Dr. Brett Simpson ND
How Stress Manifests
Updated: Mar 11
During an initial naturopathic visit, assessing levels of stress is always one of my top priorities. This is not limited to whether or not you experience anxiousness or overwhelm throughout the day, but more so an assessment of the impact your lifestyle is having on your body. Stress, and the nervous system’s physiological response (a release of cortisol), impacts many different systems downstream. A cortisol response can be elicited by physical, emotional and mental stress alike, therefore it’s important to consider their cumulative effect. . which may be causing burden on the body and resulting in a unique collection of symptoms.
The body’s stress reaction doesn’t necessarily or always feel stressful or overwhelming. We can think of stress as a type of exertion. We exert mentally in our work environments or as we multitask our way through to-do lists. We exert emotionally as we experience fear, overwhelm, anxiety, depression, disappointment, or when we experience positive emotions such as joy and interest. Physical stress occurs with labor-intensive work, challenging workouts, as well as during bouts of acute or chronic physical pain. Physiologically, the body responds to stress in a way that allows us to adapt in the short term so that we feel alert, clear headed, and physically energized. These adaptations function to facilitate whatever action is necessary based on the brain’s perception of urgency. All of these types of exertion or stress, require more from the body and its resources. In small doses, these cortisol spikes in the body are very helpful, but over time, the response is maladaptive. As the body is not built to sustain this stress response, it eventually falls out of balance, and a range of symptoms can present themselves.
So, although we may not be feeling stressed, stress can manifest in a multitude of ways. Whether your main health concern or goal relates to immune function, hormone balance, or digestive concerns, the nervous system is involved more often than not. By supporting the nervous system, the body is often able to shift into optimized function. Here are a few ways that stress eventually affects the balance in other systems of the body:
Stress and anxiety can drain our energy and mood, and lead to a state of burn out, irritability, impatience, and loss of focus. Under stress, our mind is often busy and makes it hard to fall asleep as well as stay asleep. This leads to poor sleeps, and not feeling rested on waking. If stress is constant, and sleeps are often affected we will feel progressively more tired, and less resilient through our days.
Stress also greatly impacts our digestion. When we are in ‘fight or flight’ aka the nervous system’s sympathetic mode, our body is prioritizing brain and muscle function. Our nervous system has 2 well-known modes that govern many reactions in the body. The sympathetic mode is our stress response, and the parasympathetic mode is what allows for homeostasis; the optimal function of our internal organs, and the ability to rest and recover. The parasympathetic mode is also referred to as ‘rest and digest’. When under stress, blood is diverted away from the internal organs as it prioritizes the brain and muscles in the periphery, not digestion. It’s really hard to digest well when under stress, or simply if eating while we’re not in a relaxed state. In a relaxed state, our stomach acid is able to activate our digestive enzymes which optimizes digestion and absorption of nutrients. Without this, we can experience bloating, nutrient deficiencies, and reflux.
When the body releases cortisol in response to a stressor, it cues the body to break down it’s glycogen stores into sugars. This burst of sugars into the bloodstream functions to provide energy to tissues and organ systems, in order to adapt to the perceived threat. A blood sugar spike triggers the release of insulin, which can then transport the sugars into the tissues that need it. When appropriate, this reaction supports our ability to react in dangerous situations, but also facilitates productivity at work as well as our athletic performance, but in excess it creates problems. An excess of blood sugar carries its own risks, but the ensuing blood sugar crash is also problematic. When blood sugar crashes, we feel exhausted, and potentially physically ill. The body’s response to this crash is to stimulate the release of cortisol again, in order to release more sugars, but makes us feel more anxious in the process. The other way to quickly elevate blood sugars after a crash is to stimulate food cravings. The vicious cycle of spikes and crashes leads to a rollercoaster of emotions including high highs (anxiety, insomnia) and low lows (fatigue, depression). So we can see how stress affects energy levels, mood, sleep, and ability to maintain a healthy diet or achieve weight loss goals.
Another area to consider is the impact stress has on our hormones. Our stress response and the mobilization of cortisol is part of a larger system of hormones. The adrenal glands release cortisol, the thyroid gland releases thyroid hormone (T4), and our reproductive organs release sex hormones. They all have their own axis or feedback loops with the brain (hypothalamus and pituitary gland) and are affected by each other as well. These feedback loops allow for up- or down-regulation of our hormones acting in the body, in order to maintain homeostasis or balance. Through their connection to the hypothalamus and pituitary, these organs and hormones also affect one another. In this way we can understand how stress and the release of cortisol, can also affect thyroid function (energy and metabolism) and our sex hormones (fertility, menstrual cycles, acne, hair loss, and sexual function).
Despite all the ways that we can diminish or desensitize ourselves to our experience with stressors, it is important to be aware of the demands they impose on our bodies. Regardless of whether our response is appropriately adaptive or dysfunctional, physiological reactions take place that require energy and nutrients. Awareness around this allows us to better support our body’s through the difficult seasons, and also set appropriate boundaries around our overall health to prevent the negative downstream effects. By taking care of our nervous systems, we provide an environment for our body’s to function optimally.