Every single day I encounter patients who are suffering from some form of stress-related illness. They have typically been feeling this way for an extended period and have realized that it is not normal to feel tired, lethargic, moody, anxious and unmotivated.
It is my role as a practitioner to find the cause of their symptoms and develop a plan to bring them the energy and vitality they rightfully deserve. Before we do this, we must identify what stress is and what forms it comes in. Stress is a word that is all encompassing and typically relates to your body being put under strain, tension or pressure. It manifests itself in both an internal and external manner.
Some examples of external stress are financial concerns, family issues, a physical injury, poor work environment and challenges presented to your outer world. Internal stressors are related to physiological issues like emotional wellbeing, thoughts, infections, blood pressure concerns, poor quality sleep, chemical imbalances, etc.
How Does Stress Affect The Body?
When your body is under actual or perceived stress, your adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys) release a variety of hormones/chemicals like adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The one we measure in our practice is cortisol and this produced in abundance initially to deal with the flight or fight scenario.
Your adrenal glands will flood your body at first to deal with an acute risk. The issue with chronic fatigue is that if your body is always under stress, your adrenal glands can no longer keep up with the constant demands and you start producing less and less cortisol until you have no more left to produce. Once this happens, many people start feeling tired and weak.
Some of the issues that can be caused by adrenal insufficiency are:
- Musculoskeletal health imbalances
- Neural tissue health (memory loss, brain fog)
- Endocrine function (thyroid, ovarian hormone levels)
- Weight and fat distribution
- Detoxification issues
- Immune system deficiencies
- Carb metabolism
- Skin irritation and/or hives
- Headaches, aches and pains
My patients routinely list these on the questionnaires they fill out before they meet with our team.
What Parts Of The Body Does Stress Affect?
When I was in school learning about functional health and lab testing, I was suffering from lower back pain, but I could not pinpoint why my lower back was sore. I didn’t hurt it in hockey, karate or even lifting improperly. I was perplexed as my lower back was very stiff with limited mobility.
It was a mentor of mine in Doctor Jill Philo who informed me that my adrenals were exhausted from taking on too much and the symptoms were presenting themselves as low back pain. This is because as we mentioned earlier, the adrenal glands are located in the lower back region, and your body is one connected source.
The spine, tissues, fascia, organs, muscles, etc. are all affected when one area is out of balance. I finally found my answer, and now I had to heal my adrenals so my lower back pain would go away. I would see this in practice over the next few years with multiple patients complaining of the same discomfort.
How to Heal
The first way to rectify this from a physiological standpoint is to find out how much cortisol, DHEA, progesterone, estrogen, testosterone, melatonin you are producing so you can balance out your hormones. There is an excellent lab called the DUTCH panel which is the gold standard for addressing any deficiencies.
Depending on the results, Ashwagandha and Rhodiola are good for lowering high cortisol and licorice root and ginseng are helpful for increasing low cortisol. Always speak to your primary care provider on your particular case. The second way is to correct any physical abnormalities. You can do this by adhering to the proper posture when sitting, getting a deep tissue massage on the lower back and supporting the connective tissue where required.
The first contributor to poor gut health starts with ill-managed and chronic stress, which manifests in increased or severely suppressed cortisol. Increased catecholamines (a type of neurotransmitter) from stress also play a role in breaking down mucosal lining, which can be found all along your digestive tract from your esophagus (esophageal mucosa) to your intestine (intestinal mucosa).
Stress also has a direct impact on the nervous system as the Central Nervous System (CNS), and Enteric Nervous System (ENS) of the gut are intrinsically linked. One component that is being studied thoroughly is that inflammation of the GI (Gastrointestinal) tract can send signals to the ENS which in turn causes mood and behavioral changes in the brain.
Your digestive tract and nervous system also run very close to one another so that is why when you feel stress, you can also be constipated or have diarrhea. I see it all the time with patients. Stress is now being looked at as a contributor to gut dysfunction like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), IBD (Irritable Bowel Disease), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and food sensitivities.
How to Heal
One way to improve your gut health is to have a balanced nutrition plan consisting of organic vegetables fruits and vegetables, quality protein and healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil, almond butter, olive oil and fatty fish. You can also add in fermented foods like kombucha and sauerkraut and quality probiotic rich foods like kefir or cultured dairy. These are helpful in healing compromised guts.
There is clear evidence that Cortisol has been shown to damage and kill cells in the hippocampus region of the brain responsible for memory. It has also been shown to cause premature aging of the brain. As discussed earlier, the gut and the brain are closely related, so the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis (HPAA) will release signals to the adrenal glands based on levels of cortisol and other chemicals in the feedback loop. The elevation or suppression of cortisol will disrupt this feedback loop and hence cause issues for the brain and body.
How to Heal
So the question then becomes how to we bring back homeostasis to the gut, brain and lower back? What I recommend to all of my patients are the following stress reduction techniques. This includes meditation, yoga, prayer, spiritual guidance and quiet time.
It is a time where you start to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and regenerate the body. It is also an important time to connect with your soul and get incongruency for what you want to achieve in life. It can be a simple walk along a river, a hike through the forest, a nice warm bath with Epsom salts (magnesium based), yoga classes, twenty minutes of alone time in a quiet room, etc.
For me, I find the magnesium calms me, and I put on some theta state music to slow my brain waves down so I can listen to the quiet voice that directs my life. It is very important for everyone to do this and especially relevant for people with children, careers, etc. This relaxing time augments the healthy nutrition plan, exercise protocol and sleep regimen I implement.