It’s fair to say for many it not the majority of us are under stress at the moment and likely more than normal. That stress is persistent and unrelenting. In part due to the unknown and how long it will last and its an external stress, a stress that is outside of us, feels like its happening to us and we have little control over it.
This stress produces a survival response we are designed to produce in short bursts but not sustain. Our hormones are the tool our bodies use to cope with stress but in switching on to use this tool it is assumed it will switch off.
What is Stress?
- A physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.
- A state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium
Hidden, Internal Stressors
Stress can be external such as the things that are happening to us examples include financial and personal relationships and the internal hidden stressors we are less aware of such as;
- digestive infections,
- food sensitivities,
- poor food choices; cake, alcohol, processed foods
- environmental toxins from personal care products, plastics and from the external environment such as EMFs from wifi and microwaves as well pet and dust allergens and household chemicals
So there are plenty of stressors round about us and within us to keep us on our toes without the current stress of COVID-19, lockdown, self isolation, social distancing and the impact on finances, business, jobs, lifestyle and family and friend relationships never mind the big one for many of us, whether now or later, we or a loved one will become infected.
At the moment we are creating a response our bodies are designed to create from the threat of death from being eaten or attacked by a tiger that shouldn’t last long, we get eaten or we run away, however its not going away, the tiger is at the door 24-7.
So when our adrenal glands (that sit on top of our kidneys) that release cortisol our number one stress hormone round our bodies to provide us with the energy to fight this tiger all other primary functions are put on the back burner. When the body is in fight or flight mode its not got time to worry about having sex, digesting or even finding food, and the immune system that is geared up to protect us from external stressors making their way in the front door to our digestive systems and become internal stressors, is now operating on the down low. Your body diverts its finite energy resources to survival protecting us from the tiger. And quite rightly so.
When the stress hormones are switched on the immune system is switched off and vice versa. Normal function would be you wake up in the morning and your stress hormones kick in to drive us to find food, they create energy within the body in the absence of food.
The Straw That Broke The Camels Back
- A simple thing like being late for work or your child spitting out their lunch or someone making a disparaging remark about your outfit on a night out and you breakdown.
- One simple stressor leads to an apparent over-reaction, you fly off the handle.
- But nobody sees the years and years of build-up.
Signs of Stress to Look Out For
- Allergies, asthma, acne, rosacea
- Blood sugar problems
- Depression, anxiety, emotional fragility
- Headaches and brain fog
- Indigestion and bloating
- Inflammation, pain
- Insomnia, wakefulness
- Low sex drive, PMS
- High blood pressure, cholesterol problems
- Fatigue, lethargy, afternoon slump
- Weight gain and weight loss
- Other chronic stress related disorders
Psychoneuroimmunology – body, brain and immune system
The area of psychoneuroimmunology has come up in my studies in the past. This is where your body stresses you out or the stress is physical and the effect of impacts the immune system. Or its mental stress and the immune system feels the heat and suffers as a result. We all have experienced working really hard in the lead up holiday time, maybe Christmas, and then as soon as you relax to enjoy that hard earned holiday, boom, you get sick. That’s psychoneuroimmunology at work.
So when a bad bug, a pathogen, comes along and the body identities it as foreign, the immune system kicks in to get rid. The symptoms of a cold are created by the immune system. Sneezing, sore throat and feeling bunged up or even a fever, are a result of the inflammatory response set up by your own immune system.
The interesting thing when we look at stress at the time becoming infected is that bodies release of cortisol is anti-inflammatory. This anti-inflammation effect is created to help minimise the effect of the immune systems, pro-inflammatory response to the bug.
However if a tiger knocks at your front door you are hopefully going to create a short term or acute elevation in stress hormones to liberate the bodies energy systems asap and deal with this threat. You will feel a raise in heart rate and likely sweating in this fight or flight mode. The additional effect of this short term stressor and high cortisol response is to shut down the immune system to prioritise escape and evade tactics. You certainly don’t have time to be grabbing tissues and blowing your nose whilst sprinting from said tiger. The tiger could also be a more realistic, shunt at the traffic lights, late to pick up a child from school or argument at work.
If however the stress is unrelenting and continuous or more commonly referred to as chronic then it has been shown that the stress response and therefore cortisol levels over time lower diminishing the suppression of the immune system.
Then as the stress leaves the immune system kicks in to deal with the bug and inflammation begins along with symptoms of a cold, fever, sneezing etc.
The problem is that in this simplified two stage example, high cortisol suppresses the immune system and you may become infected so that when the stress and cortisol lowers, the immune system kicks back in along the inflammation and you then feel sick.
At the moment there is a lot of stress from fear and panic driven by the media and being added to by state driven lockdown, self-isolation and social distancing. The need for these approaches is not relevant to this article or directly the immune system. Perceived stress is relevant. If the current world situation is perceived by your brain to be stressful you will be producing a stress response. This can be increasing the likelihood of becoming infected the very thing we are trying to avoid. Then if this stress continues we are weakening our bodies ability to fight any infection and as result the response of our immune systems in some cases can be greater. A greater inflammatory response will cause more severe symptoms.
Therefore steps to reduce stress are likely to be as effective in supporting the immune system to reduce the likelihood of becoming infected and how severe any infection may become. It totally makes sense to directly support the immune system through eating immune boosting foods and avoiding foods that challenge the immune system such as foods you are sensitive to. Supplements such as vitamins A, C and D as well as Zinc are all the more likely to be effective if you aren’t already fighting an uphill battle in the first place through your own bodies response to stress.
When I run a stress hormone test to identify amongst many other markers, actual cortisol levels, I will be looking to see the total amount the body makes in dealing with stress, how much is then free to be used day to day and what the rhythm of that free amount is across the day.
From looking at the timing of the cortisol that you do release you can see whether you need support to reduce stress or support to help produce a stress response. We can also see whether your stress response is reducing at the right time of day. If the hormone system switches on to fight stress and the immune system switches off and vice versa it can also be seen if that happens day to day at the right times of day. The timing is key as that helps identify if there is a fancy thing going on called Cortisol Dysregulation. This means even if you are producing the right amounts you maybe using at different rates at different times of the day but out of sync with your natural rhythm. This natural rhythm is called your sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm.
Cortisol whether you over or underproduce it should be higher after you wake up, to give you the natural oomph to go fight your food or run away from it and then later in the day return to your gave to chill out, recover and hide from what wants to make you its food but you can’t see it. This recovery phase of the day is when your recovery systems such as your parasympathetic branch of your nervous system, digestive, detoxification and immune systems kick in to get you ready to do it all again the next day.
When we run a simple urine hormone test we can see if that elevation doesn’t happen in the morning or if it starts to rise later in the day which is the exact opposite of what it is naturally designed to do. This isn’t natural, is stressful and is an example of Cortisol Dysregulation.
If cortisol is higher in the evening from the afternoon as oppose to lower its called a relative elevation in nighttime cortisol and is powerful clue that your digestive system has a fight on its hands and a fight its struggling with, hence the elevation cortisol. The elevation can be due to hitting the gym too hard at the end of the day, working late in bright lighters at the office and it can also be due to the presence of bad bugs in your digestive system. As I have said before up 80% of the cells of your immune system live within your digestive system. We can then see the interplay between stress and infection and the bodies response that is hormonal versus immune.
If you find that historically you are prone to infection it may be prudent to not just eat and supplement better to support the immune system but also investigate how the immune system is challenged from digestive infections such as bacteria, parasites, fungi and viruses but also the suppression of the immune system from your bodies ability to respond to stress.
Trying CBD or cannabis oil is a popular approach to lower the stress response as is avoiding caffeine. Increasing B vitamins and consuming foods high in magnesium, iron or fibre can also help. I regularly recommend herbs, medicinal mushrooms and the co-factors the body needs to make your hormones which is in itself less stressful or look at nutrients to reduce the amount released or minimise their impact. Regular exercise outside in fresh air especially to not just lower stress but at the same time support the immune system is a great idea. Mediation, funny movies and reading books or colouring in books for adults (very popular on Amazon and there are several Android/Apple apps) or whatever tricks you find helpful to switch off which might include taking yourself away from nightly news or social media that largely serves not to inform but drive anxiety and raise stress.