Ironically, as I take a seat to write about stress, the fight, flight, or freeze feels are bubbling up because it’s such a wide-reaching and important topic; it’s a bit overwhelming to tackle! However, chronic stress is a major issue in our modern times, and since April is National Stress Awareness Month, let’s take the opportunity to dive into how it robs you of vitality and what you can do to restore your life force.
What does stress look like in the body?
Our stress response is regulated by a series of organs & hormones that make up the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, commonly referred to as the HPA axis. It consists of the hypothalamus, a pea-sized gland located near the middle of the underside of your brain, the pituitary gland, which resides just below the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands that reside on top of your kidneys, hormones, & all the tissues those hormones target like muscles, immune cells, & fat cells just to name a few.
The HPA axis is the connection between your nervous system and your hormone systems meaning its function affects your levels of cortisol, sex hormone, thyroid hormone, growth hormone, and more. These hormones are responsible for so many critical functions like making you feel energized & helping you build & maintain muscle & bone mass.
Stress is the trigger that activates the HPA axis, putting us in fight or flight mode. A bit of “eustress” or healthy stress on a daily basis is beneficial for us. The surge of norepinephrine stimulated by eustress creates a sense of euphoria & well-being while also generating feelings of motivation. Simultaneously, it mobilizes energy in the body, fueling us so that we can enthusiastically carry out our lives. A “regulated” or “healthy” HPA axis responds to stress by sending signals down the line of involved organs to release hormones that elicit these feelings. Now, this part is key: within 20 minutes of the source of stress disappearing, a healthy HPA axis shuts off, & that flood of hormones is dammed back up allowing us to re-enter rest & digest.
The sad news is that many of us are living with chronically elevated stress levels that cause our HPA axes to be indefinitely stuck in fight or flight mode meaning they never shut off. This is the distinction between eustress & unhealthy, chronic stress.
In many ways, constant fight or flight isn’t our fault. Mainstream western culture praises busyness. In our modern ways of living, many of us are in constant “go-mode,” embodying a nonstop sense of urgency to show up for life’s myriad demands ranging from our work-life obligations to those that come with running a household to just doing all the things you’re interested in doing! Because busyness is the norm, it can be really hard to “unstuck yourself” from fight or flight so that your body, mind, & soul can find some peace & relief in rest & digest mode.
Constant fight or flight & dis-ease:
Anxiety, depression, consistent fatigue coupled with the inability to sleep, unwanted weight gain (especially around the midsection), low libido, irritability, difficulty focusing, & poor digestion are just a few of the most common symptoms folks with HPA axis dysfunction complain of when they seek guidance from their healthcare practitioner(s).
As a nutritionist, when I see clients with chronically heightened stress, & it’s very common, I hone in on how it affects their digestion for a few reasons. Although all of the aforementioned symptoms could be related to dysfunction outside of the gut & deserve attention, stress first & foremost inhibits your ability to digest your food & absorb nutrients. This occurs because by & large, your body exists either in fight or flight or in rest & digest.
If you’re stuck in fight or flight, then you can’t rest & digest.
Without healthy digestion, the body struggles to break down food & absorb nutrients. Over time, this malabsorption can lead to nutrient deficiencies associated with common HPA axis dysfunction symptoms, & the consequences of this are exacerbated by the fact that being in a stressed state depletes the body of many nutrients like protein & magnesium. By focusing on correcting digestion, a majority of people’s symptoms usually resolve because their bodies are able to get the nutrients they need to carry out normal functions & heal.
Before getting into how to fix the dysfunction, let’s dive deeper into how impaired digestion can cause trouble.
The gut-brain connection:
You may have heard of the gut-brain connection, & perhaps you’ve heard of the nerve responsible for connecting the two, the vagus nerve. This massive nerve is deemed “The Great Wanderer” as it’s a neural giant that originates in your brain & wanders far & wide, down into the abdomen to innervate your entire gut! It’s in charge of telling your stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, all 6 feet of your large intestine, & all 22 feet of your small intestine what to do. It’s responsible for communicating to your stomach that it should churn your food, that your pancreas needs to release its digestive juices & enzymes, & that your intestines need to contract to keep the food you eat movin’ & groovin’ at an optimal rate through your system.
Got a guess as to what the vagus nerve does when you’re in fight or flight?
The answer is, pretty much nothing.
The vagus nerve can only be active when you’re calm or in that rest & digest state. In other words, this is why when you’re stressed, you don’t digest because the vagus nerve is being inhibited from firing. When you don’t digest, a series of issues arise that ultimately lead to an inflammatory state in your gut & systemic tissues.
Let’s break that down. When stress hits, your vagus nerve shuts off, immediately affecting digestion in two ways: it can either stop all movement in the gut (constipation) or cause a huge, ongoing movement (diarrhea). Let’s start with what happens when constipation is the body’s reaction.
Going number two is your body’s main way of removing metabolic waste, making it one of your most important daily detox functions. Detox is how your body gets things that aren’t supposed to be in there out. If detoxification isn’t humming along at a fast enough rate, then the body has to activate the immune system to clean up the mess. The immune system is able to do its work by instigating an inflammatory process. Under acute circumstances, this inflammation is exactly what’s needed to clear out unwanted waste products, but when the trigger for immune activity doesn’t cease because the stress hasn’t ceased, it creates a state of ongoing, low-grade inflammation, a process that’s widely recognized as the basis for most all chronic diseases.
Additionally, constipation leads to imbalances in the microbiome. If your bowels aren’t being told to contract by the vagus nerve, then food can remain stagnant in the GI tract. Now, recall that it’s not just your digestive juices that break down your food, it’s also all your teeny tiny microbial friends that make up your microbiome & live all throughout your digestive tract helping you metabolize food too. Those microbes eat the food that you eat. It’s mutually beneficial for you & them. They’re nourished by your food, & you benefit from them helping you break foodstuffs down. In fact, the end products that are made from microbes eating our food (so really microbial poop) are essential for maintaining health!
However, too much of a good thing is a problem. Because food isn’t moving through your intestines, microbes have more time than usual to chow down, & when they’re left to feast like this, they’re able to replicate faster, allowing their populations to grow, often to the point of overgrowth.
More microbes don’t sound like a problem, right? These are your friends after all, but when you consider that there’s inflammation being triggered by the lack of detoxification via defecation, this overgrowth can really lead to trouble.
The inflammation causes issues with the integrity of your gut, which is another way of saying that your GI tract (mainly the small intestines) can become “leaky.” The cells that line your intestines are normally connected by proteins called tight junctions. Like a lineup of linked hands on a strong team in a game of Red Rover prevents members of the opposing team from breaking through, when digestion & the microbiome are healthy, tight junctions are like gorilla-gripped hands linking the cells that line your gut, keeping even the burliest of foodstuffs on the inside of your food tube from breaking through to the outside.
However, when digestion & the microbiome aren’t optimal, it’s common for these tight junctions to degrade, disconnecting the wall of cells that lines your gut. It’s like a Red Rover team just let go of each other’s hands, allowing all the members of the other team to run straight between them to the other side of their line-up.
When tight junctions break down like this, it’s termed leaky gut or intestinal permeability because without solid tight junctions, the contents of the intestines, undigested foodstuffs, microbes, enzymes, etc, are able to leak out of the gut & into parts of the body where they don’t belong. In order to clean up the leaked contents, the body has to utilize the immune system, which could lead to systemic inflammation.
Symptoms associated with a permeable gut include brain fog (difficulty concentrating, feeling like you’re in a haze, trouble with cognition & memory), joint pain, skin rashes, acne, depression, menstrual cycle disturbances, & more. These symptoms manifest as a result of a number of complications associated with leaky gut like inflammation, nutrient malabsorption, & hormone disruption.
If you’d like a deeper dive into the microbiome, check out this other post on my blog.
Don’t worry, there's tons you can do to relieve stress:
Eating changes to manage stress:
Chronic stress depletes the body of a number of nutrients. Intentionally increasing your intake of these nutrients via eating changes or supplementation during times of heightened stress can help prevent deficiencies.
Nutrients to increase during periods of heightened stress:
If you’re a meat-eater, upping your protein is easier to achieve by adding a serving or two per day to your intake. If you’re a plant-based protein consumer, consider adding a simple protein shake that contains fat, fiber, & plant-derived protein powder to help increase your consumption. Aiming for 20-50grams of additional protein/day can help offset the added demand for protein that stress puts on the body. Increase your intake in proportion to your baseline daily consumption goal.
Though nuts, dark chocolate, dark leafy greens, whole grains, & legumes are good providers of magnesium, it’s a challenge to achieve the necessary extra intake level. It’s worth considering supplementing this nutrient during stressful periods.
If you decide to take a magnesium supplement, be intentional about which form you take, & base it on your bowel patterns.
If you’re someone who tends toward constipation, magnesium citrate or oxide will help increase your magnesium intake and also help to stimulate bowel movements. Thinking back to how pooping every day helps you detox & prevent bacterial overgrowth & low-grade inflammation, getting a BM assist will help you out in that way too. If you’re someone who tends toward loose stool, then magnesium citrate & oxide will likely make food move through you too quickly, which can also lead to dysbiosis of the microbiomes & subsequent inflammation. You’ll want to seek out magnesium glycinate. Feel free to take your optimal form of magnesium liberally, supplementing the full daily value even if you’re also consuming food sources of it.
When I think of Bs, I think of foliage! Aim to eat lots of fresh, whole vegetables & fruits of all colors & high-quality sources of meat & fish during stressful times to help replenish these essential nutrients. They’ll energize you & aid in your daily detox processes.
Supplements to manage stress:
There’s a huge selection of nutrient & herbal-based products that can help combat feelings of stress. I’ve listed my go-to’s here.
Nutrient-based supplements like L-theanine, GABA, & tryptophan along with any of tryptophan’s related nutrients including 5-HTP & melatonin can help ease stress & anxiety while connecting you to a sense of calm. Most folks find that they’re able to maintain an energized calm that keeps them at ease yet alert with L-theanine & GABA & therefore prefer to take them in the morning & afternoon. Nutrients like tryptophan, 5-HTP, & melatonin are better suited to be taken in the evening as they can really chill you out. For this reason, they’re fabulous sleep aids to help turn down the stress so you can get some much-needed shuteye.
Herbs can be wonderfully supporting friends in times of high stress too. Adaptogens like
reishi mushroom, ashwagandha, & eleuthero can be helpful during the day & into the evening. Plant extracts of hops, passionflower, lavender, skullcap, & saffron can be especially helpful in the evening for helping you drop into a sleepy state. A few more uplifting herbs that can help more during the daytime are St. John’s Wort & Mucuna.
I’m also a fan of a synergistic nutrient & herbal-based, stress-relieving product called Cortisol Manager from the brand Integrative Therapeutics. It’s a long-loved supplement by naturopaths for helping folks lower stress levels so they can get to bed. This is another great one to consider taking in the evening for restorative sleep.
Bear in mind that it’s contraindicated to take most of these herbs and nutrients if you’re on antidepressant medications. In experimenting with these herbs, you may find that some work better than others because they all have different mechanisms of action & affect folks differently based on their genetics. If you’re wanting to target your herbal remedies to your bio-individual needs, it’s strongly recommended to work with a healthcare professional, and it’s something I specialize in with my holistic nutrition practice, Knapp Nutrition LLC.