What Is Stress?
The modern environment exposes individuals to events that could result in stress. Stress is defined as the body’s natural reaction to a threat/danger. A little stress is beneficial to our well-being, as the fight or flight response is an evolutionary mechanism developed to ensure our continued survival. Excessive stress, on the other hand, may undermine the individual’s physical and mental health. Experts have established that it is the way we react to stressful conditions that determines the health impact of the event. Short term effects of stress include muscle tension, hyperventilation and an increased heart rate. In the long term, stress alters the structure of many endocrine systems, resulting in hormonal disorders such as obesity, psycho-sexual dwarfism and gonadal dysfunction.
What Kind Of Health Problems Can A Stressful Lifestyle Cause?
One of the most important hormonal disorders arising from chronic stress events is hyperthyroidism. The first official documentation of this was the 1825 Parry report on the correlation between stressful life events and Graves’ Disease. Recently, studies have shown that patients with the disease exhibit a stressful lifestyle prior to diagnosis (Salam et al, 2011). Experts assert that stress results in immunologic imbalances that affect how the immune system responds to the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) receptors by altering the transportation of hormones and neurotransmitters. Stress also leads to a defect in how the immune system monitoring the body, leading to a disruption in the synthesis of TSH receptor antibodies (Gillies et al, 1997). This results in an overall increase in the thyroid hormone, resulting in Grave’s Disease.
Emotional stress is known to affect the number of thyroid hormones through neural pathways. The thyroid gland is connected to the nervous system through the adrenergic, cholinergic and peptidergic terminals. These terminals contain the vasoactive intestinal peptides and substance P. While TSH is absent, these peptides coupled with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine can release thyroid hormones. T-lymphocytes are known to react swiftly to these neurotransmitters and the Adrenocorticotropic hormone and corticotrophin-releasing hormone, which are produced in response to biological stress (Vita, 2009). In individuals with a genetic predisposition to Graves’ disease, the release of these hormones in response to stress has been known to trigger the onset and exacerbation of the disease, mainly associated with hyperthyroidism.
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Stress and Hormones
Stressful events are also known to trigger the symptoms of hypothyroidism. It does this in two ways. The first explanation is that long-term stress events suppress thyroid function by disrupting the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, which comprises of delicate interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary glands and adrenal glands. Inflammatory cytokines released during the stress response decrease the amount of Thyroid Stimulating hormone (TSH) by down-regulating the axis. The second explanation involves the conversion of thyroid hormones T4 and T3 (Alkadhi et al, 2008). When the inflammatory cytokines are injected into healthy thyroid tissue, it showed a significant reduction of T3 and TSH levels, while levels of T4 remained fairly constant. This situation is indicative of decreased thyroid activity, resulting in hypothyroidism.
Long term anxiety have also been associated with a prevalence in cases of type 2 diabetes. Tense situations stimulate the release of two hormones; cortisol and epinephrine. In response, the liver channels more glucose into the bloodstream, to provide energy for the fight or flight response (Pitman, 1989). In normal individuals, this isn’t an issue, as most of the sugar is reabsorbed into the body after the threat is alleviated. For people predisposed to type 2 diabetes, however, the body does not produce enough insulin to help absorb the sugar. Individuals with type 2 diabetes are also more likely to experience stress and depression due to their disease. This increases blood sugar levels, and also makes treating the disease harder as the individual is prone to apathy.
Mental strain has also been associated with the ever-increasing rates of obesity. Stress leads to the activation of neuroendocrine systems, specifically those responsible for the secretion of three kinds of hormones: cortisol, serotonin and neuropeptide Y. Serotonin is a feel-good hormone, whose production is stimulated by the consumption of carbohydrates. Therefore, the sudden craving for starchy foods when one is under stress is attributed to the production of this hormone, in an attempt to self-medicate. In stressful situations, the body releases excess cortisol, which besides promoting the production of adrenaline, causes increased appetite and favors central fat deposition. Neuropeptide Y alters how food is processed in the body (Straub et al, 2005). Presence of the hormone increases the uptake of fats and sugars from digested food. The discussion of the three hormones above clearly shows a link between chronic stress and obesity.
Stress also affects the reproductive system in both men and women. In males, chronic stress lowers the production of testosterone and spermatogenesis. Both of these processes occur at the testicular region and depend on blood circulation. Cortisol produced by the adrenal gland reduces the dilation of blood vessels in the nether regions, thereby cutting off blood supply. This results in the production of unhealthy sperm (Schoenfeld et al, 2012). In women, high stress levels have been associated with absent and inconsistent menstrual cycles. Menopause could be a stressing factor in women, and the resultant anxiety could lead to reduced sexual desire.
During times of mental and emotional strain we want to protect our body and its immunities. Taking care and creating well-being nutritionally is key.
Here are some foods to focus on.
- Green Leafy Vegetables: These are a star and are highly under-utilized in everyday nutrition. They are a rich source of minerals (including iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium) and vitamins (including vitamins K, C, E and many B vitamins), many of which get severely depleted in the body during times of stress. They are also high in phyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants like beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and quercetin, which prevent disease, including cancer. Grab some spinach, kale or collards and feel the waves of stress disappearing!!
- Foods Rich in B Vitamins: B vitamins are critical in times of stress. They are important for nerve and brain health, immune system function, cell growth and repair. You can consider taking a B-complex vitamin or start eating more whole fruits, vegetables and high quality proteins like lentils, chickpeas and quinoa.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna) and nuts and seeds (such as flax seeds, pistachios, walnuts, and almonds) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce surges of stress hormones and also confer protection against heart disease, depression, and premenstrual syndrome.
- Calming Herbs: Chamomile, Sage and Lavender top my list in this category. Consider making a tea, cooking with them or purchasing the herb in an essential oil formulation and massage a drop of the oil into your temples, neck and shoulders.
These foods should be avoided.
- Caffeine and Alcohol: When you are in a state of mental and emotional strain or tension, your nervous system is out of balance and the last thing you need is to intake a lot of stimulants or depressants. This will wreak havoc on an already delicate system.
- Sugar: Sugar will cause your blood sugar to spike and then plummet very quickly, causing you to move into a yo-yo type of mood swing. Definitely something that you want to avoid when you are already feeling stressed and overwhelmed. NOTE: Sugar Toxicity is a major problem in society, so if you are craving sweets, this is a red flag to ramp up your protein intake. And another word of caution: avoid Artificial Sweeteners when possible; many are toxic while some like stevia may be okay for some individuals. However, there are a percentage of individuals with a gut microbiota that might cause blood sugar issues when regular carbohydrates are eaten after consuming artificial sweeteners.
- Trans Fatty Acids: Found in our favorite sweets, pies and deep fried goodies. They will compromise your immune system and also put more stress on your heart.
- Ranabir, Salam, and K. Reetu. “Stress and hormones.” Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism 15.1 (2011): 18.
- Pitman, Roger K. “Post-traumatic stress disorder, hormones, and memory.” Biological psychiatry 26.3 (1989): 221-223.
- Straub, Rainer H., et al. “How psychological stress via hormones and nerve fibres may exacerbate rheumatoid arthritis.” Arthritis & Rheumatism 52.1 (2005): 16-26.
- Schoenfeld, Timothy J., and Elizabeth Gould. “Stress, stress hormones, and adult neurogenesis.” Experimental neurology 233.1 (2012): 12-21.
- Buckingham, Julia C., Glenda E. Gillies, and Anne-Marie Cowell, eds. Stress, stress hormones and the immune system. John Wiley & Sons, 1997.
- Vita, Roberto, et al. “A patient with stress-related onset and exacerbations of Graves’ disease.” Nature Clinical Practice Endocrinology & Metabolism1 (2009): 55-61.
- Alzoubi, K. H., A. M. Aleisa, and K. A. Alkadhi. “Effect of chronic stress or nicotine on hypothyroidism–induced enhancement of LTD: electrophysiological and molecular studies.” Neurobiology of disease 32.1 (2008): 81-87.
- Oliver, G., Wardle, J., Gibson, & Leigh, E. (2000, November ). Stress and food choice: A laboratory study: Psychosomatic medicine. Retrieved August 15, 2016, from https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2000/11000/Stress_and_Food_Choice__A_Laboratory_Study.16.aspx
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