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Beyond the Food - How Stress might be Scuppering your Autoimmunity

autoimmunity chronic disease digestion ibs inflammation leaky gut stress Jun 28, 2021


Gone are the days when being chased by lions and bears was a regular occurrence....sadly, in a way.

Our nervous system and our body is perfectly designed to deal with these acute episodes of stress.  These days however, apart from a near miss driving home from work, or suddenly receiving really bad news, most of us don't live with such dramatic, short term, stressful encounters.

We are instead, living with chronic stress and the body is not designed for anything starting with the word "chronic" - chronic pain, chronic fatigue, chronic illness are all signs of a system tested to near breaking point....a system designed to ebb and flow and adapt moment to moment, is subjected to repetitive patterns of wear and tear. 

The other 2 common issues I come across within the topic of stress are:

1. the taboo of admitting you are stressed - as if we should be superwoman and admitting to being stressed is somehow a massive failure, or the opposite

2. constantly telling yourself how stressed you are, on a repetitive mental loop, which only serves to attract more of the same.


So what is chronic stress?

A prolonged or intense situation from which the body and nervous system can no longer guide itself back to balance.

It can be:

  • psychological - worry, fear, pressures like finances, job security, children, loss and so on
  • infection
  • extreme exercise
  • lack of nutrients required for the body to do its job
  • toxins in the system
  • exhaustion and insomnia

to mention just a few.  Often its a combination of all of the above - the modern lifestyle was not built around the fantastically intelligent human nervous system and now, no wonder, we're all trying to figure out why we feel rubbish and why autoimmunity and other chronic illnesses are on the rise.

Chronic stress impacts everything in a negative way but today I want to focus on digestion and blood sugar.

When we are in a heightened state, due to even mild stressors, we activate a part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. Its "sympathetic" to our situation, meaning, in a spirit of trying to help it ramps the body up ready to deal with the lion or the bear.  It has no way of knowing you are running a marathon for fun, rather than your life, or that your angry boss is not a bear about to eat you.  It sets about getting the body ready in the exact same way.

Getting you ready to run or fight is primarily the task of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.  Cortisol is the key one here because it has so many other roles to play, whether you are stressed or relaxed.

In the case of stress, cortisol gets you ready in several ways:

  • it figures you are going to need a lot of energy for this potential battle to the death, so it stimulates the liver to make glucose and releases this into the bloodstream - glucose is a quick fuel for emergency situations.
  • in a normal situation (i.e. when relaxed) this elevation of blood glucose would signal the release of insulin to carry the glucose into the cells for storage; but cortisol counteracts insulin to keep blood glucose high.
  • shutting down all non-essential functions - basically it puts the body in a state of lockdown.  Functions considered non-essential for this immediate battle, are those not necessary to keep you alive in this moment, face-to-face with a bear (real or your boss in a bad mood). They include:
    • digestion
    • reproductive system - including sex drive and fertility
    • immune function - bears are more threatening than a virus in this moment, we'll deal with the virus later
    • growth
    • collagen formation (hello aging process)

As I mentioned earlier, cortisol has many other functions, not directly related to running and fighting, such as regulating blood pressure, heart health, regulating Circadian rhythms (which control ALL hormone function) and regulating the immune system.

So, for people like me who have an autoimmune disease, cortisol which is helping in the manner of Frank Spencer (google him, if you are too young to know who he is) - i.e. not actually helping at all, has 2 key issues:

  1. digestion shuts down - now we are becoming nutrient-deprived and on our way to leaky gut and intestinal bacterial overgrowth
  2. the immune system doesn't regulate, i.e switch on and off appropriately, which leads to infections you can't shake off, body-wide inflammation and an immune system attacking healthy tissues

In a healthy person with stress under control, each day they move through time spent in the sympathetic nervous system (giving us energy and get-up-and-go) and time spent in the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxing, resting, repairing).

In someone with chronic, un-managed stress, they spend most of their time wired to defend and not able to switch everything off in order to give the body time and space to come back to balance.  A few months of this and dis-ease sets it. Think of it like a window - its get grubby with dirt, you can still see out for a few weeks but without cleaning the window on a regular basis the dirt get's so thick you can't see anything.  De-stressing is like regularly cleaning the window.

Earlier, I mentioned that cortisol regulated our waking-sleeping cycle (our Circadian rhythm) which it does along with the hormone melatonin. 

In a healthy person, cortisol is at its lowest level between 10pm and 1am - literally no energy being mobilised at this time; then it rises, peaking at 7am.

So when cortisol is low, we have deep sleep, turn short term memories into long term memories and clean the brain from toxins built up during the day.  Perhaps you can see why an ideal, healthy sleep routine is to be asleep by 10pm and wake just before 7am - that's your internal clock working...well, like clockwork.


What happens when we get stressed?

There are 2 dysfunctional cortisol patterns:

1. cortisol levels go up and down as they should but they are much higher than ideal, or more commonly

2. cortisol levels are all over the place, peaking when they should be low and vice versa. 

So you wake up feeling exhausted (cortisol hasn't kicked in yet), reach for the coffee for some artificial energy to kick start your day; cortisol dips mid-afternoon and has you reaching for caffeine and sugar, for another artificial energy lift. Then just before bed, cortisol spikes giving you a second wind to catch up on email or binge watch Game of Thrones and you are wide awake until 2am....alarm dragging you back to life at 7am.

We were not designed to live this way.

In both cases, more cortisol is being released than should be and the body becomes less receptive to effect the body learns to ignore it and it spirals into problems such as muscle wastage, insulin resistance, diabetes, depression and anxiety and so on.

For those on you with autoimmune disease, guess what else can lead to cortisol resistance?  Steroid hormones used to "treat" your condition, like Prednisone.  Hmm that doesn't sound like the best approach.

Oh and were you wondering what happened to all that blood sugar that couldn't get into the cells? It leads to diabetes, another disease with exponential growth.

When cortisol finally drops down a bit, all that blood sugar gets stored as fat, primarily waistline fat, the bad stuff...more bad news.

And if you're still not convinced that getting your stress under control is VITAL for a healthy, happy and fulfilling life, cortisol is directly implicated in Leaky Gut (increased intestinal permeability) by opening up the tight junctions between the cells that line the literally anything can get into the body that should be going down the loo.

If you have an autoimmune disease its fair to say your cortisol levels are not normal, no matter how many lies your mind tells you.  Here are some signs to look out for:

  • feel stressed, anxious or depressed
  • high temper, easily irritated, easily overwhelmed
  • you handle life with a routine but when that goes, you feel as if you can't cope
  • sugar or caffeine cravings
  • hard time falling asleep or staying asleep
  • hard to wake in the morning
  • need to pee in the night
  • dull or extreme moods
  • headaches
  • pick up every cold doing the rounds and it takes forever to get rid of them
  • a growing waistline

The more of these you identify with, the more its time to take intentional time to de-stress - clean the windows.  Practices like yoga, meditation, gratitude journaling, walking in Nature, being outside, art, dancing, any mild to moderate exercise you enjoy, setting a 10pm bedtime and sticking to it, same with waking up in the morning.

Stress seems so integral to the modern lifestyle we don't see it, we can ignore it because its literally everywhere - just like fish don't see the water they are swimming in. But your body doesn't lie, listen to it and you'll find its telling you something true, which your mind wants to argue against. If you want to heal from chronic illness or at the very least feel better than you do now, its time to stop listening to the dialogue in your head and start listening to the truth of the body.

Why do we find it so hard to care for ourselves the way we care for a baby or a houseplant? I'll save that conversation for another time.


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