Within the introduction of my latest series of newsletters, I have exposed the link between high levels of stress and countless chronic health conditions, including heart disease, ulcers, diabetes, hormone imbalances, and finally autoimmune diseases. However, despite all that research is showing, “doctors and patients alike still tend to focus more on the physical causes of disease rather than the physical and mental stressors that are often impacting their health” explains Amy Meyers, MD, writer of “The Thyroid Connection”.
In truth, more and more people present every sign that stress is the primary cause of their autoimmune and other chronic diseases, and it’s not just adults! Increasingly, children are too suffering from stress-related health problems!
Many factors can cause stress to negatively impact your health. For example, stress can trigger or worsen an autoimmune disease because of its affect on your immune system (refer to immune system in this newsletter). But, chronic stress can also damage your gut, which, as you know by now is the most effective (but most fragile) barrier against the outside world, opening the door for a whole host of issues. In this article we will take a look again at how stress affects your gut, and I will share again some of my personal favourite stress relief practices, which are already listed in Part 1 (contact me if you have not received it).
How Stress Damages Your Gut
Most practitioners talk about how the gut is the gateway to health, and how a damaged gut can impact other areas of your health, including your brain, and for good reason. In many of the articles dedicated to stress, I have demonstrated the many pathways and links between damage to the gut and disease. I have also exposed a very important link: the brain and digestive system actually share a two-way connection, so not only does a healthy gut affect your mental state, but your mental state affects how your gut functions. I am going over what I have written in previous articles, which you can read again if you want much deeper information. Let’s take a closer look at how this connection works.
The Body’s Response to Stress
When you experience any kind of stress, whether physical (slamming on your brakes to prevent an accident), emotional (due to relationship or family issues), mental (overloaded at work, not feeling safe at home), or anticipatory (in advance to a stressful moment or deadline), your body processes it the same- through the adrenal glands, via the HPA axis. The adrenal glands respond by flooding blood vessels with stress hormones, first Adrenaline, then Cortisol, which affect both your digestive system and your immune system (80% of which is located in your gut). Our stress response evolved primarily as a means of self-preservation from our hunter-gatherer ancestors facing immediate, life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, that response isn’t ideal for our modern-life type of chronic, ongoing stress.
The negative impact of Chronic Stress
Being anti-inflammatory (to allow you to run from danger and not feeling any pain), the immediate action of cortisol is to rev up your immune system and is therefore highly pro-inflammatory. This makes sense if you have an open wound and need to use inflammation to fight infection and prepare for healing, it is less helpful, and somewhat harmful, if you are chronically stressed because you are working long hours or encountering great difficulties in your relationship.
“Sustaining a high level of inflammation is dangerous because it puts you on the autoimmune spectrum, and, if it continues over time, can trigger an autoimmune disease. Your body recognizes this, so it actually suppresses your immune system after a cortisol spike, leaving it anywhere from 40% – 70% below the baseline, to balance out the initial burst of inflammation” adds Amy Meyers, “When you experience acute stress, such as a bear attack or the flu, your body’s natural short-term inflammatory response is exactly what you want to temporarily boost your immune system and give you energy to run and immune cells to fight the flu. However, in today’s world, we are all experiencing more long-term and chronic stress, such as always being available on our smart devices, working long hours, and over committing ourselves. We are not shutting off and unplugging, giving our bodies a chance to rest and recover. As a result, your body continuously cycles through periods of high inflammation, which can damage the gut lining, and a suppressed immune system, which leaves your gut vulnerable to pathogens you might be ingesting.
Furthermore, when your stress response kicks in, your digestive system shuts down. If you’re running from a predator, you need blood flow concentrated in your limbs for fleeing and your brain for problem solving, not in your gut for digesting your lunch.”
The Impact on Your Health
When the digestive system is suppressed or shut down and your immune system is suppressed; you are now very vulnerable to bacteria entering your digestive system and to multiply, opening the door to confined or systemic pathogenic infections. The digestive system is temporarily unable to fight off bad bacteria by not producing enough stomach juices, good bacteria and immune cells response to combat them, which can lead to imbalances in your gut flora such as opportunistic Candida (or yeast) overgrowth.
A “shortage of good bacteria and an excess of yeast or bad bacteria” explains Amy Meyers, “can actually cause you to experience more stress because 95% of your serotonin (the “feel good” neurotransmitter that regulates mood, well-being, and sleep) is produced in the gut, and this production is slowed when you’re battling yeast overgrowth, a parasite, or other gut problems”.
Combating stress and Maintaining a Healthy Gut
Time is of the issue (as always) in today’s society: bombarded by never-ending demands on our time and the persistent feeling that we could always be doing more, be better, and it can be difficult to avoid stress. The key to keeping stress manageable and preventing it from causing negative health effects is to learn the tools to leave a stressful situation behind you once it is over.
Before I tell you how I like to de-stress, I want to be clear and reiterate that there is no one best way to relax and relieve stress. Everyone manages his or her stress differently; so do not stress yourself out over trying to follow the perfect de-stressing routine!
The important thing is to find what works for you personally, whether it is doing Yoga or Pilates, meditating, going for a run, spending time with your family and friends (the kind that makes you feel good about yourself, and help you to have fun, and laugh out loud), spending time alone or reading a book in calm, caring for a dog, working in your garden, going to church, or any other activity.
Here are a few of my favourite de-stressing tips to get you started.
Going on a Hike – Spending time in nature with your family can be both relaxing and restorative, and perfect to squeeze in more quality time with your loved ones. If a hike is not possible or the thought of it stressful enough, a long walk can help to calm you down, and your mind. Look for beauty. There are enough parks here in London, or anywhere around your area to be surrounded by nature, and enjoying a calm afternoon. Going to the Zoo or aquarium can also help you let go of the stress by being close to an exotic animal.
If you cannot really enjoy a physical activities, speed walking can help you raise your blood flow and oxygenate tissues and muscles that would not otherwise; getting things moving and assisting your cells getting rid of metabolic waste. This will also help your brain by getting oxygen and key nutrients, and in the secretion of feel-good hormones.
A picnic in the park with the family (or friends) and a few physical games can also help. The sky is the limit!
Making Homemade Bath Salts – winding down in the evening with a relaxing hot bath can be very therapeutic for some people. The best part is that you can use any fresh food or herbs to help you calm down. You can fill a muslin or cheesecloth (or even a tied up old sock) with anything that will invigorate you and soothe your body, and calm your mind. You can use sliced lemons, ginger, rose petals or rose water, dried or orange blossom water, dried lavender, sage, thyme or Rosemary (make sure that it is not staying. e.g. turmeric…). The warm water will also amplify their therapeutic properties. When added to a scoop of Epsom salt, perfect for achy and stiff muscles, the calming scent of the fresh or dried ingredients will take away the stress of your busy day.
Have and care for a pet – if you can take home a pet, you will gain a sense of responsibility and a new being to care for. This is extremely rewarding, plus a pet is always happy to see you arrive home and being fed.
Rebounding – it can be exhilarating, funny and yet become a complete workout. Go online and search for videos adapted to your energy levels. There are advanced classes, but also many for beginners. So you have someone to start and to improve. Personally, I find that using a rebounder for half an hour is as exhausting as running fats for 2 hours, but without the joint pain. Plus it is great for my mood, as often I will put up a new video and laugh out loud at the new routine, bewildered that anyone can do any of those things while jumping up and down. Rebounders can be found cheaply, but make sure to search for a stable and long-lasting piece of equipment. I usually use it 1–3 times a week, or whenever I feel low, or raining outside.
Infrared Sauna Therapy – Spending time in an infrared sauna can be very therapeutic, aiding in stress relief and detoxification. You can have at home, but many spa or gym complexes have larger ones, which are included in monthly memberships. Helping the skin getting rid of toxins can only be beneficial for your overall health.
Sensory Deprivation Floatation Session – getting into a Floatation tank (which, aims to provide a light and sound-free environment) with a shallow pool of water containing about 1,000 lbs of dissolved Epsom salt. The high concentration of Epsom salt allows you to float effortlessly, and the temperature is the same as that of your skin, so that you cannot even feel the water around you. The effect is a completely dark, quiet, and weightless flotation that reduces your cortisol levels, relieves muscle aches, and allows you to spend 60-90 minutes free from any stimulation whatsoever. This is ME-time at its best.
HeartMath Inner Balance App – It uses an external sensor on your earlobe to help you synchronise your heart rate, breath, and mind. It is easy to use, and convenient since most of us are always with their smart phone. Plus, it lets you set goals and track your progress (if loosing control is another reason for stress, the app let you be in charge and set your own goals).
Assess and Address your source of STRESS – no matter what you are trying to do to relax, if you do not remove the source of your stress, very little will be beneficial. If your job is creating a malaise that follows you when in safety of your home. If it is home that does not feel like a safe place.
What are your favourite ways to relieve stress?
Tell us in the comments below!
Registered Naturopath, Nutritional Therapist, Iridologist, Lecturer, NLP practitioner and Personal Performance Coach.