroid controls so many aspects of our health. Our adrenal glands produce cortisol among other hormones that correlate to our stress levels. Any time that any of these hormones are impacted by stress, we start to feel the effects of sleep disruption, weight gain (especially around the belly), digestive upset, mental disorders, blood sugar issues, and so much more.
Mood and Attitude
When we are stressed, our mental health often suffers from the lack of sleep, lowered nutrient levels, and disrupted hormones. We become more susceptible to anxiety and depression, which have their own set of issues and struggles.
Our weight can really do one of two things when we are stressed - go down or up. Typically, unless you are one who completely quits eating due to stress, we gain weight around our midsection when we become too stressed. This is a natural protective mechanism by our bodies. In prehistoric times, when we were stressed, we stored body fat around our most vital organs, all of which are housed in our midsection. Our bodies have changed since those times, but not as quickly as the stressers that surround us (hello modern technology!). Therefore, this phenomena of belly fat when we are stressed still holds true. You can typically tell if belly fat is related to stress when you have tried everything with diet and exercise and nothing seems to work. Remember that eating less and exercising more are sources of stress? If you try harder and harder to lose that stress-related belly fat, you are simply adding fuel to the fire!
Our immune system is impacted by stress due to a reduction in quality sleep and nutrient stores. When we are stressed, we become more susceptible to illnesses. I always think of the time about three-four weeks after school starts when every student seems to be sick. It's partially due to the new level of stress the students are under!
Gut health can be a source of stress but more commonly is impacted by other sources of stress (this definitely has been true for me!). When we don't get enough of the right kinds of foods, aren't sleeping enough, or have any sort of hormonal disregulation, our gut health suffers. Moreover, our gut is often referred to as our second brain, making it susceptible to the health of our mental health as well. When our gut health isn't as healthy as it should be, we have a hard time digesting foods (therefore assimilating nutrients), getting into a rest and digest state (calming down), and managing our mental health (anxiety and depression tend to grow when our gut health is off). Stress also can lead us to develop a leaky gut.
Our blood sugar impacts our stress levels and can also be an effect of stress as well. When we are stressed, our bodies have a harder time managing excess carbohydrates, and we often crave more refined foods as well, which doesn't help our blood sugar either. You can read more about blood sugar regulation here.
I've mentioned it numerous times already, but still it bears repeating. When our bodies are under stress, inflammation is created in the body. When our bodies become inflamed, all sorts of processes start to go wrong in the body as hormonal pathways are disrupted. Inflammation is truly at the root of stress and modern diseases.
The effects of stress are varied and numerous, but they are far from fun to deal with (trust me on that!). But, they CAN be managed and reduced with carefully decisions. In part 3, we are going to discuss some of these stress management strategies in order to help you finally start reducing the stress in your life today!