Hormones rule our lives. They are the chemical messengers that make us feel happy or sad, hungry or full, tired or ready to get up and go. They make us sleep or keep us awake, put on weight or lose it, make us love, bond, enjoy sex and procreate ... or prevent all of those. But are we slaves to our hormones? To we have to put up with what we're given? Are some people just lucky to get all the good ones?
Do you eat to balance blood sugar levels? If you would like to lose weight, regain more energy, stop cravings, improve your digestion, balance your hormones and speed up your metabolism, it is crucial to learn how to balance blood sugar.
We have all heard that stress has a myriad of detrimental effects on the body: It makes us tired and irritable, disrupts sleep, messes with our digestion, drives blood pressure up and upsets our hormone balance to name but a few. Unfortunately, this time of year is associated with stress for many people, not just during the run up to Christmas, but also at Christmas proper when families come together.
A lesser known side effect of stress is that it can contribute to weight gain and make it harder to lose weight. Our physical reaction to stress – the ‘stress response’ – is mean to help us out of situations in which we are physically threatened. The ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction is supposed to get us out of real danger, and the stress response is perfectly suited for that (click here for more on the stress response).
As we need to run or fight, we are going to require energy. The stress hormone cortisol ensures the release fat and glucose into the blood stream to provide that energy. Only, we are stressed because of year-end deadlines at work, the long line at the till, our December bank statement or our mother-in-laws special dietary requirements, not a polar bear about to pounce. We are not going to run or fight and are not going to use up that extra energy, so it ends up stored away around the middle, either as visible abdominal fat or visceral fat, the fat around the organs.
Meanwhile, we are also experiencing cravings to keep energy levels up, particularly for sugary foods. There is never any shortage, but before Christmas it is even harder to avoid temptation as well-meaning colleagues bring mince pies into work, we’ve got Christmas lunches and dinners, shops offer family-sized tins of biscuits and chocolates, and home-baking makes the house smell sweet. Resisting temptation is hard enough, put baked goods in front of a stressed person, and they don’t really stand a chance. These sugary foods now add to the already high blood sugar and ultimately even more belly fat.
In the long run, high cortisol levels can interfere with thyroid function, too. The thyroid regulates your metabolic rate: the amount of calories you burn at rest. A slow metabolic rate means weight gain.
Yes, we all know that stress can ruin your festive mood, but prolonged stress does much more than that: It can lead to anxiety and depression and contributes to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and dementia. It is also the most common underlying reason for tiredness. Testing your cortisol levels will tell you whether stress has begun to affect your health and can help identify your individual requirements. A nutritional therapist can assist you in getting tested.
It’s not easy to reduce stress, especially in December, but it is worth doing whatever you can to do just that. Is there anyone who could help you? Could your kids contribute some more to running the house, perhaps by putting their own stuff away? Is there anything you can cross off the list, because it’s not actually that important? Can you carve at least 5 minutes out of your day to get away from everything and practise deep breathing techniques or meditate? Anything you can do to lighten your load is going to be helpful.
But knowing when and what to eat can help us cope better with the stressors we cannot remove. Tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News will tell you which foods help build resilience to stress. It is not too late to subscribe.
If you struggle with stress or illness as a result of stress, why not come and see me in clinic at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the body’s stress response, or “fight-or-flight” response. The article described what happens inside the body in a situation of immediate danger – the alarm phase. The changes I described are mainly due to the stress hormone adrenaline. It triggers a cascade of mechanisms designed to save our life. The effects of adrenaline are very short lived.
Another stress hormone, cortisol, kicks in right after adrenaline. It is produced in order to continue fighting the effects of a stressor long after adrenaline has worn off. Cortisol stimulates the conversion of protein into glucose to ensure that the body has a sufficient supply of energy even after the emergency stores of glucose have been depleted. For the same reason, it also continues to inhibit the functioning of insulin and sustains the changes to the cardiovascular system – among others elevated blood pressure and a fast beating heart – that are designed to transport oxygen and glucose to those cells that need them most in an emergency situation. Cortisol also helps us deal with emotional crisis, performing strenuous task and fighting pain and infection.
This is all extremely useful in an actual dangerous situation. Although physical danger is undesirable, it doesn’t normally go on forever. When it is over we can start recovery – again with the help of cortisol, which stimulates appetite and has anti-inflammatory properties. Eventually, all is well again and we move on.
Yet, today’s stressors are different. We are – luckily! – rarely under physical threat these days, but most of us are stressed, some of us often, some of us all the time. What this means is that our adrenal glands, where stress hormones are made, have to continuously churn out those hormones, with hardly any break, and in the long run, this can have serious consequences. If cortisol is constantly or very frequently present in the blood stream:
- Blood pressure is high.
- Insulin function is impaired, which over time can lead to diabetes II.
- The heart beats fast and works overtime.
- We are on high alert, which interferes with concentration and can contribute to anxiety.
- Digestion is erratic at best.
- Fertility is on hold, because as far as the body can tell this is not a good time to procreate.
This is clearly not good! Prolonged stress really is not just tiring, unpleasant and a matter of the mind. It affects the whole body and can be at the root or at least a contributing factor to a whole host of chronic illnesses.
Stress is often seen as “busyness to an unpleasant degree”, but having to rush around all day long is not the only and not the worst stressor by far. Technically, almost any change in our environment is a stressor: hot or cold, physical trauma such as illness or injury, stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and sugar, environmental toxins (including exhaust fumes, pesticides, chemical exposure from furniture, cosmetics etc.), even exercise, if excessive. Then there are emotional stressors, like bereavement, divorce, bullying, job loss, debt and more.
Apart from the effects continuous stress hormone secretion has on the body, it also affects the adrenal glands, where they are made. For one, these little glands that sit on top of each of your kidneys, have other jobs as well. They make a wide range of other hormones besides stress hormones, too. If the adrenal glands are busy making stress hormones for a long time, this takes up most of their capacity and other hormones fall by the wayside. Remember: acute stress is meant to be a priority (and short-lived), so all efforts are diverted to them.
Stress hormones also hog the “raw materials” other hormones need: Cortisol and ultimately the sex hormones progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone are made from a hormone called pregnenolone, which in turn is made from cholesterol. If all the pregnenolone is diverted towards the production of cortisol, this will have a knock-on effect on sex hormone levels: think premenstrual syndrome (PMS), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fertility, libido and more.
Co-factors required for other hormones, too, are going towards the production of stress hormones. Stress uses up vital vitamins and minerals that will be missing elsewhere.
If stress persists over years and years, the adrenal glands can wear out and struggle to produce any hormones at all. You’d feel very tired and exhausted to the extent where even sleep does not refresh you enough, struggle to concentrate, and might even experience depression. It is possible to recover, but it may take a long time. After all, it took a long time to get to this stage, too.
So, what to do? Watch this space! While you wait, you may want to subscribe to Nutrilicious News. Tomorrow's contains a yummy stress-busting recipe, which is easy to make, as always. There'll also be a breakdown of what it is that combats stress in this particular recipe.
If you suffer from stress and its physical manifestations, if you are suffering from stress-related illness, why not book a personal health and nutrition programme with me at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex?
We’re all stressed, aren’t we? We’ve got deadlines to meet, appointments to keep, houses to clean, emails to answer, kids to get dressed and out of the house in time for school, cars taken to the garage for servicing, essays to hand in … it’s relentless, and there’s always something! In fact, we can even get stressed over things we are not doing, when we know we should, or things that might go wrong in the future: worries. Yes, we can even think ourselves into a stressed state. When we’re stressed, we often don’t feel all that good. It’s exhausting, for one thing. Sometimes we break out in a sweat or get clammy hands or feet. We feel breathless, our heart is beating faster, we’re forever starving - and grazing - or forget to eat altogether.
But have you ever wondered why that might be? What goes on in our body when we’re stressed? Everything the body does happens for a reason, so what benefit do you get from sweaty palms when you have a lot to do?
What you are experiencing when under stress is your body’s physical stress response, and if you consider that we evolved thousands of years ago, things are beginning to make a lot more sense. You don’t have to go back in time very far, to get to a point when the stress response was extremely useful - and it still can be today.
What would have been the main stressors for people, say, just 10,000 years ago? Getting food would have been the most immediate concern they had to deal with every day. Not finding anything to eat would be a stressful situation in itself, but the hunt for food often brought on other dangers: You might have ended up getting hunted yourself, either by wild animals or people. And this is where the physical stress response comes in very useful.
When faced with a dangerous wild animal or an aggressive rivalling tribe, you have two options: You can run and hopefully get yourself to safety, or fight for your life. For either of those scenarios, the physical stress response - also known as the fight-or-flight reaction - is just the ticket. It triggers a cascade of adrenal hormones - stress hormones - that cause the following to happen:
- Energy is required, so glucose stores in the liver and muscles are released to provide it.
- The function of insulin is inhibited - it’s job is to remove sugar from the blood stream, but that's where it's needed right now.
- Breathing is accelerated to oxygenise the blood.
- The heart beats faster and blood pressure goes up to get glucose and oxygen to the muscles and - fascinating fact here - not just any muscles, but the ones you need most: Your arms if you’re fighting or climbing, your legs if you need to run! Isn’t that great?
- Peripheral vision improves and other senses are heightened, too - you’re on alert.
- Blood is withdrawn from the surface of the skin to limit bleeding in case of injury - this would make you appear pale and you might feel cold.
- Hands and feet start to sweat - this gives your hands better grip and your feet more traction.
- You won’t feel pain - pain is a signal to your brain that something is not right and needs attention, but in a fight-or-flight situation it would only be a distraction that prevents you from running for your life.
- You’re not hungry right now - but you might get really, really hungry once you see the bear toddle off in the distance, because now you need food to recover and rebuild your energy stores.
- Digestion is put on hold - you can do that later.
- Procreation is postponed - really not a priority right now.
Isn’t this amazingly perfect? Nature has thought of everything! Everything you need in a life threatening situation is there!
Yet, our stressors are different today: You don’t need extra oxygen just to sit in your car, stuck in traffic. Glucose doesn’t help you pay off your credit cards, and high blood pressure does not improve relationship issues. The stress response - though still good when we do actually get chased by a vicious dog or are set upon by a mugger - was not designed to deal with modern stress. It was meant to last minutes only, because after just a few minutes you would either be safe or dead. Our stress is relentless, always there, lasts for months, or years or forever.
Watch this space for what happens next.
If you struggle with stress and its physical manifestations, if you are suffering from stress-related illness, why not come and see my for a consultation at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.
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