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Digestion and Hormones: Why they aren't so separate as we think


If you’re a woman, and you most likely are if you’re reading this, (don’t worry though fellas, this applies to you too), then you’re probably familiar with your hormones and all the chaos they create when imbalanced. Maybe this shows up for you in your monthly cycles, or maybe it’s in the persistent acne that won’t let up, or maybe you’re having a hell of a time with those hot flashes and mood swings that started around your birthday this year. No matter where you are in your life cycle, hormones can be a bitch to deal with and a headache to figure out.

However, from a nutritional therapy standpoint, there’s an easy way to comb through the web that is our hormonal system and make sense of the complexity surrounding it. We do that by coming back to the foundational aspects of good health, in particular, digestion.

 

In conventional medicine and structure, we think of the body as made up of separate systems that work independently of each other. This is a reductionist point of view that has gotten us in a lot of trouble as we continue to prescribe a “pill for the ill” and fail to recognize the wide-spread effects they have on other systems. Pharmaceutical ‘Side effects’ are the manifestation of this paradigm. If your digestive system wasn’t connected to your mineral balancing system, we wouldn’t see osteoporosis as a side effect of acid blockers. Similarly, if you’ve ever had a nervous stomach before publicly speaking or performing, you’ll understand that the gut and brain are connected as well. The body is made up of relational systems that each build upon, support and work in conjunction with one another. It is for this reason that we can address deficiencies in one and make a significant impact on another, like we are going to talk about today in relation to digestion and your hormones.

 

Coming back to foundational principles of health is essentially the process of filling in the holes letting out the most water so that we can bring the boat back to optimal function and safety. Digestion is the process by which we extract nutrients from our food. We take for granted that when we eat a food, it will go to where it needs to go and do what it needs to do. This isn’t necessarily the case. Our digestion needs to be strong in order to do this, but dietary habits, stress, inflammation and a host of other factors can impede these processes.

 

All of our hormones are made up of either proteins, fatty acids or cholesterol as their main component. So where do we get these substances? From our food! The food we feed our bodies supplies the building blocks to manufacture hormones in our body. Interesting, right? So you can see how if we are deficient in those nutrients, either because we aren’t eating them or because we aren’t digesting them, we won’t be setting up a very good foundation. It’s kind of like trying to build a house without tools - you’re probably not going to get far.

 

We’ve talked a lot about digestion in previous posts, but what are some of the ways that things can go wrong? Well, to start with, we are usually eating in a sympathetic state, or in other words, stressed. We are rushing, eating in the car, standing up or walking, hurrying back to work, etc. as we eat. Digestion, unfortunately, is a parasympathetic activity, meaning it happens we our body and brains are at rest or calm. When our brain registers stress, all energy and focus goes to getting through that stressor and moves away from stimulating digestive juices and processes. This means that nutrients are not being absorbed from our food leading back to a low supply of those building blocks. Another common dysfunction occurs when we have too little stomach acid being produced. A highly acidic environment is needed not only to chemically break down our food but to stimulate other digestive processes. Digestion is sort of like a water cascade, wherein the water supply of one pool directly affects the next process in line. Without this very specific pH as a trigger, we don’t release certain enzymes or bile that also work to break down proteins and fats. Yet another way that digestion affects hormones is through reabsorption. Hormones are meant to be excreted from the body via our elimination systems. However, if our colon is sluggish or backed up, this allows extra time in which our hormones can be reabsorbed into the body and recycled. This is when we see things like excess estrogen or testosterone. There are lots of other ways in which digestion affects our hormonal system, but hopefully you are starting to get a picture of why this fundamental process is to vital to our endocrine health.

 

So, what can we do? Well, I personally recommend that we begin to look at the ways in which we eat and start there. Simple shifts can make a big difference, and before overwhelming yourself with tons of new habits, just try taking some time to sit and enjoy your meals. Begin to thoroughly chew your food and perhaps start a sort of gratitude practice for the meal you’re about to eat. Gratitude immediately puts us into a parasympathetic, (rest and digest) mode. If you want to take it further, begin to address possible food sensitivities that are creating inflammation and introduce some gut healing nutrients and foods. Adding in a hydrochloric acid supplement can help to get that acidic stomach pH and enzymes will ensure that your food is being digested, even if your natural digestion isn’t where it needs to be yet. Lastly, addressing possible infections in the gut, such as SIBO or candida, will be necessary to improve digestion long-term. These small but easy changes can make all the difference if hormonal imbalance is something you’re dealing with and will give you something to focus on when the task seems overwhelming at best and defeating at worst. Hormonal balance is our body’s natural state of being. Our job is simply to remove the barriers and stressors creating the imbalance in order to bring back our vitality and see the world through those rosy, hormonally-balanced lenses once again.

 

Until next time…

 

Much love,

Sy

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What IS Adrenal Fatigue Anyway?



So, there’s a term that’s been floating around for a couple years in the health and wellness sphere, but it’s still not one you’re likely to see plastered on the pages of magazines or even books for that matter. The term is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and if you’re a woman who feels tired, overwhelmed and generally “off” there’s a good chance you’ve got it goin on. Before you panic, though, keep in mind that Adrenal Fatigue is NOT a disease nor is it something sufferers are plagued with for life. Rather, it’s a syndrome, which essentially means it’s a name for a bundle of symptoms that no one can quite put a finger on.

The name Adrenal Fatigue is actually a misnomer, as it implies that your adrenal glands (which sit on top of your kidneys/renals) are tired, which in fact they are not. However, I personally think it does a wonderful job of explaining just how adrenal dysfunction feels, because at the end of the day there is an intense fatigue of both the body and mind. A better, more correct, title is actually HPA-Axis dysregulation which stands for Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis and describes the chaos that occurs when those three main organs responsible for your stress response are out-of-balance, overworked and unable to cope with the demands placed upon them.

So, while I’ve talked a lot about adrenal fatigue in posts, I realized that it may not be exactly clear what I’m referring to and wanted to throw together a description to avoid confusion. Before we move on, I’m going to list out the common symptoms of Adrenal dysregulation, but please be aware that stress in the body can take on hundreds of different faces, and this list is by no means exhaustive. If you have several of these symptoms mixed with some others not on this list, I would highly suggest speaking with a practitioner about the possibility of adrenal dysfunction, hormonal imbalance or digestive problems.

 

Symptoms:

 

Feeling burned out, overly stressed or unable to unwind

Bloating after meals

A burning or gnawing feeling after meals

Excessive hunger or no appetite at all

Any and all digestive issues including heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea or constipation

Moodiness and irritability

Lightheadedness, particularly when going from sitting to standing

Harsh PMS or menopause

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar swings)

Frequent nausea

Feeling unmotivated or “lazy”

Intense fatigue

Brain fog or feeling spacy with an inability to concentrate

Joint pain, muscle aches or sensitive skin

TMJ or jaw clenching

Anxiety and depression

Cravings for sugar or salt

Feeling tired but can’t sleep – Tired and wired

Frequent colds or flus that lasts for weeks

A feeling of shaking or vibrating on the inside

Feeling abnormally cold or hot

Flushing easily, particularly during winter

Dizziness or feeling disconnected from conversations and activities

Intolerance to caffeine or alcohol

Weight loss resistance or “spare tire” despite lots of exercise

Low sex drive or inability to orgasm

 

So, what causes adrenal fatigue? Well, in a word: Stress. But I’m not just talking about emotional, or perceived, stress. I’m also referring to physical stress which is just as harmful to the body as mental stressors. Essentially, your adrenals are the organs in your body responsible for managing the stress response in your body, whether it comes from external or internal sources. Some of the main external sources of stress I see are food intolerances, over-exercising, environmental toxins, and eating a diet high in sugar. Some internal sources include negative emotional experiences, worrying or apprehension, perception of fear or anxiety and internal inflammation. When your brain registers stress of any kind, it sends a message down to the adrenals to release stress hormones, mainly cortisol and epinephrine. For purposes of this post, we’ll mostly be focusing on cortisol, but it should be noted that the effects of epinephrine take several days to exit the body and is highly stimulating. Not a state we want to be walking around in consistently.

Cortisol gets a bad rap, but it’s really very vital to our survival. Cortisol has several functions, but three of the most notable are to raise blood sugar, raise blood pressure and to work as an anti-inflammatory substance. The first two are key players when we are under stress becausestress is known as expensive. What does this mean? It means that when we are stressed (again physically OR emotionally), our body requires more nutrients than normal to function. This means that we are using up blood sugar faster, which is full of nutrients we get from our food. So, cortisol signals to the body to produce more blood sugar out of stored energy found in our muscle and liver. This is how we continue to produce energy during activities like exercise. Cool, right?

Well, yes and no. If we only triggered this response every once in a while, things would be great. Cortisol would do its job and then a negative feedback loop would turn production off body allowing us to come back to center. Unfortunately, we are being bombarded by stressors these days, particularly environmental and food stressors, and are triggering this response almost all day long. From traffic accidents to sugar donuts for breakfast and fights with our boss or spouse we are under constant attack. Chronic elevated cortisol leads to raised blood sugar and raised blood pressure – for a while. And here is where adrenal fatigue sets in…

 

Eventually, in the presence of all this sugar in the blood from cortisol doing its job, the cells become resistant because they’re packed to the brim and don’t need anymore. Basically, they push the plate away and tell us they’re full. At this point, we may have plenty of circulating cortisol, but it’s messages are not being received and we actually see blood sugar begin to decline and blood pressure as well. It’s like someone put a cement wall up between cortisol and the cells and no communication can take place. This is in the later stages of adrenal dysfunction and what contributes to symptoms of fatigue, lightheadedness, feelings of insatiable hunger or weakness and hypoglycemic episodes. Now, we have a cycle where we are stressed to the max and still pumping out cortisol but not feeling it’s effects because the cells won’t let it in. So, we continue to pump out more and more essentially “exhausting” or fatiguing the adrenal organs and the entire stress response.

 

As with any syndrome, disease or condition, these details are more nuanced then we can describe in one measly blog post. But hopefully it gives you an idea of how Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome is essentially a stress syndrome of the 21st century. Never before in history have we been bombarded by so many external and environmental stressors or been able to explore our emotions beyond survival. While this has afforded us many opportunities and growth, it’s also opened up a whole new can of worms when it comes to our tolerance levels for stress. So, what are some of the biggest ways we can make a dent in our stress cup?

 

Here are the ones I see most in practice that are really putting a burden on people’s bodies:

 

1.     Food intolerances and poor digestion. Eating something your body can’t process every single day is stressful. Period. It will be nearly impossible to clear up imbalanced cortisol without also addressing digestive function and food choices because every cell in your body is dependent upon those nutrients, so I highly suggest taking on some sort of elimination protocol or hooking up with a practitioner who can guide you through the process.

 

2.     Over-exercising and training. You remember how we mentioned that cortisol raises blood sugar and pressure? Well, it’s main job is to do this during intense activity, which also includes exercise. Assuming you have no other stressors, this would be fine. But pile it on top of everything else going on in your life and it’s a recipe for disaster. Try cutting down on intensity, duration or frequency to give your adrenals the rest they’re craving or add in some gentle exercise in place of your regular routine.

 

3.     Lack of sleep. The body repairs and detoxifies while sleeping. If we aren’t giving it the rest it needs to do these jobs, it will become congested and backed up which leads to things like recycled chemicals and hormones. This is stressful for the body as your toxic load builds up. Sleeping does more than just make us feel good and it’s important to respect the processes of repair just as much as the others. Hacking your sleep will be on the best decisions you can make for your health.

 

4.     A negative emotional outlook or self-loathing and perfectionism. Ok, so this one is really much larger than one sentence can sum up, but taking a serious approach to shifting your mindset is the most important key to clearing up adrenal fatigue. Sadly, this piece is missing in most protocols because we get so caught up in the nitty-gritty physical aspects of healing and miss out on all the juiciness that comes with the spiritual, energetic growth. Many people say that they were never able to shift out the adrenal fatigue cycle until they finally began some sort of emotional stress reducing practices.

 

5.     Not making any time for connection and fun. Bluntly put, I know this can be hard when you feel like shit. You may not feel like connected with friends and family or you may not have a whole lot of interest in activities that used to bring you joy. That’s ok. Do them anyway or find some new ones that agree with your symptoms more. Eventually, when you are feeling better, you will be amazed at the growth and strength of your relationships for having weathered the storm together. Writing in a gratitude journal can very soothing to the body as it releases feel good hormones and allows us to step outside of our mind’s chatter for a moment. Even if you only find a moment’s worth of peace, cultivating authentic, vulnerable relationships will go a long way in making the healing process easier and more enjoyable. And if you’re worried, try having a conversation and letting those around you know that you may not be fully yourself right now and could just use a little support. Most people are very willing, loving and accommodating if you give them the chance to be. Remember, they love you too.

 

 

So there you have it. A generalized look at what this thing called Adrenal Fatigue actually is and some ways to help mitigate the nasty symptoms that come with it. Again, if you are reading this blog and feel like you might be experiencing this condition, never hesitate to reach out to a practitioner or do some research. There are so many valuable resources online and some great practitioners who are aware of stress’ harmful effects on the body. It is very real and very important so don’t let anyone tell you it’s all in your head or that you just need to “try harder” to feel good. Until next time.

 

Much love,

 

Sy

 

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Stress and Digestion: The Missing Link



Do you ever feel like you’re doing all the right things, eating all the right foods and taking all the right supplements, yet still struggle daily with digestive issues like bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, indigestion or heartburn?

 

If so, you’re not alone. In fact, a survey done a few years ago in 2013 showed that a staggering 74% of Americans are affected by some sort of gastro-intestinal upset every single day. 74% you guys! That means 3 out of 4 people are walking around with symptoms right now that are not only painful and interfering, but also often embarrassing.

 

So here’s the thing. There is so much good information out there on digestive support: how to help heal stomach acid production, increase enzymes and eat foods that are healing to your body. In fact, I am constantly preaching to my clients and people I meet about quality digestive aids and tangible ways to reduce symptoms. But, the even more important part that doesn’t make headlines, and what I’m determined to make a splash about, is the connection between our brain and gut, aptly called the gut-brain axis.

 

Let me say it in a one-liner: Stress makes good digestion impossible.

Let that sink in.

 

Stress, both chronic and acute, emotional and physical, make good digestion impossible.

 

Now, that might irritate you to no end (stress reduction tends to be a bit difficult to nail down for “doers”), or it might excite you as the missing piece of the puzzle you’ve desperately been trying to figure out. Either way, today we’re going to dive into why, despite your best efforts, you’re still not getting the relief you’ve been searching for.

 

The Gut-Brain Axis.  

We’re gonna nerd out for a quick minute, so stay with me here…

The system in your body that controls all of your automatic processes, like breathing, digestion and your heart beat, is called the Autonomic Nervous System. Within this system, there are two divisions called the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic division is your “fight or flight” control board. It’s the system that gets turned on and tuned in when you’re under physical or emotional stress, essentially amping up adrenaline and other hormones and neurotransmitters so get you ready to deal with that stressor. All in all, it’s a life saving system that serves us very well in times of acute stress. Acute meaning intense but short lived. The second division is the parasympathetic, also referred to as your “rest and digest” mode. This is the system that is turned on during times of relaxation and rest. You can think of the two systems as balancing. The sympathetic system will increase blood pressure, say during exercise, and then the parasympathetic will decrease it once the exercise is over. Push/pull, yin and yang.

 

When these two systems are working optimally, all is well. But what tends to happen in our modern day culture is that we get into what is called Sympathetic Dominance, or chronic stress. When this happens, the body systems, hormones and processes triggered by the sympathetic system stay turned on too much and the systems, hormones and processes triggered by parasympathetic take a back seat. This includes digestion.

 

Digestion is a parasympathetic activity, hence the name “rest and digest.” Historically, and ancestrally, if you are running from a saber tooth tiger, the last thing your body is thinking about is digesting your lunch. It’s working instead to pump blood out of the internal organs and into the arms and legs to give you energy to run and making large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol to keep blood sugar levels, and hence energy levels, high so you feel alert.

 

Now, our bodies and brains are smart in a lot of ways, but they are also fairly simplistic in others. One of these ways includes our inability to distinguish between chronic, ruminating stressors like traffic and fights with our spouse and actual danger. We are living in a culture that is sky high in fear, negativity, power struggles and emotional warfare. You get on the freeway and your life is literally on the line every time someone swerves in and cuts you off. We eat processed junk that barely resembles food and make our bodies work ten times as hard processing it. We can’t stop thinking about how much our boss pisses us off and picture all the things we’d say if we ever got the chance. We spend so much time staying busy avoiding painful feelings that we load our schedules up with school, activities and family and friends leaving hardly any time to pee, let alone eat or breathe. We exercise because he hate our bodies and hope they’ll change not because because we love them and want to see them thrive. And here’s the crazy part: All of this is considered normal and functional by 99% of our society.

 

But here’s the thing, living in this kind of world, the kind we create in our minds where everything happens TO us and our lives are an endless to-do list, puts us in a constant state of fear, worry and stress, thereby making it impossible to enter into a parasympathetic state that is so vital to our health and wellness.

 

Some of the ways stress affects the health of our gut:

1.     Decreases the production of gastric juices like stomach acid, which is a critical trigger to every other digestive process and breaks down proteins. The whole cascade is affected by low stomach acid.

2.     Decreases gut motility, or your digestive tract’s ability to physically move your food along. This allows food to ferment and putrify leading to gas and bloating.

3.     An over-production of cortisol breaks down mucosal barriers, which are the thin line separating your stomach and gut from the rest of your body, leading to leaky gut. Leaky gut is bad news for everyone involved.

4.     Harms healthy bacteria and allows pathogenic bacteria to thrive in the changed gut conditions. Our beneficial gut bacteria make up 80% of our immune system, so you can see why we want these guys healthy and alive!

 

These are just a few linear examples of how stress directly affects digestion, but keep in mind that the body is a complex web of processes that all affect each other in different ways. The main take-a-way here though should be that even when it seems like all the other conditions for good digestion are in place, if you’re body isn’t able to access that parasympathetic state, it will become compromised in one way or another.

 

So, now, what to do?

 

Here are a few of my favorite ways to make sure I stay in a parasympathetic state most of the time.

 

1.     Do some deep breathing exercises before your meals. 5-10 deeps breaths in and out through your left nostril automatically puts you in a parasympathetic state by stimulating your vagus nerve.  If you’re not in a place where this is possible, try to chew slowly and avoid putting more food before you’ve had the chance to swallow your last bite. This methodical eating signals to your brain that everything is good and it can relax and let go.

 

2.     Pick up some sort of daily meditation or mindfulness practice. This isn’t something you do during your meals necessarily, but putting your body in a relaxed, concentrated state for specific times during the day signals to the brain that it’s ok to let go. This in turn signals to the body that it too can let go and you can see how the cycle continues. The more time you spend practicing these states of being, the easier it becomes to call upon them as needed.

 

3.     Be kind and gentle to yourself about the foods and meals you are eating. If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve had some nasty thoughts about your body at one point or another. It’s sad that so many of us have felt body shame during our lives, but we’re working to change that!  In the mean time, giving yourself permission to enjoy and love your food helps shift your mindset and recalibrate your nervous system to feel good, again, relaxing your body.

 

4.     Think of something or someone you love. Spending time every day considering all the things we love and are grateful for in our lives has a calming, relaxing effect on the body’s systems. Next time you find yourself struggling with an emotional stressor, try stepping out of it for 60 seconds and begin listing off the things for which you are grateful. At the end of the minute, you can come back to the problem at hand, but I’m betting it will look and feel very different. This allows you to come from a place of love rather than fear and goes a long way in healing the body and mind.

 

5.     Spend time with loved ones. We all have those days where we’ve made commitments with friends but now feel like backing out because we’re too tired or stressed or just don’t feel like it. But positive social connections go a long way in reducing levels of stress and anxiety. Next time you feel like canceling, I urge you to get up out of your Netflix binge and do it anyway. Your digestion will thank you. J

 

 

So there you have it. While this isn’t nearly the entire picture or every nuanced aspect of how stress and digestion are connected, it should paint a picture that is worth looking into if you haven’t quite nailed down your digestive distress yet.

 

Until next time…

Much love,

Sy

 

 

 

 

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