+ Is Stress Making You Sick? how stress affects your health.

Is stress making you sick? I explain how stress affects your health.

Life, in our modern day world, can be stressful.  I often marvel at how ‘being stressed’ has become a marker of being successful or even almost an achievement.  In fact, many people sadly function in a constant state of stress and worry, and the health implications of this are disastrous.  I speak from personal experience here!

Feeling ‘stressed’ has become an insidious undercurrent to so many modern day diseases and disorders.  One of my key goals as a Naturopath in treating a patient holistically is to treat the underlying cause of disease.  When I was in clinical practice, one of the most common drivers of many of the health complaints I saw was ‘stress’.

How does stress make you sick?
So the aim of this post is to help you gain an understanding of one aspect of the human stress response and how it may be impacting on your health.  Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and it has an important role to play to enhance our reactions (and improve our survival) in stressful times.  In order to explain how cortisol affects your body,  I’d like you to consider our stress responses as cavemen and cavewomen.  Living in these times, your main stressors would have been three-fold – war (territory takeovers), drought and famine.  The modern human, however, experiences many more stressful events and with much more frequency.

So where the caveman produced cortisol in these (rarely) stressful occasions,  we now produce it often.  Where being ‘stressed’ becomes chronic for many people and cortisol levels remain elevated and unchecked, a number of common health problems may result.   So elevated cortisol levels or exhausted adrenal glands become a key consideration when holistically assessing any ‘chronically stressed’ person who is unwell.

To further explain…

Poor sleep and fatigue
Our cortisol levels generally drop at night time to allow us to sleep.  When they are elevated, deep sleep is not possible – this heightened awareness is a primitive response to war or threat.  Good in the short term (for a caveman needing to keep alert for any impending attack) but exhausting in our modern world where every night finds elevated cortisol levels and disrupted sleep patterns.

Weight gain
In a primitive man stressed by drought, famine and war, elevated cortisol allows the body to store fat (especially abdominal) – that is, to build a larder for tough times ahead.  It also promotes the storage of extracellular fluid (to prepare for drought), we’d refer to this as fluid retention or bloat. The older you are the worse this becomes as, in primitive times, the elderly were last in line for scarce food.  So elevated cortisol reduces your metabolic rate and acts as an antidiuretic to store fat and fluid.

Obviously, during times of war, drought and famine, having more mouths to feed was not so desirable to the cave man and woman.  So elevated cortisol also reduces both male and female fertility by reducing testosterone, progesterone, and oestrogen.  Cortisol plays havoc on the menstrual cycle, libido, ability to conceive and energy levels.  In fact, it impacts on all hormone driven disorders including PCOS, endometriosis, PMS, thyroid disorders and also makes for a symptomatic menopause.

Anxiety and depression
High levels of cortisol cause anxiety and also suppresses the hormone serotonin (good mood hormone), which can leave your spirits low.

Cardiac health
Cortisol drives up the blood pressure and blood sugar levels (leaving you with sugar cravings and a predisposition to diabetes);  combined with the before mentioned weight gain,  is a key factor in the development of cardiac disease.

Stress hormones also adversely effect all stages of digestion, weakens immune responses, accelerates ageing, joint degeneration and reduces muscle tone and bone density.

For example…
So a clinical example, a real anonymous case (but very common scenario).  A woman presents  with ‘bad menopausal symptoms’ – flushes, insomnia, weight gain, depression, fatigue, hypertension, arthritis, indigestion, and IBS.  Her history reveals chronic stress.  I do nothing but treat her adrenal glands, make some minor dietary adjustments and we discuss stress management techniques.  Four weeks later, she no longer flushes, sleeps soundly, is happy, energised and has no joint pain or digestive upset.  By simply addressing the underlying cause, she ‘feels like a new woman.’  This is one example that could apply to any number of cases I have seen over the years – from infertility to insomnia to depression, digestive disorder or any of the before mentioned disorders; by treating the individual holistically and addressing the adrenals, health can be restored.

This is by no means a complete list of all of the conditions caused or impacted by stress.  The symptoms of adrenal stress are diverse and nonspecific and effect pretty much EVERY system of the body.

If you identify with this post (or know someone who might), there are many natural ways to address adrenal imbalance (and therefore treat the before mentioned conditions).  Over the coming weeks, I will discuss solutions to support your body to heal and restore.

Treating Adrenal Stress Naturally, click here.

Does this post resonate with you?  Do you think you may have ben treating a condition which may benefit from addressing stress or you adrenal glands?  Post your comments below…

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  • Michelle

    It sure does resonate with me! Looking forward to learning more. Also, my family is just LOVING the meals i am cooking drom your website. Many thanks!

    • Thanks Michelle, I’m thrilled my recipes are a hit in your household. A good couple of weeks of easy to incorporate solutions over the coming weeks so stay tuned! G x

  • Claire

    Does it ever! My youngest son has been unwell and I have been losing sleep with worry and run ragged taking him to specialist appointments while trying to juggle part time work and running a household. I know I need to address the stress or I will be sick too. Really looking forward to this series of posts. Thanks again, Claire.

    Btw – your roasted vegetable pasta sauce is on the menu tonight and I am about to do up a batch of your meatballs for the freezer.

    • Oh Claire, you poor thing. Yes you do need to take care of yourself or you won’t be able to manage to take care of him. I hope I can offer some support and practical tips over the coming weeks, G x

  • Jessica

    I feel like I’ve been stressed forever, my job has been at risk for over 18 months and I was also planning a wedding in that time. Now we’re trying to concieve and I can’t help but worry what this stress is doing to our chances which in turn is making me more stressed. I feel constantly on edge and like I’m walking a tight rope. I’m really looking forward to the rest of these posts to see if I can find something to help…

    • You poor thing Jessica – I know that feeling and it’s not nice. My next three post are all ‘solutions’ based, including a very powerful technique from the highly regarded psychotherapist Jane Faulkner. Next week I cover dietary and lifestyle advise. I hope you find something that will resonate.
      Also know that there are so many great, experienced practitioners who will be able to help you. When I was in clinical practice, I would see cases like yours on a daily basis with consistently positive results. Take care of yourself, G x

  • heli

    stress… Im a healthy vegetarian active 44 your old woman, never get sick, exercise 2 hours a day for competitive sport, dont drink or smoke, eat oraganic whole food and have PITTING EDEMA in my legs for over 9 months. had a battery of tests and numerous supplements, powders, herbs, pills but the edema persists & is not associated with my cycle. was anemic but am no longer, kidneys fine, protein levels fine. lots of emotional stress due to relationship. could that be the cause?? How would stress cause pitting edema? so frustrating 🙁

  • I feel your frustration Heli. It is possible – stress and also intense, endurance exercise elevate cortisol levels which may induce the primitive response of fluid retention (and thus oedema). Humans are complex beings and as such, I think you would benefit from a holistic assessment from a well qualified practitioner. If stress is the underlying cause, the only way you will treat the oedema is to address your stress using targeted stress relieving treatments. I have lots of solutions over the coming weeks but you should also look at seeking some personalised care. Take care, I hope you can find someone to resolve your oedema soon, G x

    • Heli

      Thank you Georgia. Yes I have been seeing an experienced naturopath for over 6 months for treatment, no change to the oedema. Just a lot of $ on supplements and tests.
      Love your work!!x

  • Hi. If you have any exhausted mid 30 year old with 2 children and a full time job. I have a healthy diet but suffer from thyroid disfunction. I am super tired. Despite getting my 9 hours every night.
    Also what are good stress relieving foods ie decreasing cortisol? ? Really enjoying your posts.

    • Hi Melody, I will cover dietary stuff this week so hopefully something will resonate for you. I hope you are seeking medical support for your thyroid and monitoring it closely. Stress impacts massively on thyroid health, again I hope some of the upcoming tips, will help you.
      Stress management is something you need to commit too. As someone who has suffered personally from a stress induced thyroid disorder, I speak from not only professional but personal experience. I also understand the pressures of full time work and kids – but small changes can and do help (again I will talk about this in more detail soon).
      It is such a big topic, I have to break it down and sincerely hope I can help and inspire you to help yourself over the coming weeks, G x

  • Rachel

    Thanks for this. I am a single mana of 2 young kids with next to no support from their dad, family or friends. I am not even sure if this level of stress can be affected by food. I have just come down with shingles. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you ❤️

    • Hi Rachel, you have the toughest job of all, it’s no surprise you have shingles. If you have the means to access to a naturopath there are many amazing herbal medicines available to treat shingles.
      Also it is very worth cooking up a pot of bone broth which is healing for both your immune system and nervous system (and inexpensive too). Here is my recipe link http://wellnourished.com.au/bone-broth-for-the-soul/, do up a big batch and freeze it in jars. A cup a day will do you the world of good. Adding ginger, turmeric and if you can get them shitake mushrooms are the most wonderful immune boosters.
      I hope my coming posts offer some additional solutions. Even small changes and techniques I can make a profound difference to your coping mechanisms. Don’t discount small changes you might be able to make as not enough, they are. All the very best,G x

  • Tamara Protassow

    I’ll be watching for your solutions and recipes! I’ve been diagnosed with Lichen Sclerosis – autoimmune response-triggered… and it feels like I’ll have it forever, though my osteopath says I won’t, and has put me on a gut health program. Stress is definitely a factor, and I’ve probably been running on adrenal energy for ages. Looking forward to reading!

    • Hi Tamara, as someone who has suffered with and treated many, many cases of autoimmune disease – I have enormous faith that you can recovery fully. The body is an amazing, regenerative organism. It is not an easy road and requires your attention and dedication – but it’s very, very possible.
      You are right to suspect that adrenal stress is a factor; I’m yet to see a case of autoimmune disease where it isn’t. I know personally without stress management, gut and herb support, I wouldn’t have fully recovered (without any pharmaceutical support). The hard part is keeping this in mind once you are well again – an ongoing challenge for me is adding time for myself to my ‘to do’ list! All the best and I hope my upcoming posts are helpful, G x

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