Stress, Diet and Lifestyle

by Rob Regan
(Sangha Leela, Costa Rica)

In another article we’ve looked at the dietary long-term effects of insulin resistance on blood sugar levels and what that does to your health over the long term.

There are similar consequences from the lifestyle perspective when one is habitually exposed to stress. In this article we'll take a brief look at how this works at the biochemical level.

The body’s response to stress comes at two levels, acute and chronic.

When you are out there digging a ditch and your blood sugar levels begin to drop, your pancreas pumps out another hormone, glucagon, to trickle out that stored glycogen and turn it into glucose, returning your blood sugar levels to normal. But, as insulin is an antagonist to glucagon, when there is insulin in the blood glucagon will not be released. So if you are insulin resistant, the normal body pathway to raising blood sugar cannot function.

This is an emergency for the body, and of course, there is a backup pathway available. Not a great one, but it works short term.

The adrenal glands get prompted to release cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol will strip protein from muscle tissue and take it to the liver for conversion to glucose. This will get you out of the immediate tight spot – the sugar low - but there is a long term price to pay.

The normal biological role of the corticosteriods, such as adrenalin and cortisol, relates to emergency stress situations, the kind where you are suddenly confronted by a charging buffalo. The ‘flight or fight’ response to this is aided by the instant availability of hot burning supercharged fuel. That fuel is glucose.

Cortisol will cause an immediate halt to any further glucose storage by making the cells instantly insulin resistant. The glucose is then available to your muscles for burning – running like crazy or climbing a tree!

Once the emergency has passed and you have lived to tell the tale, the cortisol metabolises and is washed out of your system.

That is the acute response to stress.

These days we don’t have buffalo charging around but we do have constant stress from modern life; traffic jams, financial problems, work, relationships and so on. And this is the chronic level of stress.

Consequently there are constantly circulating amounts of cortisol in the blood, leading to insulin resistance, leading to hyperinsulemia, leading to weight gain, hypertension and all the hallmarks of Syndrome X.

Cortisol, just like glucose and insulin, is toxic when it stays elevated in the system for any length of time. For example, it is known to cause cell damage and death in the hippocampus area of the brain. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the area of the brain showing destructive damage in Alzheimer’s patients. High circulating amounts of cortisol are known to be associated with depression.

In January 2003 in the British medical journal Medical Hypothesis published a paper by a Dr. Malcolm Kendrick. This fascinating paper highlighted the impact on health from eating while in stress.

The basic idea is that insulin, an anabolic hormone, is busy storing nutrients, acting under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system, which can be characterized as the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system.

The adrenocorticoids, such as adrenalin and cortisol, act under the sympathetic nervous system influence. This is the ‘fight or flight’ nervous system. The hormones released under stress are all catabolic hormones and insulin antagonists. The effect of eating under stress will thus invoke conflicting nervous system signals, resulting in highly elevated levels of all these extremely damaging elements; cortisol, insulin and glucose. The worst, as it were, of all possible worlds.

This paper from Dr. Kendrick adds a whole new dimension to the ‘French Paradox’. That is, it may well be that the low rates of cardio-vascular disease in the French population has as much to do with the lifestyle: taking one’s time to eat, and enjoying your food and the company of others in a relaxed setting, as it does with the red wine consumption.

So in terms of reducing these biochemical markers of stress, what can we do?

Well, purely from the dietary point of view, the one thing we can do is take better control of the what and how we eat.

The ‘what’ means the selection of foods that don’t spike your blood sugar levels and eventually lead to insulin resistance. This has been thoroughly covered in another article.

The ‘how’ means taking note of our lifestyle choices about avoiding, say, the ‘gobble and go’ lunchtime option. Eating quickly and under stress, virtually the norm in our culture.

Of course, we can’t all take the French traditional two-hour lunch break. But we can try to separate the eating experience from the stressful work experience, for example by taking our lunch break in the nearest park. Eat slowly, taste the food and really enjoy it and the nature around you. Allow the ‘rest and digest’ to do its job before you once again enter the ‘flight of fight’ situation.

In terms of ridding the body of those circulating corticosteroids, a brief period of intense physical activity will help. The idea of the flight and fight response is to do just that: burn off the energy rapidly by using your muscles. Then quieten down and relax, letting your system return to normal. During this brief period of time the remaining corticosteroids get flushed from the system.

In one of Eckhart Tolle’s talks he tells the story of two ducks on a pond. He observed how one duck intruded upon the territory of another, leading to a noisy territorial clash. They squawked and flew at each other until the issue was clearly resolved.

They then continued on their way as if nothing had happened, except that both, at a certain point after the encounter, vigorously shook their feathers for a bit, and then sailed on in smooth serenity.

Here we see the flight and fight response triggered, the issue causing it resolved, and then, the flushing of the remaining corticosteroids from the blood by vigorous flapping, and then calmness.

Of course, Eckhart’s point was that the difference between humans and animals is that the human mind doesn’t let go of the incident, but continuously replays it, to the tune of internal commentary of cursing and reliving of emotions. So the system does not return to calmness.

And here enters the possibility of consciousness, awareness and forgiveness in playing a large role in the reduction of stress.

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