The Stress Connection: Adrenal Fatigue and Digestion

stress_adrenal_exhaustionAs human beings our fight or flight stress response plays an essential role in our navigation of the world around us. Unfortunately, gone unchecked, chronic stress can burn out this response and play a major role in many imbalances found within the body. In the fast paced, busy, and modern age that we live in, most people are dealing with varying levels of stress on a daily basis. Essentially, stress is the body’s reaction to anything perceived as a threat. These perceived threats or stressors can vary from acute, isolated incidents, to daily chronic issues. As humans and the world have evolved and changed over time these stressors have also shifted dramatically.

Thousands of years ago, as hunters and gatherers, the majority of our stress came from running and fighting off predators. In todays modern world, most people are neither hunting animals or being chased by them. Instead, in today’s world, most daily stress is centred in a much more emotional place. Stress is also much more frequent now, due to the wide variety of responsibilities and challenges we face every day that spark fear, worry, and anxiety into our everyday lives. Some of the most common triggers that spark these emotions and stress include financial issues, relationship issues, and pressures from work and family. It this modern day, stressors that can easily become chronic long-term stress when experienced consistently over time.

The chronic stress that can stem from daily stressors has the ability to create an imbalanced environment in the body that, in turn, creates a very significant increase in susceptibility to illness and disease. Add to these stressors, some other very common factors such as a lack of proper sleep, a lifestyle lacking adequate exercise, and a diet consisting of poor eating habits and you have a recipe for imbalance and illness throughout the body. Adrenal fatigue, under-active stomach, and dysbiosis are some of the most common imbalances uncovered among individuals seeking professional health and wellness guidance. The main contributing factor to adrenal fatigue and digestive issues always comes down to chronic stress.


Stress and Adrenal Exhaustion

Chronic stress causes your adrenal glands, which are in charge of producing the hormones adrenalin and cortisol  to “burnout”, leading to adrenal exhaustion. Adrenalin and cortisol are very important because these hormones are needed in order for the body to adapt to stress efficiently. Symptoms of adrenal exhaustion may include depression, weight gain, sugar cravings, and hormone imbalance. 

Additionally, this burnout leaves both the nervous system and endocrine system out of balance. The entire body will feel the effects of this imbalance, because these two systems carry the tasks of maintaining efficient communication throughout all the systems of the body. When our stress response is operating efficiently, a perceived threat will activate our nervous system for a short time and then return to a balanced state once that threat has subsided. Our heart rate and blood pressure will increase and energy will be diverted to our brain and extremities in order to facilitate escape or combat the threat. Ideally this process is not meant to occur chronically or for long periods of time.

In the case of chronic stress, the stress response is being engaged repeatedly to the point of exhaustion. When this occurs our body can become unable to properly deal with any oncoming stress no matter how big or small. In addition to the above listed conditions, the other most commonly experienced symptoms of adrenal fatigue include physical and mental fatigue, inability to lose weight, decreased sex drive, insomnia, poor memory, anxiety, PMS, weakened immune response, recurrent infections, nervousness or irritability, and joint or muscle pain.

Stress and the Digestive Tract

Stress can also play a big role in how well your digestive tract functions. When we are stressed, all the vital blood and energy shifts from the digestive system to the brain, muscles and skeletal system. Essentially, digestion is downgraded significantly under stress. Over time this constant downgrading can lead to a chronically under active stomach – a scenario where the stomach is no longer producing enough hydrochloric acid or digestive enzymes needed for optimal digestion.

If you are eating or just finished eating and a stressful situation occurs, digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid production is halted and your food sits in your digestive system. This leads to the food fermenting and causing the uncomfortable byproducts of gas and bloating. It should be noted that this situation, of poor digestion, can also be created by excessive consumption of stimulants, especially while eating.  Caffeine, alcohol, and various drugs mimic the stress response in the body by engaging the nervous system in the same manner as a stressful situation does. Furthermore, the hormonal release of adrenalin and cortisol during stress can cause additional changes in the digestive system such as sudden lack of appetite, heartburn, nausea, and stomach pains.

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “You are what you eat.” There is definitely some truth to this saying but this principle should be taken one step further. Ultimately, you are not simply what you eat, you are what you absorb. With poor digestion comes the inevitable poor absorption of the nutrients. You can be consuming a completely plant based diet, full of nutrient dense foods, 24-7 – but if you are stressed out all the time, your body simply won’t be able to absorb most of the nutrients.

The stomach and the intestines are inexorably linked therefore imbalance in one leads to imbalance in the other. The larger molecules of food that are too big to be absorbed due to poor breakdown can ferment in both the stomach and the intestines and not only cause gas and bloating but contribute to dysbiosis – an imbalance in the healthy bacteria or flora that inhabit the intestinal tract. As this bad bacteria outweighs the good, our immune system can also become compromised as the majority of our immunity resides in the gut. Additionally, over the long term, stress can actually cause other chronic digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stomach ulcers, and leaky gut syndrome.


What You Can Do

Relax before you eat.

This is a very effective tool. When you sit down for a meal, instead of mindlessly cleaning your plate, first perform a little relaxation ritual to start your digestion off right. Take a few minutes and just breathe. Take slow, deep breaths and try to release any tension in your muscles and mind.

Eat slowly and enjoy your food. 

Chew your food thoroughly and focus on the nutrients and energy your meal is providing you. Try not to let yourself dwell on stressful thoughts or situations during this time. Simply enjoy your meals mindfully and allow your body to utilize the nourishment. 

Remember: Stress is not the perceived threat itself. Stress is your reaction to that perceived threat.

You are ultimately the one controlling the severity of your stress response and you are the one controlling your perspective on the world around you and what is truly worthy of stressing you out. It can be very easy to become overwhelmed when leading a busy life with challenges coming at you left and right but keep in mind that although you may not be able to control the stressful situations that emerge in your life you can control how to deal with them.