Stress is a Modern Pandemic
Few things in our modern environment have the negative impacts that stress can have on our body.
Yet stress has become the underbelly of almost all forms of chronic disease.
No matter what diet you follow, how much you exercise and what supplements you take, if you’re not managing your stress you will still be at risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity and… weight loss.
Today, there are more physiological stressors in our environment than ever before in all of human history.
Studies show normal children today report more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950's!
And as pervasive as stress is, many people don’t do anything to address its harmful effects.
Why? Because it's so much easier to make dietary changes and pop pills (whether drugs or supplements) than it is to manage our stress.
Stress management bumps us up against core patterns of belief and behavior that are difficult to change.
Let me just preface this entire article by saying:
If you’re not doing some form of regular stress management, you will sabotage all of your best efforts with diet, exercise and supplements. Stress management is absolutely crucial to optimal health and longevity.
Chronic Health Conditions & Stress
What do the top 10 selling prescription drugs all have in common?
They all are meant to treat conditions that are either caused by, or made worse due to stress (cortisol).
- Lisinopril is used to treat high blood pressure. Stress is well known for causing or contributing to high blood pressure.
- Atorvastatin is used to treat high cholesterol. Cholesterol is an anti-inflammatory molecule and known to increase during times of stress.
- Levothryoxine is used to treat thyroid conditions. The stress response system directly causes defects in thyroid hormone physiology.
- Metformin is used to control blood sugar. When people are under mental stress, they generally experience an increase in their blood glucose levels.
- Amlodipine is a calcium channel blocker used to treat high blood pressure. There are now several studies that have demonstrated the physiological impact of stress hormones and calcium channels in the body (which regulate blood pressure and the heart).
- Metoprolol is a beta-blocker used to treat high blood pressure, chest pain and heart failure. Once again, studies have consistently demonstrated the impact that stress hormones have on our cardiovascular system including heart rate, blood pressure and chest pain.
- Omeprazole is used to treat heart burn, stomach ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Stress is a well known contributor of symptoms of “heartburn”, or gastroesophageal reflux.
- Simvastatin is another medication used to treat high cholesterol. A 2013 study that looked at data for 91,593 people found a positive correlation between those who experienced job stress and unhealthful cholesterol levels. Another study, published in 2017, also found that psychological stress led to higher levels of triglycerides and low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol, and decreasing levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or “good” cholesterol.
- Losartan is a high blood pressure medication. While there's no proof that stress by itself causes long-term high blood pressure, uncontrolled bouts of stress can absolutely increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
- Albuterol is an asthma medication. Stress can induce asthma and makes the condition worse if someone already has it.
The fact is, cortisol's primary role in the body is to increase epinephrine, which then increases heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, lipids (including cholesterol), clotting factors (risk of stroke), protein breakdown (muscle loss), insulin surges, short-term memory and cognitive impairment, reductions in anabolic hormones and digestion.
That's a lot of shit that happens, when we are repeatedly exposed to shit!
Today's stress comes from money problems, relationships, work issues and demands, infections, lack of sleep, food intolerance and sensitivities and either too little or too much exercise.
Adrenal Function: High and Low Cortisol
Before diving into the adrenal glands, it needs to be mentioned that they are today's alternative medicine and Functional Medicine scapegoats.
I say this because errbody brings up “adrenal fatigue” and blames virtually everything on it.
While it's true that adrenal glands become dysfunctional (HPA Axis Dsyfunction), their role – and the term adrenal fatigue is completely misunderstood and misrepresented.
The adrenal glands are tiny triangular structures that sit on top of your kidneys. Their primary function is to to help the body respond to and survive from stressful situations.
Thousands of years ago, the adrenal glands certainly served a major purpose of helping us to get out of life threatening situations.
Today however, the chronic stressors of everyday life have the adrenal glands working overtime.
When our adrenal glands are stimulated (because of emotional or physical stress), they release a number of stress hormones including: epinephrine (adrenaline), cortisol, aldosterone, estrogen and testosterone.
For the sake of this article, we can categorize adrenal problems into one of two presentations:
- Chronically High Cortisol Production
- Chronically Low Cortisol Production
What's important to understand here is that both high and low cortisol can cause people to have a difficult time losing fat for a variety of reasons.
High Cortisol will elevate blood sugar, cause thyroid hormone imbalances, cause inflammatory responses and negatively impact the immune system (which includes food intolerance). All of these physiological changes will have a negative impact on fat loss.
Low Cortisol will often be accompanied by low blood sugar and can also include many of the same symptoms that high cortisol can cause. Remember, low cortisol is not “adrenal fatigue” where the adrenal glands have decided to just give up.
Rather, low cortisol is simply the body's way of sending signals to actually inhibit the production of cortisol and it's negative effects. In this case, it's a symptom of stress overload.
However, low cortisol is problematic because we need cortisol for a variety of activities including recovery from exercise, immune system function and sex hormone regulation.
Either way you look at it, unregulated stress will absolutely impact your fat metabolism and weight loss efforts including:
- Decreasing your body's ability to make and convert thyroid hormone, which then results in lowered metabolism.
- Decreasing your body's ability to use insulin, which results in insulin resistance (fat storage) and pre-diabetes.
- Decreasing your body's ability to use leptin, which helps to send signals to your body that you're not hungry.
- Decreasing your liver's ability to detoxify substances including hormones, which directly impacts fat metabolism.
- Increasing dysbiosis (good and bad bacteria), which leads to inflammation, nutrient malabsorption and food sensitivities.
- Suppressed immune function, which makes you susceptible to viral, bacterial and parasitic infections which all impact metabolism.
- Increases insomnia, which then leads to blood sugar dysregulation, increased appetite and a reduction in growth hormone which helps to burn fat.
What to Do About Stress and Fat Loss
The first thing to do is evaluate your symptoms.
Generally speaking… if you have difficulty sleeping, allergies, digestive disturbance, fatigue after meals, dizziness and sweet or salty cravings, you've likely got adrenal issues.
However, symptoms are rarely an effective tool for determining underlying physiological conditions alone.
All the symptoms I just listed are also symptoms that can indicate a wide variety of different conditions.
Fatigue is one example.
Fatigue is a symptom often related to adrenal gland dysfunctions, but fatigue could also be due to all sorts of other problems including nutritional deficiencies, various anemias, thyroid dysfunction, hormone imbalances, neurotransmitter dysfunctions and more.
While symptoms can be a valuable tool in self-assessment, the preferred method of evaluating your adrenal gland function would be a combination of salivary and urinary measurements.
This type of testing would involve multiple samples taken over the course of 1 or 2 days, to determine the exact output and or deficiencies of total and free cortisol production, cortisol metabolites, DHEA and DHEA-S, all of which impact weight loss and fat burning potential.
In addition, it's not enough to simply see that your stress hormones are elevated. You need to dig deeper and determine if your stress is emotional, physical or both.
With the right type of testing and someone who understands how to interpret your results, you can then get very specific on how to treat it.
If you want something different, consider working with a qualified Functional Medicine practitioner.
Want to speak to a functional medicine professional about increasing wellness?
Book a free 15-minute consultation with Dr. Daniel.