Hacking Stress – Part 2 – Let’s Get Physical


So last week (or maybe two weeks ago, I tend to lose track) we talked about sleep cycles and the role they play in the scheme of stress and stressful situations. If you remember, there are 4 pillars of stress that influence the HPA-Axis, or Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis. To recap, these four stress “zones” as we could call them are:


1.     Perceived Stress – mental or emotional distress.

2.     Circadian Rhythm Disruption – Sleep deprivation, both chronic and acute

3.     Blood Sugar Regulation – Insulin sensitivity and your ability to hold your blood sugar stable with/without food

4.     Physical Stress – Internal inflammation, including chronic, low-grade


Today, we get to jump into an area that a lot of people fail to recognize as stress: Physical Stress and internal inflammation. Stress can really be thought of as anything that disturbs the homeostatic center of the body and so, in these terms, stress can technically be both positive or negative (coined eustress and distress). What most people refer to as stress however, is distress, or stress that impacts the body in a negative, and often cyclical manner. While it is important to understand each of within context, it is equally important to know that realistically, none of them occur in a vacuum and, more often than not, you will experience or struggle with multiple facets of stress during any given cycle. For example: It is nearly impossible to talk about the effects of physical stress without discussing the implications it can have on blood sugar regulation. Yet, blood sugar dysregulation is also a single arm in and of itself that can stimulate the stress response in the body. Similarly, the effect of perceived emotional stress on your body is physically stressful as chains of signaling and hormones are triggered unnecessarily and ultimately overtaxed.


So, with that in mind, let’s get physical.


You might be wondering at this point what exactly physical stress looks like. What most people think of when considering the physicality of stress is exercise. And they are right, to a degree. Exercise and workouts do provide a physically stressful stimulation to the body in order to invoke a certain response – usually a positive adaptation to either body composition or performance. However, there are several other kinds of physical stress that make their debut internally that barely get any recognition for their catastrophic capabilities. This list is not exhaustive, but several of the most common physical stressors are:


1.     Gut dysfunction – Leaky gut, bacterial overgrowths, infections, viruses and low stomach acid all come to mind.

2.     Inflammation – Starting in the gut, inflammation can attack all the organs and crevices of our body if left unchecked.

3.     Food Sensitivities – This plays into gut dysfunction, but I don’t want it to get overlooked as it directly correlated with physical stress

4.     Exercise, specifically overtraining – this can look very different for different people as each of our “set points” vary a bit.

5.     Dehydration – Each cell in our body relies on adequate intake of water and cannot regulate effectively without it.  

6.     Toxic Burdens – exposure to heavy metals, plastics, mold, carcinogens etc.…

7.     Blood Sugar dysregulation – this refers to metabolic stress and hinges on our ability to uptake and regulate insulin in our body. We won’t be talking about blood sugar regulation in this post however as it will get its own spotlight in the coming weeks.


Essentially, all of these stressors can be trailed back to one thing: Inflammation. You see, when your body encounters anything stressful, your immune system pipes in to mediate the situation. What’s great about the immune system, is that depending on the situation, it can either pump up the action or extinguish it. You can compare it to an army general, either sending in troops to attack the enemy or pulling them back once the threat has been taken care of. For instances of acute stress, this system works great. In fact, despite it’s bad name, inflammation is the body’s normal response to invaders/stressors. Ex: You get a cut. Foreign bacteria and pathogens are introduced. The body signals for help via inflammation. The immune system responds by sending out antibodies and healing compounds to repair the site. Cortisol is also triggered for its anti-inflammatory effects. Inflammation is resolved. All is well.


So, what’s the problem? When we are in a constant state of distress, like many of us are today, this system and your cells become tired and overworked. At first, high levels of cortisol in response to stressors will down-regulate the immune system keeping inflammation suppressed. This is why “stress junkies” often feel great for a while, or get a high off of being extra busy. When inflammation is at bay, your body feels superb (keep this in mind for later). However, after a while, your cell receptor sites for cortisol (like individual parking garages on your cell) become sensitive much like you see in insulin resistance. It’s not that your body quits making insulin, but rather that your cells close the garage door on cortisol and are no longer able to uptake and assimilate it. What good is insulin, or in this case cortisol, if you can’t use it? At this point, regardless of the stressors coming in, your body is not able to reap the benefits of cortisol and inflammation remains high and detrimental.


Now, with that explanation, what does this look like in an everyday situation? Let’s paint a picture of Suzie, a 34 yr. old regular working mom in America. Suzie, as explained, is 34 years old and a mother of two. She is married, lives in the suburbs, and works 5 days a week outside of the home. She is busy. Suzie feels exhausted in the mornings, but after a cup or two of coffee she feels somewhat normal, until she needs two more during her 3 pm slump to finish out the day along with the occasional donut. I mean after all; life is about balance. She also fits in approximately an hour of intense cardio exercise every week day and is training for her first half- marathon on the weekends. Suzie eats healthy according to traditional standards. She eats her whole grains, low-fat milk, oats, fresh fruit, some salads, and a little bit of chicken and fish. She stays away from nuts because those are too fattening and avoids oils, butter and red meat like the plague. She also only consumes diet soda since the dangers of too much sugar on her waistline are very, very real. Although, considering her intense exercise routine and sugar-free choices, she has noticed that lately she feels ‘softer’ and noticeably retains up to 10 lbs. in water weight every period. She also feels bloated after most meals and feels like no matter what she eats, she gets embarrassing gas and sometimes and acidic feeling in her stomach. Suzie definitely has a sweet tooth, but can easily hide it by the fact that most of her sugar is consumed in organic energy bars, fruit and alcohol. She has a nightly glass of wine to wind down, and every couple of days indulges in two, because “hey, life is hard right, how else will she stay sane?” In keeping with this philosophy, Suzie has a no-whining policy and thinks that self-care is not only a waste of time and something she can do when she retires and has nothing better to do. I mean seriously, who has time for a bubble bath with two kids, a dog, a job and a husband all consuming her every waking minute. She loves her family dearly and recognizes that she has a very comfortable life, but at night, when the family is off to bed, she quietly wonders if she can remember what it felt like to be a woman – not a mom, wife or employee – but a woman.  


Okay, now the tricky part. I want you to take a minute and all the various things you can find wrong with this situation outside of her obvious emotional stressors. Despite the fact that millions of Americans are living a life just like, or similar, to this one, you may not be able to pick them out so easily. In fact, I think I’ll let you take the evening and really process what might be going on here. Nutritional Therapy 101 – Getting into the root cause of why your body is not feeling well. Find out what’s ailing Suzie in tomorrows post and in the mean time, go take a bubble bath!