It’s safe to assume that we are all familiar with the concept that stress is bad for us. But there’s also the adage, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
So which one is it? Is stress bad or good? And what actually is stress?
In this blog, we’ll explore the physiology behind stress and stress symptoms, cover some practical solutions, and then reveal how stress specifically affects those with GI issues like IBS and IBD.
What is stress?
Stress is a physics term that was adopted by the biological sciences in the mid-1900s. It describes an adaptive physiological response to any adverse stimuli. The stimuli can be physical, like intense exercise or pain, or mental or emotional as a result of literally any life event in the modern world.
A stress response happens when our body senses a threat that will affect homeostasis. You might recall this term from a past biology class—homeostasis is how our body keeps the balance of all systems. Homeostasis is needed for survival, and our body will do anything to maintain it.
When we encounter a stressor, our nervous system is quick to respond. The stressor activates the sympathetic nervous system—your fight or flight mode. This happens immediately and causes your heart rate to increase and your pupils to dilate. Your body is ready to fight or flee! These changes result from the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis.
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls our body systems that then regulate homeostasis. It also communicates with the pituitary gland. During stress, the hypothalamus sends a hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor, or CRF, to the pituitary gland.
CRF signals the pituitary to send adrenocorticotropin releasing hormone to the adrenal glands.
When the adrenals absorb this hormone, it triggers the release of cortisol, your body’s master stress hormone.
Cortisol affects your immune system, blood sugar, metabolism, sleep cycle, blood pressure, and much more. A healthy balance of cortisol has an anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing effect. But too much cortisol does the opposite—it triggers inflammation and hurts immune function.
The sequence of nervous system activation and hormone release happens in a matter of seconds. You may feel your heart rate increase, your senses heighten, your muscles tighten, and your breathing quicken. And in fact, the word “stress” comes from the Latin word “strictus,” which means tight or narrow.
For our ancestors, who might have needed to fight off a wild animal or run for their life, this stress response was critical for survival. But they only mounted such a response occasionally.
In the modern world, we are constantly exposed to stressors that activate our sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis. Some of us stay in stress mode all day, every day.
Below are some typical events that activate our stress response. How many of these do you encounter on a daily or weekly basis?
- Road rage
- Near-traffic accidents
- Unmanageable deadlines at work
- Juggling multiple roles or jobs (Any moms or caretakers out there?)
- Volatile arguments
- Skipping meals
- Eating excessive added sugar
- Drinking too much caffeine
- Feeling hangry
- Feeling helpless
- Information overload
- Pressure to succeed
- Concern over politics, social injustice, and humanitarian crisis
Y’all, I could keep adding to this list, but I think you get the point. We are STRESSED. And this type of chronic stress isn’t making us stronger. It is depleting us.
What is stress? Symptoms…
Below are some widespread symptoms of chronic stress. Do any of these resonate with you?
- Feeling wired but tired
- Feeling shaky
- Difficulty falling asleep or winding down at night
- Waking in the middle of the night
- Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
- Brain fog
- Trouble concentrating on one thing at a time
- Difficulty taking a deep breath—tendency to breathe with your upper chest instead of your belly
- Heart racing or palpitations
- High or low blood pressure
- Blood sugar dysregulation—blood sugar spikes and crashes
- Intense sugar cravings
- Intense caffeine cravings
- Emotional swings—you may cry or startle very easily
- Low libido
- Feeling too tired to exercise
- Low functioning immune system
- Loss of appetite
- Diarrhea (more common with acute stress)
- Constipation (more common with chronic stress)
The tricky thing about modern stressors is that many are out of our control. Thankfully, we can somewhat control our response to and perception of stress—research has shown that the adverse effects of stress are greatly influenced by our perception (1).
Changing your perception of stress begins by filling your toolbox with tools that help you manage stress. Let’s talk about three ways to manage stressors that work.
Solution #1: Activate your parasympathetic nervous system
Recall that your sympathetic nervous system is your fight or flight response. The opposite of this stress response comes from the parasympathetic nervous system, or your rest and digest mode.
Ideally, we want to quickly and easily shift between sympathetic and parasympathetic states. But remember all those daily stressors we just checked off? Those keep us stuck in sympathetic mode.
However, I am going to share some tricks that will help you activate your parasympathetic state when you need it most…times of chronic stress. These are amazing tools to use at the end of a hard day, after a tense Zoom meeting, or while you are running late but stuck in traffic.
- Deep belly breathing is a simple way to lower stress hormones and feelings of perceived stress. You can do it anywhere—in the car, office, at home, or even during meetings. Simply inhale for 4 seconds. Take a deep breath and feel your belly button expand out like a balloon. Then hold that breath for 2 to 4 seconds. Finally, slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
- Listening to relaxing music is effective at increasing the parasympathetic response (2).
- Auricular release is another simple technique that can quickly activate the parasympathetichetic nervous system (3). Auricular release is also known as ear massage, and it is easy to do to yourself. Check out this resource to learn more.
Solution #2: Balance your blood sugar
Blood sugar imbalance is a prevalent contributor to stress. It is also within our control. Most of us have the privilege of choosing what we eat and how frequently we eat. Food quality and timing are two main factors that determine blood sugar balance.
When blood sugar is unbalanced, it usually means that blood sugar is spiking and crashing or staying elevated for too long. This glucose rollercoaster creates inflammation and stress.
When your blood sugar gets too low, either from skipping meals or as a response to a meal high in refined carbs and sugars (when it spikes, then crashes), your body secretes cortisol. This is an emergency response that triggers the breakdown of stored glucose so that it can be released into the bloodstream and reach your cells.
This emergency cortistol and glucose release is a lifesaving mechanism that comes in handy during true emergencies, and was super helpful for our ancestors who didn’t have ready access to food all day every day.
But in our modern life, this cycle creates chronic stress and chronically high cortisol levels.
To keep your blood sugar balanced:
- Avoid or limit refined carbohydrates. These types of carbs have little to no fiber, an essential nutrient for keeping blood sugar balanced.
- Avoid or limit added sugars, predominantly present in liquid sugar like sweetened coffees, teas, and even healthier drinks like kombucha and fresh fruit juices. Liquid sugars like these can have a dramatic effect on blood sugar. Because they contain no fiber, fat, or protein they are quickly absorbed and can easily spike blood sugar.
- Eat balanced meals that contain adequate protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fat.
- Avoid skipping meals, especially breakfast. Remind yourself that coffee is not breakfast.
Solution #3: Don’t let your “stress cup” overflow
It’s ok to say no.
A helpful analogy for stress is that of an overflowing cup. For most of us, small amounts of stress are easy to recover from. But when you keep adding more and more stressors, your cup begins to overflow, and that is when problems manifest.
Of course, the size of your cup (AKA your capacity for stress) also determines how much stress you can handle. Using the stress solution tools listed above can help you increase your capacity, and prevent the negative effects of stress.
However, sometimes that isn’t enough, and we need to accept that it is ok to say NO.
No, I can’t take an extra work shift. No, I can’t make that play date. No, I can’t do girl’s night this weekend. I need to rest.
I know a lot of us were conditioned to not hurt anyone’s feelings or let anyone down, at the expense of our own well-being. You can simply say, “no thanks, I have a lot on my plate right now. Thank you for thinking of me.” Will some people be disappointed? Maybe! But maybe you’ve shown them how to set a healthy boundary for themselves.
In any case, your health is not worth trying to make everyone happy, so make sure you are actively making some room for yourself and your wellness, okay friend?
Stress and GI Syndromes
What happens when we don’t manage stress and our cup does overflow?
Look, I am not going to sugarcoat it—the research shows that chronic stress increases the risk of illness.
It is well documented that chronic psychosocial stress is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis (4,5). Stress in childhood is linked to increased inflammation, immune dysregulation, and shorter telomeres (part of our genetics associated with longevity) during adulthood (6).
And stress wreaks havoc on our ability to support and heal the gut. Intestinal hyperpermeability, aka “leaky gut,” is exacerbated by elevated cortisol and increased psychosocial stress (11).
Long-term stress can contribute to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), while mental stress can worsen symptoms and even trigger a relapse (7,8).
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is also highly influenced by stress levels and is sometimes referred to as a combination of irritable bowel and irritable brain (9, 10)!
The link between stress and GI syndromes? Inflammation.
Inflammation is why chronic stress is linked to IBD and IBS. Stress triggers not only the release of cortisol but also inflammatory cytokines. Increased levels of cortisol and cytokines weaken the intestinal mucosa, resulting in inflammation of the gut tissues (11).
Additionally, the inflammatory response created by psychosocial stress negatively affects autophagy, the natural process of clearing out old and misfolded proteins. And when autophagy goes awry, research tells us that IBD may result (12).
Inflammation of the gut mucosa is also present in those with IBS (13), and increased stress only makes this worse.
And, of course, we can’t leave out the microbiome. Inflammation and stress hormones like cortisol directly affect the gut microbiota, leading to dysbiosis and increased “bad gut bugs” (12). And you guessed it—dysbiosis is linked to IBD and IBS. Inflammation creates a vicious, often painful cycle.
If you want to learn more about the connections between gut health and stress, my next blog will focus specifically on the research surrounding IBD, IBS, and stress.
And if you already know you need gut healing, The Good Poopers Club™ is designed just for you.