How Does Stress Affect Our Bodies?
Carbs. Most of us these days have a love-hate relationship with carbs, particularly since the introduction of low-carb diets like Atkins and the South Beach Diet. Many people have seen wonderful results switching from a SAD (Standard American Diet) to a low-carb approach and, arguably, many lives have probably been saved with the reduction of starchy, sugary carbohydrates like bread, pasta and pastries. Today’s post in no way, shape or form is meant to demonize low-carb diets or spread dogmatic information related to carbohydrate intake. However, as with any dietary strategy, it’s seem that we’ve taken this one a bit too far, especially as women, and I want to discuss some of the long-term ramifications that an extremely low-carb approach can have on our overall health.
Women are complex creatures. Just ask any man and he’ll most likely back this up! Sadly, most of us have come to despise the beautiful, feminine qualities that make us who we are, a.k.a. hormones. Either we spend our time trying to cover them up and push them away or we don’t give them much though at all and can’t figure out why we feel “off” or not “quite like ourselves.” Simply put, hormones are messengers. They carry signals from your endocrine glands around to various parts of your body to manage processes like hunger, menstrual cycles, stress levels, sleep, bone density, thyroid levels, sex drive and many other daily, bodily functions. In a word, hormones are VITAL to our health. But what happens when they get thrown out of balance? As you can see, hormones play a role in almost every function you can imagine, so they create quite a stir when things get thrown off kilter.
What Do Carbohydrates Have to Do with Hormones?
In order to understand why carbohydrates are important to hormone balance, it’s important to know a little bit about the stress response in the human body and you’ll also need to understand something called the “Pregnenalone Steal.” We’ve talked a lot about stress and how it effects the body. You can find more on the topic here. However, its safe to say that stress comes in both physical and emotional packages. When we refer to stress, most of us are talking about perceived stress, or emotional stress. This is the type of stress that exists in our mind when we’re feeling overwhelmed, scared, anxious, busy, angry etc. The reason we called it perceived stress is because of its relativity – what stresses me out might not bother you one bit and vice versa. Then there’s physical stress, which is the result of outside forces causing internal stress such as too much exercise, eating foods that don’t agree with our body chemistry, lack of sleep, etc. Both of these combine to make up our total stress response.
Now, the main hormone responsible for regulating our stress response is named Cortisol. Cortisol has several really interesting jobs in the body, but it’s mainly used to mobilize and gather up glucose to provide our arms, legs and heart with the energy they need to deal with a given stressor. For example: Let’s say you’re walking down a dark alley (not sure why, but just go with it) and a man in a dark hoodie comes up to you with a gun and asks for your wallet. In this instance, your body is immediately going to go into what’s called Fight-or-Flight mode, or in more technical terms, sympathetic dominance. During this time, you’re making split decisions about whether to fight him off or run away. Either way, you’re going to need a lot of extra energy and wits to get the job done, and this is what cortisol and adrenaline are responsible for. They do things like increase your heart rate and blood pressure, break down stored glucose for energy needs and increase your cognitive abilities. Cortisol is also released like this during exercise, which is why some people can get addicted to high intensity regiments. Cortisol makes us feel powerful, alert and energetic…to a certain point. You see, cortisol was never meant to exist in our systems for too long. It was made for acute, more natural, stressors like the scene described above. Similar to recreational drugs, the effects are only fun for the body and brain up to a certain point, at which they become degrading and dangerous.
So here’s the thing: The stress response will ALWAYS take precedence over every other function in the body. It was meant to get you out of dodge and save your life and dag nabit that’s what it’s going to do. Heading back to the scene above, do you imagine your body is thinking about digesting your dinner or making a baby? If you’re not sure, the answer is NO! Your body is thinking about two things – fighting or “flight-ing.” So – stay with me here and listen closely to this next part. Cortisol is released during both acute bouts of stress (the gunman) AND chronic ones. Chronic referring to: traffic on your way to work, fights with your spouse, hating the job you go to every day, eating too much sugar, eating foods you’re allergic or sensitive too, exercising too much with little recovery, worrying about money, worrying about health, worrying about your weight, worrying about anything and everything, staying up late watching TV instead of sleeping… you get the idea. Basically, most of us have created lives for ourselves that require us to put out much more than we put in and our scales are left way out of balance. During all of this, cortisol is being released leading to heighted and chronic amount circulating through our blood stream, which, funny enough, is stressful to our body.
Now, back to that strange term, “prenenalone-steal.” Your sex hormones and cortisol are made from the same building block called pregnenalone, which is made from cholesterol. In a perfect world, pregnenalone gets evenly distributed to all the different hormone pathways and all is well. However, in someone with high stress levels, there is a greater need for cortisol which means there is a higher need for pregnenalone. Your body will shuttle any and all pregnenalone to the process of making cortisol in order to keep up with those stress demands to the detriment of your other hormones. This is why we refer to it as a “steal,” because cortisol is essentially hogging all the good stuff for itself and leaving everyone else high and dry.
Tweetable (or something like that): If you’re experiencing chronic stress, and not taking any measures to reduce it, it will be impossible to balance your hormones.
So What’s the Deal with Carbs?
Now, you might be wondering at this point how your carbohydrate intake fits into this picture. We’re getting there, just had to throw in the foundations first. Carbohydrates play sort of a double role here.
In times of stress, we use up more nutrients because stress is expensive. It amps up our bodily functions and puts us in a state of high alert. This means we need more calories, more carbs, more fats and proteins and more vitamins and minerals than we usually would to keep up with the demands. This goes for physical AND emotional stress. Now, our bodies are pretty neat since they can literally turn proteins and fats into usable glucose. But, and here is the caveat, that is a slow process no matter how efficient your body is at it. Eating carbohydrates will always be the fastest way to increase blood sugar levels, thereby usable energy. When blood sugar levels drop, this is registered as a top priority stressor to your body. So – what happens? You’ve probably got it by now, but yes, cortisol gets called to action once again, further perpetuating the cycle. This is why, particularly in times of stress, eating some slow-digesting, complex carbohydrates can go a long way in putting a wrench in the nasty blood sugar/cortisol cycle we see so many women going through. Often times you’ll see someone start on a low-carb/high fat approach and it works wonders (by the way, we’re talking 10-50 grams of carbohydrates daily here) Their skin clears up, their energy shoots through the roof, the fat melts away and their periods balance out. But then, a little while later (sometimes months, sometimes years) things start to shift. Usually, we can trace it back to a stressful time period or event, and they start to feel terrible. They begin to feel bloated, tired and heavy, their cycles get irregular or go missing all together, their energy plummits and sleeping becomes erratic and unsatisfying. They can’t understand what happened or why they aren’t feeling good, so they naturally think, “I must be eating too many carbs again,” and start to restrict even more leading to greater and greater disturbances.
Often times, fixing these issues and imbalances is merely an equation of carbohydrates. Our needs to various nutrients change as the season and tides of our lives change as well. Sure, maybe high fat and 20 grams of carbs a day worked, but then you had a baby, started working out more to lose the post-pardem weight, got a full time job, lost a full time job, went back to school, had another baby, started eating more sugar because you’re tired all the time, started exercising even more to make up for it, and on and on and on… Life happens. Our job is to flexible and intuitive enough to understand this and to adjust our nutrition and exercise with the tides of our life. When our body needs a rest, give it a rest. When we are working harder than usual, give it more carbs. When you’re feeling rested, pull back a bit or up the exercise volume. Listen and flow. Usually when we get stuck, it’s because we’ve gotten stiff. Dead trees are stiff trees and they break in the wind. Trees that are full of life sway and bend when the winds of life stir. Which one would you rather be?
That’s all for today friends. If you’ve been struggling with any of the issues above or have been considering changing up your nutrition routine, you can always schedule a free discovery call here to see if Nutritional Therapy could benefit your health.