How Stress Will Kill You & What You Can Do To Stop It!
Updated: Dec 26, 2019
I want to talk about stress. And not just regular, motivating, got stuff to do stress. I'm talking about chronic, toxic stress. It’s something that effects our lives more than people realize. Many of you know that I am taking functional medicine classes, and what I have learned about how stress can affect our bodies on a cellular and biochemical level has blown my mind!
During my days in clinic, I would have women come in and complain about multiple symptoms. They would vary but often would consist of fatigue, insomnia, irritability, weigh gain or inability to lose weight, waking and not feeling refreshed, diarrhea/constipation, bloating, etc. They always wanted me to check their hormones, citing “something just isn’t right.”
Inevitably, I would check labs that would consist of a full blood count, a blood chemistry, liver function, thyroid, sex hormones, and various vitamin levels, and sometimes even an ultrasound in the cases of GI symptoms. Much to the confusion of the patient, the labs would be normal. Sometimes the vitamin D level may be low, but not necessarily account for their symptoms.
At the time, the symptoms sounded like depression or just the “symptoms of life.” Heck, I had them too. My labs were normal. I just thought it was the price of getting older and having a demanding job. I wasn’t entirely wrong about that, and we weren’t crazy for feeling the symptoms we felt.
What I have learned is that symptoms can manifest long before the disease process presents. It’s like a tree. The leaves are where all the diseases are and the doctors are that treat the diseases. The doctors are giving you medication to “manage” the diseases and symptoms of the disease. But what if instead of dealing with the leaves, you deal with the roots.
What’s at the roots? Digestion, Absorption, Microbiota/GI, Respiration, Immune system, inflammatory, processes, Infection, Energy regulation, Mitochondrial function, Toxicity, Detoxification, Endocrine, Neurotransmitters, Immune messengers, Cognition, Cardiovascular and lymphatic systems, subcellular membranes and musculoskeletal system. Yes, these can be evaluated at the cellular and biochemical levels by functional medicine practitioners!
I am going to address three areas where stress affects you and what it does. First, the gastrointestinal tract. Then the adrenals, and finally, the area of sleep. This is not a complete list. If I listed everything, this would not be a blog; it would be a book.
People, including doctors, roll their eyes whenever anyone mentions that the gut may be causing their problems. However, I don’t roll my eyes anymore! The GI tract makes neurotransmitters. Actually, 80% of your serotonin is made in the gut! You’ll see why this is important later.
What does stress do? It interferes with our normal bacteria. We need those guys to fight bacteria, viruses, yeast overgrowth. They produce secretory IgA to help with that. When you are stressed, several biochemical processes occur that begin to alter your number of healthy bacteria and the types of bacteria present in the GI tract. But what do most of us do when we are stressed? We eat or drink alcohol! And we don’t eat healthy!
Junk food, especially sugar laden food, completely disrupts our bacteria. Alcohol does the same. It kills it off, and it alters it’s function. Our little guys produce glutamate which protects the cells lining our GI tract and aids in the function of these cells. When the bacteria don’t have what they need to this, our GI cells don’t function properly. They don’t absorb the nutrients needed for ALL the cells in our body to function. So, our DNA isn’t properly repaired, thus the cells in our brain and organs are not repaired; our toxins are not properly eliminated; our free radicals remain free to cause additional damage; our mitochondria don’t have the raw materials needed to create energy; our bones don’t regenerate.
Neurotransmitters, like serotonin, that keep us mentally functioning are altered. Our hormones are then altered and not functioning optimally. As an aside, I will mention that there are those of us that are genetically more susceptible to this cascade of events than others, and yes, those genetics can be tested for.
Also, the bonds that hold our GI cells together begin to break down due to the above alterations. Food particles can then seep into our blood stream. When that occurs, our immune system goes crazy, and now you have food allergies, rashes, autoimmune diseases.
Many are allergies are subtle, and you don’t realize that some of the things you are eating are causing the symptoms of fatigue, irritability, bloating, etc. The good news is that with an elimination diet (discussed in a previous blog), a few supplements, and time, the cells can heal, and many of the allergies can be reversed! I have seen rashes subside and autoimmune diseases remain in check.
I could go on about what else occurs in the GI tract, but again, it would be a book. Suffice it to say, our GI tract and the bacteria in there is the most important “organ” to keep healthy in order to have energy, function daily, lose weight, sleep, and live a long healthy life.
The next thing stress does is it zaps our adrenal glands. These are the glands that sit just above the kidneys. They are important in production of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. They are responsible for our “fight or flight” response to danger, or stress. They aid in our hormone production. They are important in salt and sugar metabolism. They make sure our blood pressure is high enough so when we stand up, we don’t pass out. You can’t live without them. You will die.
I will focus on cortisol. It’s really an important hormone. Stress causes a great deal of inflammation in our bodies, and cortisol is a natural steroid hormone that helps us deal with the inflammation. It is secreted in a pattern that is responsible for us being awake and going to sleep. So, when you are chronically stressed, this pattern is altered.
At first, your cortisol levels are elevated all day. People with this are called “the tired and wired”. You’re exhausted all day, but you can’t go to sleep. The lack of sleep then makes the cortisol levels higher the next morning and all day. It’s a vicious cycle. If left unchecked, your adrenals will begin to “burn out.”
You may eventually get to a point where you are able to sleep, but when you wake up, you’re not refreshed. You need coffee and lots of it, to get going, but the coffee just beats the snot out of your already zapped adrenals. You’ll notice that you may get a bit of a pick me up, but in an hour or so, you’re exhausted again.
Some people will get a “second wind” just before bedtime. You have a hard time waking. You’re exhausted all day. You cannot wait for bed, and then boom, you’re wide awake. This will cycle long enough until you’re so exhausted, you finally do sleep, but the following night, the “second wind” is back again.
Finally, if left unchecked, your adrenals will not have any variation during the day or night at all. Your cortisol is high enough to not have Addison’s disease, but low enough that you are exhausted when you wake. You will be exhausted all day, fall to sleep at night, sleep hard, only to awake feeling exhausted again. These people have horrible irritability, anxiety, and/or depression.
Related to the adrenals being affected by stress, so is your sleep. Your sleep disruption can be from your adrenals not functioning properly or from the racing of your mind when trying to go to sleep. Remember the neurotransmitters that were affected from your altered GI tract? Here’s one area the altered GI effects, serotonin is not produced adequately.
Without proper amounts of serotonin, your norepinephrine and epinephrine are in charge. Remember the adrenals also produce norepinephrine and epinephrine during times of danger and stress. Dopamine and GABA are also affected by all these alterations. Your mind won’t relax, and you can’t sleep.
Also, without proper amounts of serotonin, you don’t make proper amounts of melatonin. This is your sleep hormone. Melatonin is also a very powerful antioxidant. Sleep is important for removing toxins from our brain and renewing our brain cells. Growth hormone, which is import for DNA repair, is made in our deepest sleep.
Sleep also affects some other gut-brain hormones that effect our appetite; those hormones are ghrelin and leptin. High leptin and low ghrelin tells us that we are not hungry. However, lack of sleep affects the cells in our GI tract such these are altered and our appetite increases! You gain weight. You eat because you’re tired and because you’re hungry.
Guess what fat cells produce? Many things, but for the sake of this blog, they produce leptin. That should tell our brain that we are not hungry, right? Well, no, because with high leptin levels, you can become leptin resistant. So, you think you’re hungry when you’re not, and you keep gaining weight! Leptin resistance has been linked to insulin resistance. I wonder why?
Now, can you see why stress is so bad? At this level, you have not developed a disease yet. However, keep this cycle going. I guarantee that you will eventually have obesity, abnormal lipids, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and depression/anxiety. How American does that sound? This is 70% of the patients seen by our family and internal medicine doctors.
So, what can you do? Well, the least expensive and easiest thing to do is to start with your gut. I have spent about 3 months on mine. I haven’t lost weight, but I have had improvements in sleep and energy. This has just happened. It takes a while to heal if you have been chronically stressed for a long time, like a decade.
I have had to teach myself that food is my medicine and to eat colored food (fruit and vegetables, not cake), not just brown and white food. I did the elimination diet. I know my allergies now. I know what I can eat sometimes and really should not eat at all! I’m also not perfect at it, and when I’m not, my body tells me!
I’ve also done some DNA testing. I know where I am more genetically susceptible and what to do about that. I’ve done cortisol testing, fatty acid, and amino acid testing. I know what to put into my diet to give me the most benefit. I also know what supplements I need to be on for now and for some, possibly lifelong. Let me say here, that it is very important to get good quality supplements. I have access to two distributors as a provider that do not sell to the public. However, Pure Encapsulations is a good source that sells to the public.
The elimination diet was discussed in my blog “Go with Your Gut” along with some supplements you can use. Remember, supplements are usually for the short term. Once you have a better diet and a healed gut, you don’t have to be on all or any of them, unless you’ve had the genetics done and have found where you need to be on certain ones lifelong.
The next thing is to deal with your stress. Not everyone can just leave their jobs or families, although some of you may want to consider other jobs and may want to eliminate some people from your life.
You need to exercise. I am cringing as I type this. Those of you who know me, know I HATE EXERCISE! However, it really isn’t for weight loss necessarily.
Exercise does several things. It naturally raises serotonin levels, increases dopamine levels, improves melatonin levels, improves leptin and insulin resistance, and the movement of the muscles actually creates antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules.
Now, with adrenal issues, do not exercise like a crazy person. You need to do “easy” exercise. Yoga, pilates, walking, cycling (not spin) until you are feeling better. You can do spin, cross fit, orange theory once your energy is back, but as long as you are tired, do not do stressful exercise. It will zap your, already beaten to a pulp, adrenal glands. If you are someone that says, “I exercise and afterwards, I more exhausted,” then do not do vigorous exercise. Your body is telling you that your adrenals are not optimally functioning!
Finally, do other selfcare like meditation, prayer, worship, sing and dance to 80’s music with your daughter, watch the ocean, get a massage, get a pedicure, and take time for yourself. Maybe you need a “Netflix day.”
Also, don’t be afraid of a therapist. You don’t have to be on antidepressants unless things are bad that you now have “the disease of depression,” but you do need to talk out your stressors. Therapists or even life coaches are great with helping you identify triggers/stressors and teach you how to process and deal with them.
So, the next time you go to the doctor for fatigue, weight gain, headaches, insomnia, muscles aches and pains, nausea, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and all your labs come back normal and your doctor says, “It’s just stress,” you now know she’s not just blowing you off. Stress will lead to disease and kill you. If left unchecked, you WILL eventually develop something for her to treat, or you can begin to deal, at the root level, with all the things stress does to us so that you never have to develop a disease for which you will need medication.
I do need to do a disclaimer: While I am a doctor, I am not your doctor. The information in this blog post is for information and entertainment purposes only and are not intended as medical advice!