1. The Stress factor
Let’s pause and talk about how stress impacts your health. There are three major ways stress effects the body, according to Bruce Lipton, cell biologist. The first is that blood flow is shunted from your viscera, where nutrient absorption takes place, to your peripheral muscles. This is to allow your legs and arms to coordinate the furious run from that saber tooth tiger, resulting in nutrients being used for energy and quick fuel rather than for absorption and repair of your body. The second way stress impacts your body is through shutting down your internal immune response to stress and accelerating your external stress response via the adrenal glands. I’ll get more into that later. Finally, in order to respond quickly to the perceived danger, stress constricts blood flow to the frontal cortex of the brain and shunts it to the reflexive and emotional center. This makes the saying “stress makes you stupid” a biochemical fact.
2. Cortisol & the Stress factor
Most people have heard of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is what is responsible for shutting down the immune response and increasing glucose uptake in the body. It functions to turn down the healing inflammatory and immune response and turn up the flight and fight response. It is cortisol that allows the body to prioritize running from danger as more important than repair and rejuvenation. Due to the fact that in a stressful situation, hormones are converting into cortisol rather than estrogen, testosterone, or progesterone, lowered immunity is not the only result from excess cortisol. Hormonal imbalances and mood swings (via sex hormone affects on neurotransmitter production in the brain) also result.
3. Blood sugar balance & Stress
Your body has three other hormones besides cortisol that keep blood sugar high (epinephrine, norephinephrine, & glucagon) and one to lower blood sugar and bring glucose into the cells. This glucose boosting powerful hormone is insulin.
High cortisol increases insulin response. Over time, this increased demand can overload the pancreas and cause insulin resistance. This will lead to decreased glucose uptake by the cell and increased fat storage and triglycerides in the bloodstream. The result: weight gain around your belly.
5. The Importance of Gut Health
As mentioned above, stress and its resulting underlying inflammation can affect how your body processes food. Stress decreases digestion as blood is shunted to the periphery causing only partial breakdown of food particles in the small intestine. When these large food particles reach the large intestine, this organ gets overwhelmed, as it is meant to mostly re-absorb nutrients, not to aid digestion. This can lead to fermentation, inflammation, and resulting weight gain as these digestive by products sit dormant in your belly. It can also cause mood imbalance from the build up of toxic by products that result in a decrease of serotonin. (Serotonin is mostly produced in the gut).
5. Stress release: Step One
A major way to aid your body in dealing with the stress response is various relaxation techniques and mind-body connection therapies. Many studies have proven how meditation and deep breathing exercises lower catecholamines in the blood and increase blood flow to the frontal cortex; therefore, changing your mind and response patterns is especially important for changing your body’s output of cortisol and stress hormones. It is important to find the best technique that works for you and your belief system. An integrative practitioner such as myself can give you some guidance and recommendations on this.
6. Supporting your Body with Good Nutritional Habits
Now, you’ve calmed down, the tiger is far away, and you need to repair the damage this prolonged response has had on your physical body.
This is a major area I address with my clients. What it boils down to is lifestyle, not just food.
It is hard to continue making different choices with the same un-changed routine. Food choice is not the exception. I believe that healthy eating is not about dieting; it’s about creating patterns and choosing foods that optimize and address your overall health. Therefore, food choices should not be addressed without a plan to implement them. One thing I’m sure my patients hear echoing in their heads as they sleep is, “Ok, how do we make this work, what’s your plan? Will you do this?” Why do I ask this? Because it is ultimately the patient, not the doctor who has to make the choices concerning lifestyle patterns on a daily basis. The response from this question allows me to gauge the speed at which to start: fast and furious at warp speed or the slower baby step approach. Most people prefer baby steps and room for imperfections, because this is what real life change tends to be for most and it makes new decisions less overwhelming.
For example, if you are used to grabbing the convenience and processed foods in a pinch, the thought of shifting to an organic lifestyle may seem stressful. Here is where the idea of “taking baby steps” is so important. This could mean changing one choice at a time: picking up prepared organic hummus and celery sticks or munching on almond butter and apples for a snack, taking time Sunday to freeze leftovers so you can grab a healthy meal during the week. These are fast and easy new behaviors that can be implemented quickly.
Healthy habits of meal planning and preparation can become an exchange for the self-defeating habits of sitting on the couch vegging out and feeling fatigued from a food hangover. The introduction of moving about to prepare self-nurturing meals can replace sitting in front of the TV, and you can still leave the show on for background noise so you don’t miss out on who gets kicked off of idol (great show Wednesday night!).
The point is to find what works for you and to add it you’re your life. Taking away foods without replacing them with something fun and more rewarding can leave people feeling deprived and rebellious. That’s why the focus should be on building in and exchanging new habits rather than taking away and punishing yourself for “bad” habits.
7. Piecing it all together
An integrative practitioner can help you put together the different pieces of the puzzle and help you formulate your individual plan. Someone skilled in diagnostics can help you figure out whether you need to address this situation through diet, adrenal support, liver support, digestive balance, or hormones. Rather than throw the kitchen sink at you for supplemental support of symptoms, a trained professional can guide you in a sequence that will work best for you and your lifestyle.
In latin, doctor means teacher, and through partnership, myself or your own integrative doctor can help you become more aware and conscious of what to use and how to best take care of your individual body’s needs.
Marcelle Pick: How Lifestyle Affects your Weight
Rebecca Murray: Insulin Resistance
Dr. Diana Schwarzbein: Insulin Resistance and Adrenal Burnout
Bruce Lipton: The Aware Show