While food can be both healing and destructive, so can our body’s ability to respond. Thankfully, nature gave humans the ability to maintain whole body balance. When we ingest food sprayed with chemicals our digestive and lymphatic systems, plus liver and kidneys, are equipped to process and excrete these harmful toxins. Every orchestrated physiologic system is brilliantly designed to maintain whole-body balance, or homeostasis.
In a balanced state, our body systems function optimally. But what happens when we’re out of balance? The nervous system provides a perfect example of how a sudden stressful event, such as running into a moose on the trail, lurches us into “fight or flight” mode by excreting hormones (namely adrenaline). Adrenaline signals the cardiovascular system to pump more blood (increasing heart rate, pulse and elevating blood pressure); our lungs expand to increase oxygen input and output; our brain and senses becomes hyper-focused; we cool off through sweating, though hands and feet may be cold; pupils dilate; metabolism increases; and glucose and fats are released to supply energy to cells.
After this initial, excitatory reaction, we shift into the next phase of stress response, activating a cascade of hormones culminating in cortisol, that help us continue to stay turned “on”, so we can continue running from the moose. Unfortunately, in daily life we tend to exist this is survival mode, known as low-grade chronic stress.
As stress heightens acute function, it also dials down other systems to save energy. Blood is diverted away from organs and body parts not needed to fight or flee: digestive function decreases; muscles tense, often causing trembling or pain; immunity, inflammation and tissue repair are inhibited; and reproduction ceases.
In short, stress affects almost every system in the body, including: nervous, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, respiratory, endocrine, endocannibinoid, gastrointestinal and reproductive systems. Chronic stress set the stage for developing disease, chipping away at the body’s otherwise balancing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, causing it’s own domino effect of seemingly unrelated symptoms and, for some, terminating in utter burnout. It’s no wonder chronic stress is related to practically every medical condition!
From a nutrition perspective, operating at even a constant low-level stress state, we are physically unable to “rest and digest”. We could be eating an incredibly diverse, high-quality, and perfectly balanced diet for our needs, and yet our digestive organs cannot break down food or absorb nutrients and, thus, cells, tissues and organs cannot access what we ingest.
Without suppressed digestive function, our cells are malnourished, and we become fatigued. We cannot support the immune system. We are constantly sick with colds, the flu and upper respiratory conditions. Inflammation increases. Diseases are exacerbated or worsened. Loss of insulin may increase risk of diabetes. Lack of nutrients and poor immunity cause our bones decalcify. Cognition turns to “brain fog”, and we become more anxious and depressed. We may even age faster.
Stressors assault us both externally and internally. Environment, toxins, socioeconomics, life circumstances and trauma compete with illness, growth, aging, inadequate sleep, and brain stress – yes, even our thoughts – to reduce function of multiple systems designed to keep us healthy.
The foundation to health is a calm, well-balanced nervous system to aid homeostasis. Working diligently to improve dietary intake and lifestyle is clearly important, yet deep healing occurs when we can also mitigate stress, and live more intentionally in a state of “rest and restore”.
Davis, M., Robbins Eschelman, E. & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook, 6th ed. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.; Oakland, CA.
Selye, H. (1974). Stress without distress. J.B. Lippencott Company: Philadelphia, PA.
Understanding the stress response: Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health. (n.d.) Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response