May 26, 2018
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This is your body on stress: Digestion, immunity and hormones under attack

Dr. Michael Noonan
By Dr. Michael Noonan, Special to the BDN

Dr. Hans Selye studied the body’s reaction to chronic stress in the 1930s and ’40s, discovering three resulting health problems.

First, ulcers in the upper digestive tract. Second, the thymus gland, responsible for the body’s immune response, would shrink. Third, the adrenal glands would swell, showing signs of damage, as they tried to meet the body’s demands for more stress hormones. He called these changes the general adaptation syndrome, more commonly known as “fight or flight.”

When you think of a person under chronic stress, his findings make a lot of sense. Digestive problems, including ulcers, are typical. This is not because the stomach makes excess acid when it is stressed; in fact, the opposite is true. The body moves blood and other resources away from the digestive tract when you are stressed, as you always can digest later. This is why I see many patients whose heartburn returns as soon as they stop their antacid meds. The drugs are not correcting the cause of the problem, although they do ease the pain.

We all know we are more susceptible to colds and infections when we are stressed. This lines up nicely with Selye’s finding of shrunken thymus glands in stressed animals. The thymus gland is responsible for the “adaptive” type of immunity, which recognizes foreign proteins and disables them. It also eliminates any immune cells that would attack the body’s own proteins. One theory of autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body, is that chronic stress prevents the thymus from destroying these wayward immune cells. Autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis may be associated with stress.

Adrenal fatigue, also found by Selye, is behind many common hormonal problems. The hormonal system works as a unit; for example, the precursors to testosterone and estrogen actually are made by the adrenal glands before the sex glands put the finishing touches on them. The adrenal glands are part of the core axis of glands — along with the hypothalamus and pituitary, collectively known as the HPA axis — that regulate the rest of the system.

I was taught that thyroid and sex hormone problems are not usually “primary,” meaning the gland itself is not the source of the problem, but instead reacting to an imbalance elsewhere in the system. This imbalance typically stems from the HPA axis, due to its part in handling stress. HPA axis imbalance is also associated with brain function, and can cause attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity and mood disorders.

This is why at our office we rarely treat thyroid and sex hormone problems at the outset of care. It is important to restore the core hormone functions first, especially the adrenals. Often the other problems will improve or even resolve on their own once the adrenals have been restored.

Our busy, overstimulated lifestyles are a major cause of stress, and the ever-present media in our homes only adds to it. Our bodies react to violent, stressful entertainment as if it’s real. Some researchers believe that all “screen time,” whether in front of a computer, television or smartphone, tends to stimulate us, making relaxation more difficult. Even our diets are a stress, especially when we eat refined carbs; the sugar spike, followed by a crash a little later, causes our adrenals to kick in to try to stabilize it.

Of course, there are a number of lifestyle changes and natural treatments available. I’ll cover them next week.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at


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