One of the things that I find fascinating is the connection between hormones, neurotransmitters, and gut health.
I could spend hours going down that rabbit hole but today let’s talk about specifically how it relates to stress.
From an evolutionary standpoint, we are well equipped to handle acute stress.
See tiger. Fight tiger or run from tiger. Or die.
Pretty straight forward.
The issue is that our physiology hasn’t changed very much but our environment has.
Today we deal with chronic stress. It’s literally EVERYWHERE.
Sitting in traffic. Hating your job. Relationship issues. Negative thoughts. Poor food quality. Lack of sleep. Blue lights. Alcohol. Drugs. Social media. News.
I could go on and on.
When you think of cortisol, you likely know it’s a stress hormone and you probably think it’s a negative.
Cortisol is what makes us fat, right?
Not really. Yes, cortisol is released to handle stress, however it has other functions as well.
Coristol’s main function is to mobilize stored energy. When you’re fighting or running from a tiger, it probably helps to have some fuel in your blood stream 😉
Your body doesn’t discriminate different forms of stress. Perceived stress will be handled the same way as real stress.
Hopefully a light bulb just went off and you just realized how important your thoughts and emotions are (of course, it always comes back to mindset!).
Anyway, cortisol is not inherently bad. Too much is a negative, just like too little is a negative.
We want cortisol to spike in the morning and trend down throughout the day and be low in the evening when it’s time for bed (melatonin should follow the inverse path).
Short spikes to handle an acute stress like training are fine, as long as it comes back down.
And therein lies the issue. A lot of people deal with chronic stress due to the nature of their environment, what they consume, their thoughts and emotions, their daily habits and choices, and the overall context of their lives.
Remember, we evolved to handle acute stress very well. Chronic stress, not so much.
When cortisol is chronically elevated, one of the many side effects of that is compromised immune function.
When you’re running from that tiger, it’s really not helpful to have resources being sent to your immune system.
Ever wonder why you always get sick during a stressful period? You probably think it’s bad luck and just another thing that went wrong in a series of negative events.
It wasn’t bad luck. Your body was functioning exactly how it’s programmed.
The hormone that is most associated with lowering cortisol is insulin. It’s true, both cortisol and insulin are blood sugar regulators.
When blood sugar is too low, cortisol will be released to elevate it. When it’s too high, insulin will be released to lower it.
If you’ve ever had someone recommend carbs after training, the reason is so you can shut off that cortisol response from your session.
Carbs also increase serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is most known as your feeling of well being.
It’s an inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms you down and puts you into parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode.
70-80% of serotonin is produced in your gut. It’s also estimated that up to 80% of your immune system is in your gut.
Ahh, the hormone-neurotransmitter-gut health interconnection! It’s truly amazing.
So let’s bring this all full circle.
As humans, we evolved to handle acute stress. Nowadays, we face more chronic stress than ever before.
Our lifestyle, habits, emotions, thoughts, relationships, nutrition, training, daily practices, etc will impact our hormonal and neurotransmitter balance, as well as our gut ecosystem and health.
Every stress output (sympathetic) ideally would be balanced with a destress (parasympathetic) input. Perfect balance is impossible but just being mindful and aware is a great place to start.
If you made it this far, congrats!! And if this interests you then we can be friends 😉