The Skinny On Stress

So what exactly is stress? If you’re like me, it’s one of those words where you generally know what it is, but the actual definition is sort of a mystery. And the word has become so common now that I wonder if people know what it really is and what it really does…and why you should care!

Put simply, stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand, good or bad. When you’re stressed by something going on around you, your body reacts by releasing chemicals into the blood. If stress is caused by a physical danger, those chemicals give you energy and strength so you can react! That’s a great thing. If stress is caused by something emotional and you don’t have some sort of “outlet” for relieving it, that isn’t so good.

Stress comes in many forms. Survival stress is the “fight or flight” response you’ve likely heard of (the “bear in the woods” motif). Environmental stress is usually caused by noise, crowds, work or family pressure. There is stress from fatigue and overwork which (unfortunately) tends to build up over time and really puts your body through a beating. And there is internal stress. This is an interesting one…do you catch yourself worrying about things you can’t do anything about, or worrying for no reason at all? That’s internal stress. That’s YOU making YOURSELF stressed.

You might be surprised to know that blood sugar issues are also one of the most common triggers for stress. Skipping meals, eating too many carbohydrates and having sugar highs and lows all cause stress in your body. Digestive problems that involve gas and bloating will cause stress, too. In the end, stress is stress and the same system in the body is used to deal with it regardless of where you turned it on. It can make you sick, tired, unable to concentrate and can sometimes result in mental and physical breakdowns.

How in the world does something as simple as stress cause all of this trouble? Good question…introducing cortisol. You’ve probably heard of it. Cortisol is a super important hormone in the body and it is secreted by the adrenal glands. It is involved in many important bodily functions including regulating your blood pressure, helping manage the release of insulin (maintaining your blood sugar), proper immune function and controlling your response to inflammation. Your cortisol levels are usually higher in the morning and lower at night.

To clarify, stress isn’t the only reason cortisol is released into the bloodstream. It has been termed “the stress hormone” because it is also secreted in higher levels during the body’s “fight or flight” response, and it is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. Small increases of cortisol can be very positive, but it’s important that the relaxation response works, too, so your body can return to normal function following a stressful event.

The trouble is, in our current high-stress culture, your body’s stress response is activated so often that it doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress. Higher and prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (caused by chronic stress) have very negative effects including poor thyroid function, higher blood pressure, lowered immunity, slower wound healing, blood sugar imbalances and increased abdominal fat (associated with a great many modern health problems). Everything I listed here is the kind of stuff we see in our practice every day.

Cortisol also shuts down the production of stomach acid. It reduces blood flow to the stomach. Things like low blood sugar and eating too much sugar, coffee or alcohol can trigger cortisol. Unfortunately, once cortisol is circulating, the damage is done and your stomach suffers. Choosing the wrong food costs you dearly with pain, nausea or gas. Many of us have come to accept that stomach problems like acid reflux or heartburn are just an unavoidable part of life. Even worse, some of us have them on a regular basis and believe that it will always be that way. This misconception comes from a lack of understanding about the root cause of stomach problems.

Believe it or not, the vast majority of stomach problems come from stress. The stress response actually shuts down the stomach. There is insufficient stomach acid and food is not digested properly which causes gas and belching. Acid is belched up into the esophagus where it burns. Heartburn is really just too much acid in the wrong place.

To be clear, the stomach doesn’t make too much acid. The stomach can get below a pH of 1, and that is some really strong acid! It’s built for that. Indigestion does not come from too much acid. However, when there is too little acid, the food doesn’t leave the stomach and it just churns and churns. The gasses are belched up and the acids follow and burn the unprotected esophagus. Anyone suffering from this issue will tell you how uncomfortable it can really be.

Heartburn is not the only manifestation of this chain of events. GERD, acid reflux and even hiatal hernias can come from stress. You might be asking yourself, “So why not take the stuff I see on TV like Prilosec or Nexium?” Well, those drugs will clear up symptoms of heartburn but they won’t make you healthier. They actually STOP acid production, and that IS a problem. Stomach acid begins digestion of minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Without stomach acid, you lose out on all those nutrients. And there is more. Without stomach acid, proteins are not digested well and putrefy in the gut causing strong smelling gas and toxins. Stomach acid turns on the pancreas which releases our digestive enzymes. Given all that, acid blocking drugs are actually very harmful.

So what do you do if you have these kinds of issues? Well, you may have heard about people taking digestive enzymes. The reason you may need to do that is because your stomach is turned off (likely due to stress). Digestive enzymes come from two places. Our saliva and pancreas put digestive enzymes into our food. In addition, many foods have enzymes that will break down the foods into useable nutrients. These enzymes are only active if the food has not been cooked. You can take supplements that include both types of enzymes. They can be used when you have weak digestion and you need time to build it back up.

Our enzyme products focus on different parts of digestion. One product helps with stomach acid and protein digestion. Another product has enzymes that break down starches and complex carbohydrates. We also have a very strong enzyme product that can destroy parasites in the gut. If you are experiencing gas, bloating, belching, heartburn or anything related to digestion, our digestive enzymes can make an enormous difference for you! And when we work with you to get to the root of the problem, you won’t need them anymore.

Don’t be fooled…a lot of people suffer with simple digestive problems for years when a few short weeks of treatment could break the cycle and repair the stomach. It only usually takes between 2 and 6 weeks to heal the stomach. And we’ll gladly work with you to identify where all that stress is coming from and give you really effective ways of handling it. If reading this article is like looking in a mirror, make an appointment with us and see what your options are. We’re here to make you feel great EVERY day…not just sometimes. :-)