Neuro Nutrition: Nutrition Essentials Neuro Clarity

Do you ever feel sluggish, like your mood is all over the place, or generally notice you’re out of whack? A lot of our everyday functioning traces back to how well our brain is working. Neuronutrition is the concept of nourishing ourselves with the nutrients that are going to support our brain health. 

That blob of gray matter between your ears, the brain, is actually the control center for your neurotransmitters. It controls the production of hormones, neurotransmitter communication, metabolism, and many other functions. What helps run these processes? Well, the foods we eat! Food can have a direct impact on the function of our brain. 

It is important that we eat foods that provide us with the proper precursors (inactive substances converted to active ones such as an enzyme, vitamin, or hormone) for the neurotransmitters we require. Proper brain functioning helps us to regulate our three-body systems, as well as functions such as mood, sleep, and metabolism. But what does all this mean and how do you eat for your brain health? Let’s find out.

What Are Neurotransmitters? 

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of neurotransmitters before, even if you have never actually seen this word! Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals created in our body that carry signals across brain cells or neurons. A few commonly discussed neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Achieving and maintaining the optimal balance of these brain chemicals is essential for our mental health and mood. Food is one of the most direct ways that we can help balance our levels of neurotransmitters; in turn, helping us to regulate our mood, stress, anxiety, and even sleep. 

Key Neurotransmitters and Their Function

Before diving into the important topic of neuro-nutrition, let’s set the stage with some important neurotransmitters you have probably heard of, and their main functions.

  • Serotonin – Aids in regulating sleep/wake cycles and anxiety, mood behavior, appetite, and bowel contractions.
  • Dopamine – Linked to focus, motivation, and pleasure. 
  • GABA – Helps regulate anxiety, stress levels, sleep/wake cycles, and calmness.
  • Norepinephrine – Aids in attentiveness and focus. 

Maintaining and restoring the balance between these neurotransmitters is oftentimes more important than focusing on stimulating a single pathway to produce or inhibit one neurotransmitter because these pathways are so interconnected. Here are a few examples of what different levels of these neurotransmitters can mean for our health: Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression, anxiety and sleep issues. Excess dopamine can cause cells to experience cell death, or apoptosis, too early. Norepinephrine is commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight” hormone (often called adrenaline), because it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and makes us alert to potential danger. As you can see, it is crucial to keep our neurotransmitters in balance for various facets of our health. 

Dopamine and Norephinephrine neuro nutritionFoods For Neurotransmitters 

The neurotransmitters we need are made from the same building blocks as the rest of our cells. Think proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. We get these building blocks from our food! Therefore, certain nutrient-rich foods give us an advantage when it comes to building neurotransmitters. This is especially true because our gut actually has an important link to our neurotransmitters and brain health. 

Phenylalanine is an amino acid that is the precursor, aka starting block, to proteins in our body and many of the neurotransmitters we’ve been discussing. We are unable to produce enough phenylalanine on our own, which makes it an essential amino acid that must be obtained through our diet. An essential amino acid means that it is necessary for the production of all the proteins in our body. You’ve heard of the importance of protein intake, and that is because proteins carry out such a wide range of functions in our body. There are antibodies (such as white blood cells), hormones, enzymes, structural proteins (such as collagen), transport/storage proteins (such as ferritin), receptors (such as Vitamin D receptors) and so many more.

Even if we eat “the perfect diet,” our body functions still need to be in tip-top shape for us to reap the benefits of our diet. For example, you need to be able to digest, break down, and absorb nutrients, and then have the micronutrients aka precursors to support cellular pathways.  Phenylalanine is a great example, our bodies convert phenylalanine into tyrosine which is then converted into dopamine through a series of intricate steps (hence why we need our bodies working optimally). Remember we need dopamine, it plays a role in our mood and allows us to find pleasure, focus, and joy. We also require phenylalanine to create norepinephrine, to support our nervous system’s response to stress. 

As you may have noticed, phenylalanine is crucial for maintaining our levels of neurotransmitters in check, which helps regulate so many of our body’s functions. Protein-rich foods such as lean meats, dairy, and legumes all contain phenylalanine. Let’s continue to explore why these foods are so important to include in our diet.  

Neuro Nutrition: Food Sources of Tryptophan

If you’ve ever felt sleepy after a holiday meal, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of tryptophan, another essential amino acid. Tryptophan is found in protein-rich foods such as turkey and chicken. Other good sources of tryptophan include legumes such as chickpeas, beans, and lentils, as well as nuts and seeds. Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, remember serotonin is directly tied to our sleep/wake cycles and the production of melatonin.

A high-quality protein-rich diet will supplement us with enough tryptophan to create adequate amounts of serotonin. However, a tryptophan deficiency will not only cause serotonin dysregulation but will also impact all protein functions in the body. This concept is not unique to tryptophan alone, but to all essential amino acids and nutrients, because as we’ve seen before, all of these nutrient pathways are interconnected and affect multiple body functions. If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, or sleep dysregulation, it might be beneficial to take an Organic Acids Test, which we will talk more about later. 


The Serotonin PathwayNow that we’ve established the importance of adequate protein intake for balancing our neurotransmitter levels, let’s take a look at the other nutrients and vitamins that are crucial for our brain health. 

B vitamins are crucial precursors for building dopamine, melatonin, and other important neurotransmitters. 

There are 7 different B vitamins that are important for our brain health, including vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folate), and B12 (methylcobalamin). In addition, getting adequate B vitamin intake from our food is essential for our neurological health. A deficiency of B vitamins can lead to cognitive depletion, such as sluggish thinking, impaired memory, and mood dysregulation. 

Foods that are high in B vitamins include meat, organ meats, legumes, nutritional yeast, eggs, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, dairy, fruit, nuts, and seeds. The key to getting all seven B vitamins is to include a wide variety of these foods in your diet. It is important to note that vegetarians and vegans may have an especially hard time getting enough B vitamins. It’s even more important to watch those levels if you follow a plant-monogamous diet. 

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that our bodies cannot produce, so we must get all of our Omega-3 from food. Omega-3 fatty acids are important because they help reduce and prevent inflammation in the brain and body, support cell membranes, improve immune functioning and cardiovascular health, and support our skin health. Fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, and sardines are high-quality essential sources of Omega-3. Marine algae supplements, flax seeds, and chia seeds are also adequate sources of Omega-3. To take a closer look at your omega-3 profile, an ION test might be necessary.

Organix and ION: Tests for neuro nutritionNeurotransmitter Testing: Organic Acids or ION

Organic acids are metabolites or byproducts of cellular processes going on in our bodies.  Examples of these cellular processes include energy production (think ATP and the mitochondria powerhouse of the cells), detoxification, and neurotransmitter breakdown. An Organic Acid test can give us a clue about the efficiency of these processes that are happening inside our body.

In order to get more information about your neurotransmitter levels, an Organic Acids Test can be done. This simple test involves an at-home urine collection upon waking. From there, the urine sample is sent to the lab and tested for metabolite analysis

The Organic Acid Test (OAT) measures 46 different markers of health, including a range of different metabolites of neurotransmitters excreted by our body. The levels of these metabolites are incredibly important as they can indicate levels of certain neurotransmitters, nutrient deficiency, liver detoxification capabilities, and even bacterial overgrowth. 

For more comprehensive results, an Individual Optimal Nutrition (ION) test can be done, this involves a urine sample as well as a blood draw. The ION test is similar to the OAT, but it has 125 markers. To learn more, read about ION nutritional testing here

The results of the Organic Acids Test can provide valuable clues about health issues that may be plaguing you, such as weight issues, sleep abnormalities, and mood dysregulation. An organic acids test provides personalized results that give insight on how to better adjust your diet and supplement regimen in order to support your overall health based on your individual needs. Keep in mind that although intake may be adequate, there could be other factors at play below the surface. These can show up in the Organic Acids Test, which can be used to discover the cause of such issues.

Interested in ordering an Organic Acid Test or Individual Optimal Nutrition Test? Schedule a free consultation call!

Understanding Your Urine Test For Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitter Balance

Key Neurotransmitters and their metabolites

The Organic Acid Test or ION test will provide you with a comprehensive list of your neurotransmitter metabolite, or breakdown, levels. But it’s quite an extensive list, and it can be confusing, so what do those levels mean? Let’s find out.

Indicators of Brain Stress 

Those experiencing brain stress might be experiencing depression, anxiety, and food cravings and may greatly benefit from stress management techniques, as well as calming herbs and supplements. Some common lab values can include: 

  • Low HVA (Homovanillate)Low levels of HVA can be indicative of inadequate amounts of the precursor phenylalanine or tyrosine. This can be due to inadequate protein intake or a lack of necessary vitamins required for dopamine production. Causes may include chronic stress (adrenal exhaustion), long-term antidepressant usage, inherited amino acid deficiency, many years on a vegetarian or vegan diet, or poor absorption/missing cofactors (necessary vitamins). Symptoms can include fatigue, physical exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, impulsive behaviors, loss of satisfaction, addictions, cravings, and thrill-seeking. Can be linked to Parkinsons’ and ADHD.
  • High HVA (Homovanillate) – High HVA levels suggest that turnover rates of dopamine are too high, which can be caused by excess stress, elevated cortisol, and other stimulants such as caffeine, ephedra, pseudoephedrine, and cocaine.
  • Low VMA (Vanilmandelate) – VMA is a metabolite of epinephrine and norepinephrine and when it is low, it may indicate that norepinephrine or epinephrine are not being produced at adequate levels. This can be associated with adrenal exhaustion, as well as poor protein consumption or absorption. Symptoms may include fatigue, anxiety, inability to deal with stress, sleep disturbances, and depression. 
  • High VMA (Vanilmandelate) – High VMA levels reflect higher than normal turnover and may indicate adrenal stress due to the overproduction of epinephrine or norepinephrine from the adrenals. This can be caused by both internal and external stressors and may feel like the nervous system is overactive. Other symptoms include headaches, anxiety, sleep disturbances, muscle aches, GI disturbances, and high blood pressure. 
  • Low 5-Hydroxyindoleacetate – 5-HIAA is a metabolite of serotonin and is considered to be a happy neurotransmitter. Low 5-HIAA can indicate inadequate production of serotonin. This can be caused by adrenal stress, long-term tyrosine usage, antidepressant usage, poor amino acid intake or absorption, vegan or vegetarian diets, poor absorption or missing cofactors, or inherited deficiency. Symptoms can include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, digestive imbalances, constipation, and chronic pain. 
  • High 5-Hydroxyindoleacetate – High 5-HIAA may indicate a higher than normal turnover of serotonin with potential depletion of tryptophan. This can be caused by SSRI use and excess stress.

Indicators of Brain inflammation 

Those experiencing brain inflammation may be experiencing nutrient deficiencies, GI inflammation, stress, and toxin-induced damage to brain cells. This can even be genetic in some cases.  Let’s look at some lab-based indicators too:

  • High Kynurenate – By itself, causes brain inflammation but is indicative of a B6 deficiency in the presence of high xanthurenate. Other causes of elevated kynurenate can include an inflammatory disease state and hidden stress from pathogens in the gut. 
  • High Quinolinate – This may make you feel flu-like. Could indicate an autoimmune disorder, IBS, parasite, or infection. This can be caused by excess inflammation and oxidative stress. Quinolinic acid can be neurotoxic in large quantities. 
  • High Picolinate – This can be caused by excessive protein intake and chronic inflammation.

Additionally, the organic acids test can also measure bacterial and yeast growth with 9 different markers. Bacterial and fungal overgrowth can often be found alongside many health issues. In the case of neuro-nutrition, certain types of bacterial overgrowth can prevent precursors like tyrosine and tryptophan from converting into adequate amounts of neurotransmitters. 

Markers include: 

  • D-Arabinitol – Fungal/Yeast marker 
  • D-Lactate – Bacterial marker
  • 3-4-Dihydroxyphenylpropionate – Clostridium Bacteria Marker

Make sure to fill out a detailed intake form which will be cross-compared to your nutritional test results to give you the best results. To learn more about bacterial overgrowth and how it affects our brain health, order a comprehensive stool analysis.

The Gut-Brain: Gut Hormone Connection   

Good gut hygiene is crucial to remedy neurotransmitter imbalances. After all, if we can’t digest our food properly, none of our body systems will work at their full potential. Interestingly, around half of our dopamine is also produced in the GI tract. Somewhere around 90% of our serotonin is also found in the GI tract and there is evidence that serotonin in the gut aids in peristalsis (muscle contractions that help us digest food). So there might be more to the connection between our gut and our brain than we previously thought. Because of this, it only makes sense that if we want to keep our neural health high, we must look after our gut as well. 

Some tips for keeping the gut healthy include adequate water and fiber intake to help food move. Including probiotic foods in your diet such as kimchi and yogurt can be beneficial. Limiting caffeine is also helpful in maintaining gut health. Read here to learn more about keeping your gut healthy and happy. 

Some other tips for improving our neuro-nutrition include being mindful of our eating patterns, such as meal timing and blood sugar balance, making sure to eat every 3 to 4 hours, and chewing our food well so it is easier to digest.  As you can see, tending to your gut health is an extremely important step to taking care of your neurological health. After all, the food we eat contains the building blocks for our brain cells! If you need a little push in the right direction in terms of neuro-nutrition, schedule a free consultation call with me.


The Migrating Motor Complex

Imagine… you’re sitting in class taking an exam, or waiting to be called into a job interview. You’re sitting in dead silence until… your stomach growls. Oh no, did everyone hear that? We’ve all been there! Maybe you haven’t eaten recently because you were cramming for the exam or preparing for the interview. These growling noises are actually the result of the migrating motor complex.

Most people have never heard of this before, so we wanted to dive into this topic to explain what the migrating motor complex (MMC) is, why it’s important, and how to enhance its function.

What is the Migrating Motor Complex?

the migrating motor complex is your guts housekeeper surrounded by cleaning products

The migrating motor complex (MMC) is responsible for moving material through our stomach and small intestine, cleaning house between meals or during sleep.

It is active during fasted states in order to push any undigested residues through the upper GI tract and into the large intestine to prepare a clean slate for your next meal.

This housekeeping role is essential because it reduces the chances of bacterial overgrowth. Without the complete removal of any leftover food within your system, bacteria have a chance to gorge on your meal. This can potentially lead to small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

Migrating Motor Complex Stimulation

The MMC has multiple phases with varying strengths of contractions. But what stimulates the contractions to begin with?

The first section of the small intestine, the duodenum, is responsible for regulating the gastric contractions of the migrating motor complex by producing motilin when the duodenum is devoid of food.

3d diagram showing where the duodenum is within the human body

Any nutrients present in the duodenum will suppress the release of motilin, preventing the peak contractions from occurring. This is why spacing out your meals is important – grazing throughout the day can actually halt the migrating motor complex and inhibit it from effectively clearing out your system.

The accumulation of digestive juices in the duodenum increases pressure, which stimulates the release of serotonin. Serotonin further increases the pressure, leading to even more serotonin release, which leads to more pressure, which leads to… you can probably see where this is going!

This positive feedback mechanism reveals that more gastric, pancreatic, and bile secretions are associated with higher migrating motor complex activity. These secretions also aid in cleansing the small intestine by preventing bacteria accumulation. So you can imagine that a lack of any of these secretions could lead to an ineffective MMC and bacterial overgrowth.

The MMC and the Gut-Brain Connection

The vagus nerve is responsible for stimulating the migrating motor complex and supporting normal digestion and elimination. This nerve innervates nearly all of the organs in our torso with parasympathetic (rest and digest) impulses. While sleeping, the vagus nerve is most active because this is the time we are most relaxed and in a parasympathetic, unstressed state.

So you can imagine that when the vagus nerve is inactive, under-stimulated, or damaged, that this can cause a lot of issues with many organs in the body. Stress of any kind can send your body into a fight-or-flight, sympathetic response that deactivates the vagus nerve functions.

This is a huge problem because our bodies were designed to exhibit these stress responses when we encounter threats to our lives – not for the everyday stressors that exist in modern society.

Migrating Motor Complex Disorder

Food poisoning is often a cause of migrating motor complex dysfunction. These pathogenic bacteria that enter the small intestine through the stomach can release toxins that cause damage to the vagus nerve, preventing the MMC from working effectively to sweep material – including the pathogenic bacteria – through your digestive tract. The stasis of food and bacteria in the GI tract can lead to further issues, such as diarrhea, constipation, and SIBO.

Traumatic brain injuries, whether they are as mild as hitting your head on something or as severe as a car accident or concussion, can also be a cause of migrating motor complex dysfunction. Due to the gut-brain connection, any injury to the brain could trigger glitches in the migrating motor complex.

man in gray suit and glasses graping forehead sitting at desk with half open laptop

Chronic stress is another – and possibly the most common – culprit of MMC complications. We all encounter stress in our daily lives… this could be stress from work, relationship problems, or overlapping layers of uncertainties about the future. No matter the source of stress, our bodies are automatically reacting in the same ways – in order to ensure our survival. 

In reality, these responses are maladaptive to our current lifestyles. Most of us aren’t facing a fight to the death with a lion on a daily basis, but our bodies are still responding as if we are! The stress response turns off the vagus nerve and shuts down the migrating motor complex, both of which only work when we are in a relaxed, parasympathetic state.

Most of us spend more time in a sympathetic state than our bodies were designed for, and it directly affects our digestive functions. Any issue in your digestive functioning can cause even MORE stress… and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Tips for Enhancing Migrating Motor Complex Function

1. Space out your meals

fork knife and black alarm clock on white plate on blue wood surface

Since we know that the migrating motor complex slams on the brakes the minute we eat something, it makes sense that spacing out meals would be effective in enhancing migrating motor complex function. This also means that constant snacking is often a no-go if you are experiencing issues with digestion.

Eating one nutritionally balanced meal every 3-4 hours is usually recommended to ensure that the migrating motor complex’s housekeeping roles can be completed before you become hungry again.

Fasting overnight is something most of us do without thinking about, and it’s also something that is critical for optimal digestive function. Not eating between your last meal/snack of the day and breakfast should be relatively simple, because the majority of that time you are sleeping (hopefully!).

Giving your system a 12-hour overnight break from processing foods can guarantee that the migrating motor complex has plenty of time to fulfill its housekeeping duties.

2. Support your stress response

woman in camo yoga pants sitting on dock meditating with headphones

Addressing the stress in our lives is often the first step to eliminating digestive issues. Eliminating certain stressors that you encounter frequently is always a good place to start. However, sometimes it isn’t possible to completely remove a stressor from your life. This is where stress management comes into play.

Things like yoga, mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques are useful in lowering stress hormones, like cortisol. Training your body with relaxation techniques allows you to more easily get into a parasympathetic state. 

You can also support your stress response by using adaptogenic herbs and following an adrenal supplement protocol in coordination with your functional medicine dietitian. All of these things help tone down stress responses and improve vagus nerve function, leading to better digestion. 

3. Try prokinetics

Prokinetics are supplements that stimulate the migrating motor complex by promoting movement through the digestive system. Prokinetics include supplements such as medicinal bitters, ginger, and 5-HTP. Before taking anything, you should speak with your functional medicine dietitian to figure out the right support you need.

The MMC is essential for clearing out our digestive tract of any undigested materials and bacteria, eventually resulting in their elimination from the body. This process is absolutely necessary to prevent uncomfortable symptoms like gas and bloating, and to avoid more serious problems like IBS and SIBO.

Taking the steps to improve your migrating motor complex function today will help you acquire and maintain a healthy gut and relieve you of any gastrointestinal distress.


Schedule your appointment today for personalized tips for improving your gut health!


Relaxation Techniques: The Top 4 Types

If you’re reading this, you may be feeling the effects of stress and are seeking some relief! This blog will briefly describe the way our bodies – and our gut – respond to stress, and give you some tools to improve your resilience and overall wellbeing. We will discuss the best types of relaxation techniques for stress reduction.

Humans are not well adapted to the modern world 

stressed woman juggling responsibilities

Every day, we encounter minor mental stressors that our ancestors didn’t have to deal with. They had to deal with the physical threat of fighting predators, while we have to deal with things like long work-weeks, financial worries, adapting to life during a pandemic… These things don’t compare when it comes to life and death, but unfortunately for us, our bodies react the same way to both types of situations.

Our bodies have an automatic response to stress, which our brains perceive as a psychological threat. The brain triggers a cascade of events within the body called the stress response, which way back in the day was meant to ensure our survival. Today, the stress response may be triggered multiple times over the course of the day, keeping our cortisol levels high and leaving us in a maladaptive, sympathetic nervous system state.

The stress that so many of us feel on a daily basis can actually be both physically and mentally harmful. Stress has a HUGE impact on digestion and gut health, and luckily for us, there are steps we can take in order to take back control over our gut health in the midst of a stressful life.

The relaxation techniques listed below can be practiced regularly to give you better control over your reactions to stress. But first, let’s discuss the impact stress has on your gut health.

How does stress impact the gut?

For digestion to function normally, we must be in a relaxed, unstressed state where the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is in control. Whenever we experience stress, the automatic stress response activates the opposing branch of the autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic branch.

The sympathetic branch inhibits digestive functions, because they are not essential for immediate survival. This can lead to many digestive problems, especially when stress becomes a recurrent aspect of your daily life – when stress becomes chronic.

So what impact does stress have on the gut? Some symptoms (that you may be quite familiar with) that are commonly experienced due to stress can include diarrhea, constipation, nausea, indigestion, abdominal pain, and heartburn.

man in black and white grabbing stomach highlighted in red

Enough bad news… let’s get to the good news! Reducing the stress in our lives is not only possible; it is relatively simple to do. Here are some stress reduction and relaxation techniques that you can add to your daily life today!

Relaxation Technique #1: Vagus Nerve Exercises

The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system – the branch that dominates only when we’re relaxed. This branch is nicknamed the “rest and digest” branch because digestive processes can only function under a relaxed, parasympathetic state.

Your vagus nerve is connected to every organ in your torso except the adrenal glands, which pump out the stress hormones when you are stressed.

The vagus nerve has many impacts on digestive health, and stimulating this nerve is important for improving resilience in the face of stress. So how do we stimulate this nerve to make it function better?

The vagus nerve runs through the muscles in the back of your throat. Vibrations on these muscles can activate the nerve, which over time can help you bounce back from stress more easily.

Here are a couple simple things you can do to stimulate the nerve and improve your vagal tone:

  1. Gargle warm salt water (until your eyes start watering!)
  2. Sing at the top of your lungs! Or hum loudly.
  3. Use cold water for 1 minute at the end of your showers
woman gargling water in her bathroom

Luckily, practicing vagus nerve stimulation at home can be so simple! Both of these techniques are easy to do and can be added to your daily regimen immediately, so why not try them out today?

Relaxation Technique #2: Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves simply being present in the moment and paying attention to any bodily sensations. We are predisposed to have our minds wander since we are constantly stimulated in our daily lives. Mindfulness techniques center you to notice your current physical and mental state without judgment. The continued practice of bringing attention to the present moment and how you are connecting with your surroundings is clinically shown to reduce stress and negative mental states.

woman meditating at her desk in front of her laptop

A common mindfulness method is to complete a body scan. To do this, you can be lying down, sitting, or standing. Just close your eyes, breathe slowly, and focus on how your body feels starting from your feet upward, or from your head downward. Focus on how your clothes feel on your body, how certain body parts feel touching each other, and any pressure felt from the ground or the chair. Doing this even just a couple times can help reduce stress and induce a feeling of peace.

Relaxation Technique #3: Yoga Nidra

Yoga nidra, also known as “Yogic Sleep,” is a form of pre-bedtime guided meditation that puts you in a very relaxed state. For most people, this form of meditation is much easier to accomplish than sitting still and trying to “clear your mind.” Practicing yoga nidra over time can lead to benefits such as better sleep, reduced stress, and improved wellbeing.

Yoga nidra involves lying down on a yoga mat (or even your mattress), setting a sankalpa (intention), and simply following what the guided meditation says. Some practices are 5 minutes, others can be an hour or longer. There are many audio guides of varying lengths available online that can easily be followed at home, so this practice is accessible to everyone!

woman laying on the floor yoga nidra

Yoga nidra is an easy way to reduce stress, relieve tension and pain, and connect with yourself on a deeper level. Practicing yoga nidra right before you go to sleep can clear the mind and allow yourself to tap into your subconscious self to reach your goals and intentions.

Relaxation Technique #4: Deep Breathing Exercises

One of the best relaxation techniques involves something that we usually do without any thought. Breathing is essential to human life, and is key in both the mindfulness and in yoga nidra practices mentioned above.

The diaphragm is the key muscle that is used in relaxed breathing states. However, many people breathe using their accessory respiratory muscles rather than the diaphragm.

To test whether you’re prone to dysfunctional breathing, place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a few deep breaths in, and pay attention to which hand is moving. Your belly should be the area that expands when you inhale. If your chest is expanding more than your belly, this is a sign that you might be in a sympathetic state, under stress.

Slow, deep breathing using your diaphragm improves efficiency within the lungs.  Clinical studies also show that deep breathing plays a huge role in our cardiovascular health and helps to decrease blood pressure. It can also promote higher heart rate variability (HRV), which is a sign of high vagal tone.

Studies suggest that practicing deep breathing exercises regularly for 3 months or longer can shift your autonomic nervous system to parasympathetic dominance – this means that deep breathing can modulate your stress response so that you are more resilient in the face of stress!

the words just breathe scratched into the sand on the beach at sunset

Deep breathing exercises have been practiced for centuries, especially in Eastern cultures. Western cultures are just now realizing the advantages of a more holistic approach to wellness, even though many practices have been around for hundreds of years. In yoga, breathing is called “pranayama.” One variation of pranayama is alternate nostril breathing.

How to do Alternate Nostril Breathing:

  • Sit in an upright, relaxed position and close your eyes. Place one hand with your palm facing upwards on top of your knee.
  • With your other hand, raise your pointer and middle fingers and lightly place them in between your eyebrows. Your ring and pinky fingers should cover one nostril, and your thumb covers the other nostril. Do not exert any hard pressure to your nose or forehead.
  • Exhale through your right nostril while holding the left nostril shut.
  • Inhale through your right nostril, then shut the right nostril and release the left nostril.
  • Exhale through the left nostril, while keeping the right nostril closed.
  • Inhale through the left nostril, then close the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril. This step completes one cycle of alternate nostril breathing.
  • Continue these steps for as long as needed to relax the mind.
  • Always inhale through the nostril you just exhaled through.
woman sitting outside in autumn practicing alternate nostril breathing

Another deep breathing exercise that can be used to calm your nerves is called 4×4 breathing (aka square/box breathing).

How to do 4×4 Breathing:

  • Sit or lie down in a comfortable, relaxed position and close your eyes. Release any tension from your body.
  • Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  • Exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  • Repeat this cycle as many times as you want over the course of a few minutes until you feel a sense of calm.


Since stress negatively impacts our health, it is important for us to take back control in whatever ways we can. As you can see, none of these relaxation techniques are very difficult, so it is easy to get started today! Pick whichever relaxation technique works best for you, or combine multiple techniques and you may begin to feel less stressed within a short period of time.

woman singing into her shower head in the bathtub

Still feeling stressed over your gut health?

Schedule your appointment today to help you get to the root cause of the problem, so you can start living your best life!

the top 4 types of relaxation techniques











Stress and the Digestive System

Stress is something that, unfortunately, we are all very familiar with. The gut problems that result from stress are also no stranger to most of us.

This blog will explain some of the physiological changes that happen in the body when we’re stressed out that lead to the discomfort you may be feeling.

Can stress cause gastrointestinal problems?

Think of any gut issue, and it’s extremely likely that it is somehow connected to stress. Many of us have experienced an upset stomach from stress at some point in our lives. There are many gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms that illustrate the connection between stress and the digestive system.

Here are some examples of GI symptoms that are related to stress:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn and acid reflux
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Nausea and vomiting
woman holding stomach in pain

To some extent, all of us are familiar with most, if not all, of these uncomfortable symptoms.  Here, we will explain why these symptoms occur to explain the connection between stress and the digestive system.

Low Stomach Acid

Contrary to popular belief, the stomach actually produces less stomach acid (concentrated hydrochloric acid – HCl) when we’re under stress. So how does less acid lead to acid reflux and heartburn?

This happens because the sphincter muscle connection between the esophagus and the stomach relies on sufficient stomach acid production to determine when it should be closed. This means, when stomach acid levels are low, the opening stays open and what little acid there is in the stomach can now enter the esophagus and cause heartburn.

woman in black and white with cartoon stomach on fire

Low levels of stomach acid also cause issues with digestion. Certain nutrients may not be as easily absorbed because they won’t get properly broken down without enough stomach acid.

Also, any bacteria we consume with our food (or even bacteria that naturally live in the mouth) may not be killed, which could lead to food poisoning. This can also lead to other dysbiosis (microbial imbalance) issues in the gut, such as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).

Interrupted Bile Flow

Another symptom that is common with stress and the digestive system is interrupted bile flow. Bile is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. When we’re stressed, bile flow is interrupted and grinds to a halt.

Why does this happen? First of all, the stress response suppresses bile release from the liver into the gallbladder because energy is being diverted away from digestive processes and towards your muscles. Also – since digestion stops when you’re stressed, the stomach doesn’t release any food into the small intestine, which is the signal for the gallbladder to pump bile to aid in digestion.

So why is this a problem? The gallbladder is the storage organ for bile, which assists with fat digestion. When the gallbladder is repeatedly inhibited from releasing its bile stores, the entire biliary system gets disrupted. 

Some issues that can arise include fat malabsorption, fat-soluble vitamin malabsorption, diarrhea, abdominal pain after eating fatty foods, nausea, and feeling heavy after eating. Interrupted bile flow can also cause bile to become over-concentrated with cholesterol and potentially lead to painful gallstones.

gallstones inside gallbladder

Changes to Gut Motility

Gut motility alteration also signals to the connection between stress and the digestive system.

The hormones that are released while you’re stressed out are shown to impact gut motility. This causes the upper gut (your stomach and small intestine) to slow down its digestion process and also decreases the absorption of nutrients. Food stays stagnant in the stomach and small intestine. Stagnant food causes issues such as malnutrition, abdominal distention, bloating, nausea, and vomiting. This is why you can sometimes feel nauseated or even vomit when you’re extremely nervous.

woman holding up cardboard image of intestines

The opposite situation usually happens in the large intestine. During stress, the large intestine speeds up, disregarding its duties of packing our excrement into shape and reabsorbing water. This reduced gut transit time explains why we might experience diarrhea when we’re stressed out.

Heightened Gut Hypersensitivity

Studies also show that sensitivity within the gut increases when we’re under stress. Heartburn and other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms can actually feel worse when we’re under stress than the same symptoms feel when we’re relaxed.

This relates to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – where you experience hypersensitivity in addition to changes in motor function of the gut. Unfortunately, patients with IBS and other GI issues are subject to a vicious cycle where stress contributes to the severity of their symptoms, which then causes even more stress…

Weakened Immune System

Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making it more likely that we will get sick. When we’re stressed out long-term, the continuous surges of cortisol and other hormones cause widespread inflammation and slow immune cell production, both of which can increase the risk of infection and tissue damage.

sick woman in blanket blowing nose looking at thermometer

Did you know that 60 to 70% of your immune system is in your gut? This makes sense when you really think about it. Our digestive systems are connected to the outside world – humans are essentially just tubes with a lot of complicated accessories.

People consume dangerous pathogens through food and drink every day. Our immune system needs to be especially active in our gut to help protect us from things like food poisoning and small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

Hidden Inflammation

Inflammation is valuable in small doses. The inflammatory response is the part of the immune response that promotes tissue healing. Inflammation is supposed to stop once healing is complete, however, this doesn’t always happen. Chronic stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which can then contribute to much larger problems.

woman holding stomach with xray intestines

Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, are exactly what they sound like – diseases caused by excessive inflammation and irritation in the intestines. These are autoimmune conditions, where your immune system thinks your own cells are foreign enemies. Studies suggest that these diseases are ultimately triggered by disruptions in the immune function within the gut, imbalances in gut microbiota, and leaky gut – all of which can be the result of chronic stress.

A Quick Note About the Gut Microbiome

The bacteria that live in our digestive systems (mostly within the large intestine) are usually beneficial for us. They can produce various products such as essential vitamins and short chain fatty acids that our bodies need. 

Each person’s microbiome is as unique as his or her fingerprint. We obtain these bacteria throughout our lives, starting with our journey through the birth canal and continuing with exposure to the environments and foods we are raised with. These bacteria are there to work with the immune system to strengthen the gut lining, prevent inflammation, and protect against any intruding bacteria from colonizing where they don’t belong.

intestines with blue bacteria

Bacterial Imbalance of the Gut Microbiome

When we experience stress, the gut microbiome is altered. One way this can happen is because when digestion shuts down, any food in the small intestine just hangs out there. This means that our housekeeping system, the migrating motor complex, cannot sweep the small intestine clean of invading bacteria.

Without this housekeeper, any pathogenic or unwanted bacteria that has found its way into our intestines, through our food or from our mouths, is now likely to take refuge there. This can lead to an imbalanced microbiome, uncomfortable GI symptoms, increased colon inflammation, autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease, and conditions like SIBO.

microscopic bacteria in intestines

Something that you may find really interesting is that your personal microbiome also affects how you respond to stress. Research indicates that people who are able to stay calm during stressful situations have similar microbiomes, which are very different when compared to those who react the most strongly under stress.

The gut-brain connection is bidirectional, but the signals from the gut to the brain are much stronger than the other direction. We know that chronic stress can change both the proportions and the diversity of these bacteria in your gut. So when stress causes an imbalance in your gut bacteria, the newly reigning gut bacteria may actually diminish your resilience to stress.

It all boils down to the gut-brain connection!

When we’re stressed, the nerve that controls digestive functions doesn’t work properly. This contributes to the issues we spoke about above, like low stomach acid, low bile flow, issues with gut motility, inflammation, and more.

This extremely important nerve is called the vagus nerve, and it has become the subject of a lot of research in more recent years. It also has a vast impact on our mental health! The proper function of gut-brain connection via the vagus nerve is essential to maintaining our health and overall wellbeing.

brain neurons and nerves

You can get started on some relaxation techniques today in order to improve your vagus nerve function and reduce stress, so that you can achieve optimum gut health and function!

For guided assistance to get to the root cause of your gut problems, schedule your appointment today!

I can order your comprehensive stool analysis so we can look for any maldigestion markers, inflammation, dysbiosis, metabolic imbalance, or infection that could be occurring within your gut!














Adrenal Fatigue Recovery – Your Quick Guide to Adrenal Fatigue

Have you been extra stressed out recently due to the pandemic? Do you feel that your stress levels have negatively impacted your life and have contributed to you feeling burned out? You’re not alone! You may be dealing with something commonly referred to as Adrenal Fatigue. This blog will outline what exactly adrenal fatigue is, and give you some support for adrenal fatigue recovery.

Like many people nowadays you might be facing financial insecurities, unsure how to handle childcare or homeschooling, worrying about online classes, or just generally worrying about the future. All of these things are considered stressors.

stressed out woman with head in her hands at a desk with a laptop, phone, and 2 journals

Life sometimes hits us in a way that creates a cycle of constant stress. Many people have been under an unprecedented amount of stress due to the pandemic. And you are probably aware of how badly stress can make your body feel!

The human body has a hardwired response to stress, which enables us to focus and activate a response in the face of danger. However, the stress we face most days isn’t a matter of life or death… We can have emotional, perceived stress, physical stress from injuries, or chemical stress from smoke or pollutants. The human body reacts the same way to these types of stressors as it does to life-threatening situations.

When stress becomes chronic, the body’s adaptive response to danger becomes dysfunctional and ends up hurting our health in the long run. One of the results of this chronic stress is something called adrenal dysfunction often referred to as adrenal fatigue.

What is adrenal fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is the end result of the constant cycle of stress. When people say adrenal fatigue, they probably mean adrenal dysfunction or HPA axis dysfunction. If left untreated, adrenal fatigue is often the end result of chronic adrenal dysfunction caused by chronic stress. 

The adrenal glands produce multiple hormones, most notably cortisol and epinephrine (aka adrenaline). These hormones are the ones that help us react to stressful situations. When the brain registers a stressor, a specific cascade of hormones are produced, eventually resulting in the release of adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal glands. 

However, if the brain is constantly triggering the stress response, eventually the adrenal glands will not be able to keep up with the demands to produce these stress hormones. This is where adrenal fatigue sets in, and your entire body faces the consequences. This can happen quickly, or over the span of decades – it is all dependent on the individual!

Why should I care about cortisol for adrenal fatigue recovery?

Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, meaning that it helps to break things down within the body. This probably doesn’t really sound very good to you, and you would be correct – in chronically high levels, cortisol can do some serious damage. 

Excess cortisol:

  • Suppresses immune function 
  • Breaks down the gut mucosal barrier
  • Increases insulin resistance
  • Fat gain, especially around the abdomen
  • Inhibits the production of testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, and more
  • Increases sodium retention and causes high blood pressure
  • Reduces levels of magnesium and zinc in the body
  • Alters thyroid function
  • Stimulates bone loss, contributing to osteoporosis

In addition, the downstream consequences of adrenal dysfunction can lead to the erosion or break down of the gut lining, which contributes to poor gut functioning.

Another problem that occurs is that when cortisol is being produced in excess, a very important hormone called DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone gets produced in lower amounts than usual. Cortisol and DHEA have the same precursor hormone, called pregnenolone. When the demand to produce cortisol is consistently high over a long period of time, one of the results is that there is much less DHEA production.

What is DHEA?

DHEA is essentially the opposite of cortisol – it is an anabolic hormone, which does jobs that involve building materials and structures within the body.

Some benefits of DHEA include:

  • Opposes the negative effects of cortisol on the immune system
  • Improves muscle mass and decreases body fat
  • Precursor to testosterone
  • Supports recovery from stress
  • Lowers total blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol
  • Involved in conversion of thyroid hormone to the active form
  • Stimulates building bones to prevent osteoporosis

You should notice that DHEA generally opposes the effects of cortisol.

So, in addition to all of the negative effects cortisol is having on your body, excess cortisol also reduces the positive effects of DHEA by limiting its production.

The relative amounts of these two hormones are important in determining which stage of adrenal fatigue you are in. Knowing which stage you are in helps your functional medicine dietitian determine what kind of treatment is required to get you back to optimal health. In other words, knowing which stage you are in sets the stage for adrenal fatigue recovery.

cortisol vs DHEA

There are 3 stages of HPA Axis Dysfunction / Adrenal dysfunction

A skilled practitioner is able to determine which stage of adrenal dysfunction you are in by looking at your adrenal hormone test results.

  • In stage 1 of adrenal dysfunction, your body is in a permanent alarm phase and is producing extremely high levels of cortisol, and DHEA levels are dropping.
  • During stage 2 of adrenal dysfunction, cortisol levels may seem normal, but DHEA levels are low. 
  • In stage 3, the body is producing very low amounts of cortisol and DHEA. This is the result of the system crashing completely. If this stage is reached, you will need more than just a lifestyle overhaul to address the issue. This is the stage that we consider true adrenal burn-out. 
3 stages of adrenal dysfunction

Possible signs and symptoms of chronic stress, HPA axis dysfunction, and adrenal burn-out:

  • Fatigue
  • Feeling tired but also wired
  • Sugar and simple carbohydrate cravings
  • Insomnia
  • Increased belly fat
  • Low energy and poor recovery from exercise
  • Poor immune function
  • Anxiety
  • Memory problems
  • Depression
  • Nutrient deficiencies
signs of adrenal burnout

Chronic conditions that can be affected by a hyperactive stress response:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Autoimmune illnesses
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Osteoporosis
  • Infertility
  • Digestive conditions (SIBO, IBS, IBD, etc.)

How to know if you are suffering from adrenal dysfunction 

If you are dealing with any of the symptoms or conditions listed above, you might be suspecting that you are in one of the stages of adrenal dysfunction. The only way to truly determine if this is true is to have your adrenal hormone levels tested with a saliva test. Salivary cortisol is used because it is the most convenient way to measure cortisol.

These adrenal hormone tests are noninvasive and easy to do in the comfort of your own home. Saliva testing involves spitting into a tube at specific intervals throughout the day. These saliva samples are then graphed and compared to the range of normal cortisol levels.

saliva test kit

The adrenals produce cortisol in what is called the circadian rhythm. This means that naturally, cortisol is produced throughout the day in a typical, distinct pattern.

Comparing your cortisol values to the standard circadian rhythm allows your functional medicine dietitian to determine whether or not you’re in adrenal dysfunction, and if so, which stage you are in. This information is usually enough for your practitioner to give you a treatment protocol that will help you get back into the normal range. Sometimes, other testing may be required in your personal adrenal fatigue recovery journey.

Graphic showing the cortisol circadian rhythm graph

So how exactly do we begin our journey to adrenal fatigue recovery?

Healing Adrenal Fatigue

The first step to improving your adrenal function is to test your adrenal hormone levels to be sure that you have adrenal dysfunction or insufficiency in the first place, and if you do have it, knowing which stage you are in. Depending on which stage you are in, there are different protocols.

Improve your stress resilience…

Remember that the stress response actually starts in the brain. How you perceive an event is actually more important than the event itself. This is why two different people who experience the same event may have drastically different emotional and psychological responses.

One person may get a parking ticket and think “UGH… this always happens to me! Why am I so unlucky?” and then they ruminate over the ticket all day. The other person who got a parking ticket may brush it off, consider it not a big deal, and not even think about it again. These two people experienced the same event, but only one of them triggered their stress response – and that person triggered it continuously throughout the day!

So, the first thing you can do to improve adrenal function is to dedicate some time to cultivating a more positive mindset and to make an effort to learn how to remain calm in the face of a potential stressor. Reminding yourself of things you are grateful for can help you in working towards a less reactionary approach to stress.

There are many relaxation techniques that you can practice that will help you gain more resilience in the face of stress. These relaxation techniques include: breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation, vagus nerve activation, yoga, and much more. Find what method works for you, and remember that improving your stress resilience takes time!

Clean up your diet!

Adjusting your diet is also usually necessary. Reducing the amount of added sugars and highly processed foods in your diet is a good first step towards reducing hidden inflammatory stress within the body. Be sure to stay hydrated and to fuel your body with plenty of fiber, lots of fruits and vegetables, and sufficient amounts of protein and fat.

Variety is the key in any diet to ensure you consume adequate amounts of all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Don’t take any supplements without the approval and recommendation from your dietitian. These recommendations should be based on your lab results, because toxicity is always possible, which can do even more damage to your already stressed out body.

Get plenty of sleep!

Since cortisol is linked to our sleep-wake cycles, quality sleep is key to improving health outcomes. Blue light glasses are useful while looking at screens throughout the day and in the hours before bedtime to block the blue light emitted from the screens of our electronics.

Blue light exposure close to bedtime tricks the brain into thinking daylight is still present, and alters the circadian rhythm. Of course, it is much better to avoid this blue light exposure right before you sleep. Getting at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep in a dark, cool room is essential for high sleep quality.

Get to the root cause of digestive issues

If you’re experiencing gastrointestinal distress, it is possible that additional functional medicine testing is needed to determine the next steps. Any symptoms you have may be connected to the HPA axis dysfunction, so communicating with your functional medicine dietitian is extremely important. Chronic stress is linked to digestive issues such as microbiome imbalances (dysbiosis), small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), constipation, diarrhea, and much more. 

healing adrenal fatigue

When one system in the body goes awry, many others may follow. Catching adrenal dysfunction before it gets to stage 3 is ideal. However, there are treatment options if you do find yourself in stage 3.

Following the guidance your functional medicine dietitian sets out for you can improve so much more than just the adrenal fatigue alone.

Improving your quality of life starts with simply knowing where to begin!


Have you been feeling burned out? Do you want to get to the bottom of what is causing your symptoms? Schedule your appointment today to get started on your journey to adrenal fatigue recovery!

Sign up for the Adrenal Reboot program for individualized support for your adrenal fatigue recovery


Cortisol Circadian Rhythm and its Impact on Health

Before electricity, our ancestors woke with the sun and slept with the moon. Humans have evolved to exist in 24 hour sleep-wake cycles, or circadian rhythms, that operate as part of our biology.

Circadian rhythms can be disrupted by the modern conveniences of technology, and these disruptions have real impacts on our health.

What are Circadian Rhythms?

Your circadian rhythm is essentially a master clock along with a set of other internal clocks that regulate various bodily processes. Circadian rhythms run on a 24 hour cycle, can be trained, and can be affected by temperatures.

This master clock is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is located above the optic nerves that send signals from the eyes to the brain. The master clock directly responds to light, and is the reason why we have sleep-wake cycles that are determined by light exposure.

Light exposure (or lack there-of) can impact these sleep-wake cycles, especially in modern society with light switches and high levels of screen time.

How does the Cortisol Circadian Rhythm work?

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is in control of your stress response, also follows a circadian rhythm for its release of cortisol from the adrenal glands.

Cortisol levels typically peak when we awaken (6 to 8 am). Then cortisol levels decrease throughout the day, staying low from around 6 pm until we fall asleep, when cortisol release starts to rise again. Check out the cortisol circadian rhythm graph below!

Cortisol’s circadian rhythm is essential for our health, playing a role in various processes that impact metabolism, repair cells, and strengthen our immune system. Disruptions in your HPA axis circadian rhythm can increase the risk of developing chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

There are many symptoms listed below that can be present when you are experiencing HPA axis dysfunction that precede these chronic conditions, which can definitely be addressed before the chronic conditions have a chance to develop.

Being exposed to threats throughout the day, whether real or perceived, causes spikes in cortisol that disrupt this important, natural rhythm. If stress is a normal part of your daily life, then this has an even greater impact on your cortisol circadian rhythm and may mean that you need extra support to reestablish a healthy hormone balance.

Signs you need a Circadian Rhythm Reset:

  • Fatigue
  • Body aches, especially in the neck and back
  • Poor memory and feeling “foggy headed”
  • Poor immunity, or getting sick frequently
  • Gastrointestinal dysfunction
  • Weight gain, especially around the abdomen
  • Hair loss
  • Skin issues like acne, dryness, and dullness
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Sleep disruptions, like insomnia or trouble staying asleep

So how do I know if my circadian rhythm has been disrupted? There is a test for that! 

How to Check Cortisol Levels 

One of the most accurate ways to determine whether you’re experiencing some HPA axis circadian rhythm disruptions is to get your cortisol levels tested with a practitioner-ordered home cortisol test.

Your functional medicine practitioner will order your adrenal stress hormone test, and after the results come back you will be able to get a better idea of how your cortisol circadian rhythm is functioning (or malfunctioning). Depending on where you fall within the cortisol normal range, you may find out that you are on the path to adrenal burn out.

This test is an easy and effective means for determining whether your stress response is hyperactivated. Cortisol patterns are considered markers of wellness and can be used to draw a roadmap to recovery. Knowing the effects that stress is having on your stress hormones is the first step from which a personalized protocol can be developed.

How to Reset Circadian Rhythm – Getting Back into Rhythm

Once you get started on the road towards recovering your circadian rhythm, there are many lifestyle factors that can be adjusted in order to achieve maximal results. Getting started by adding some relaxation techniques into your daily life will help set the stage for healthier responses to stressors, whenever they occur.

Woman with arms stretched up at sunrise

If you’re one of those people who is getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night, one of the simplest things you can do to better your health is to improve the duration of sleep to a minimum of 7 hours per night, along with synchronizing your sleep-wake cycles to your natural circadian rhythm.

Humans need to sleep to survive, and we need enough sleep to be healthy. No matter how much we need to accomplish in our daily lives, the fact remains that sleep is essential at the end of the day, and most people should be trying to get more of it.

Sleep isn’t always a simple thing for people, even if we know how important it is.

In fact, if you are under high amounts of stress (and thus consistently have constant spikes in cortisol), it is likely that sleep is quite difficult for you. So, addressing your cortisol circadian rhythm imbalances is actually one of the best things you can do in order to improve your sleep, improve your health, and improve your life.

So how can you get more sleep? There are many ways to improve your sleep hygiene in order to prime yourself for better and longer sleep. You can learn about these methods, along with many other lifestyle hacks, when you sign up for my Adrenal Reboot Program!

Joining my Adrenal Reboot Program will help get you started on a personalized track towards improving your HPA axis function, your cortisol circadian rhythm, and improving your overall health!

Schedule your free 15 minute Discovery Call today!


HPA Axis Dysfunction and Chronic Stress

Evolution has hard-wired our bodies to react to threats in a very specific way. The stress response is a survival mechanism that primes our bodies to be able to fight or flee when we are faced with a threatening and stressful situation, such as when you see a lion watching you from a distance.

Nowadays, we don’t get into positions that require us to fight off predators frequently, but we do experience many other situations that stress us out, triggering the hard-wired, automatic stress response.

The modern lifestyle in today’s world throws so many hassles at us that our ancestors never had to experience. Work, worrying about finances and paying bills, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and navigating life during a pandemic… Consequently, your body treats these non-life-threatening stresses the same way as it would a threat to your life.

When you are in a state of constant stress, this evolutionary survival response is triggered repeatedly, and over time becomes extremely detrimental to your overall health.

Today, the stress response kicks in more frequently than ever and can lead to many different health issues. So what exactly happens in the body when we encounter a stressful situation?

The Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis – Explaining the stress response

The stress response consists of a series of physiological events in the body that proceeds like a domino effect almost instantaneously. The sequence of events happen before the brain’s visual centers can even fully process the event, which is why it is sometimes possible to react to a dangerous situation before you even realize what is happening.

When you experience or perceive a threat, physical or psychological, this information is sent directly to the amygdala – the emotional processing center of the brain. Your amygdala concludes that the situation is a threat, and then signals the hypothalamus – the brain’s command center – to sound off both neural and hormonal (AKA neuroendocrine) alarm signals to the rest of the body.

The hypothalamus starts by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight or flight response so your body can respond to the perceived threat. This happens through the sympathetic stimulation of the medulla of the adrenal glands, which releases epinephrine (AKA adrenaline) into the bloodstream.


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Epinephrine/Adrenaline Rush

This surge of epinephrine causes your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to increase, in order to push blood to your muscles so you can better fight or escape the threat.

Stored glucose and fatty acids are released into the bloodstream to provide energy throughout the body. Your breathing rate increases in order to bring more oxygen into the body, which is sent to your muscles and to the brain to increase your level of alertness.

Meanwhile, the hypothalamus also sends off a second alarm signal to keep the sympathetic nervous system activated so that you’re able to continue to face the threat. This second alarm signal goes through what is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

HPA Axis and Cortisol, The Stress Hormone

This second alarm signal is a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the anterior pituitary gland where it binds to CRH receptors, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).

ACTH travels through your bloodstream to reach the adrenal glands, where it binds and triggers the release of cortisol – commonly known as the stress hormone.

chemical structure of cortisol

Cortisol keeps your body on high alert until after the dangerous situation is over with, through mobilizing energy stores and increasing blood sugar levels for a quick energy source to be used throughout the body.

Once cortisol levels start to fall, the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-digest system) kicks in to diminish the effects of the stress response.

While the stress response is going full steam ahead, nonessential activities (such as digestion) in the body are halted. Blood is shunted away from the digestive system and other non-essential processes, towards the muscles and heart where more oxygen is needed.

Any system that doesn’t immediately serve to address the threat is shut down to conserve energy for the fight or flight response. Our bodies were designed to face stressors automatically and with intensity in order to ensure our survival.

The stress response is supposed to be self-limiting, meaning that once the event is over, the stress hormones should go back to normal levels. The diminishing of the stress hormones allows your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and blood sugar to also decrease to normal levels.

However, even in the past the dangerous situations that prompted this kind of response didn’t happen continuously throughout the day. Today, many people face constant, daily low (or high) levels of stress that keep the stress response turned on. This leads to HPA axis dysfunction, disrupting normal bodily processes, and over time can contribute to negative health outcomes.

Very stressed out man holding his. head

Sympathetic Dominance – What happens when stress becomes chronic?

Chronic stress triggers the stress response over and over again. Cortisol levels remain high, making it nearly impossible for the parasympathetic nervous system to take over and fulfill its job in certain bodily processes.

When the parasympathetic nervous system is unable to fulfill its duties because you’re spending most of your life using your stress-based sympathetic nervous system – this is called sympathetic dominance.

Chronic Stress, Digestion, and Appetite

One of the roles that the parasympathetic nervous system is blocked from fulfilling due to sympathetic dominance or HPA axis dysfunction is digestion. So, it makes sense that digestive issues are a common result of chronic stress. Indigestion, IBS, malabsorption of nutrients, and many other gut health issues can be caused by – or exacerbated by – chronic stress.

These high cortisol levels also contribute to increased appetite, especially for sugar and simple carbohydrates, that can lead to overeating and weight gain, and eventually even obesity.  There is a huge connection between cortisol and belly fat.

A common sign of high cortisol levels is higher levels of abdominal visceral fat, which appears as a “pot belly.” High levels of visceral fat are associated with type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome.

Chronic Stress, Inflammation, and High Blood Pressure

Chronic stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which can also keep cortisol levels elevated. Cortisol suppresses the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and gastrointestinal issues. This can put you at risk to develop an autoimmune disease.

Another job that cortisol has is to help deliver oxygen to muscles by constricting blood vessels, which increases blood pressure. Chronic high cortisol can lead to chronic high blood pressure. This can damage blood vessels and cause blockages, paving the way for a heart attack.

HPA Axis Dysfunction and Chronic Stress

Other common issues that can arise from the overexposure to stress hormones include anxiety, depression, headaches, sleep problems, and memory issues.

Long-term stress causes HPA axis dysfunction or adrenal dysfunction. This puts you at risk for adrenal fatigue, where your adrenal glands have difficulty keeping up with the body’s constant demands to keep pumping out the hormones needed. This results in many body systems shutting down and you end up feeling completely burned out.

The effects of HPA Axis Dysfunction and chronic high cortisol can include:

  • Indigestion
  • Malabsorption of nutrients
  • Gut health issues
  • Sugar cravings and increased appetite
  • Weight gain (especially around abdomen) and obesity
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Metabolic Syndrome
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • HPA Axis Dysfunction, Adrenal Dysfunction/Burnout/Fatigue
Graphic listing signs of chronic stress and high cortisol

Low Stress Resilience – Why do some people have stronger reactions to stress?

You may have realized that some people react more strongly than others to stressful events. We all know someone who we would describe as “high-strung”. There is also the type of person who holds in all of their emotions. Finally, we may envy someone who is strangely calm when they’re under pressure.

But why is this the case? There are a few things that determine your stress resilience (your ability to react better under stress).

Genetics and Epigenetics

How we react under stress has a bit to do with genetics. People that react very strongly may have certain genes “turned on” that amp up their stress response The people who can stay relatively calm may have slightly different genes that better protect them.

Epigenetics (alterations to gene expression) in the form of gene tagging may also have an effect on how we react to stressors. For example, certain chemical compounds, like methyl groups, attached to certain genes can act as a block during gene expression. This makes it more difficult for the gene to be translated into a protein by blocking the gene, potentially altering brain signaling.

Early Life Trauma

Early life trauma also has a huge impact on how we react to stress. These traumatic events occur within the first 20 years of life while the stress systems are still developing.

These traumas can include things that aren’t even a part of your explicit memory, such as our time during infancy. Traumas can include anything that impacts you emotionally: trauma is any experience that elicits a negative emotional reaction.  Early life trauma can lead to epigenetic changes to the stress systems and to the gut-brain connection.

Gut Microbiome

Another part of our physiology that early life trauma can impact is our gut microbiota. In early life, the development of the stress response is influenced by our gut microbiota. Our gut microbiome influences the brain through the metabolites and other products they produce within our digestive tracts. This is a relatively new area of research, and we’re now finding out how the bacteria that live in our gut impact our daily lives.

Three things that can negatively affect stress resilience:

  • Genetics and epigenetics
  • Early life trauma
  • Gut microbiota or dysbiosis (imbalance in gut microbiota)

How to lower cortisol levels naturally – what you can do to tone down your stress response

Finding ways to better manage stress can lead to better health outcomes. Eliminating unnecessary stressors is always a good place to start. But some stressors in life are unavoidable and out of our control. For the stressors you can’t control, practicing stress management and using relaxation techniques are great strategies.

Sleeping well and eating healthy are both key factors that can help keep your stress levels low.

It is also important to take time for hobbies and do the things that you enjoy. This is so important for stress reduction and helps you maintain a sense of overall well being. 

Staying active is another essential way to de-stress. Exercise leads to deeper breathing, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Muscles loosen up, relieving tension in the body. Yoga is a great way to increase mental focus while getting your muscles moving and producing a sense of calm.

Relaxation Techniques to Repair HPA Axis Dysfunction

There are quite a few self-soothing relaxation techniques that can be used to dampen your stress responses once they are activated.

These exercises include things like deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation. These exercises can be done when you are experiencing stress to get your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in.

The exercises can also be done throughout the day in order to train your body to stay more relaxed when stressful events do occur. Practicing relaxation techniques can repair HPA axis dysfunction, making you more resilient in the face of stress.

Woman meditating on hilltop at sunrise

Importance of a Lifestyle Overhaul

If you think you’re experiencing the effects of chronic stress, it is helpful to do a complete lifestyle overhaul to put you in a better position to deal with stress.

This lifestyle overhaul isn’t meant to add more stress to your life. It is best to start by adding just one of the things mentioned above. Find out what works best for you, and then slowly add on more stress-reducing activities or exercises.

Improving your resilience to stress is key to long-term health, and can help to prevent many negative health outcomes. When you’re feeling stressed out by things you cannot control, starting with one simple step can ultimately help you to gain more control over your response to stress.

Ways to lower cortisol naturally to Fix HPA Axis Dysfunction:

  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Lifestyle overhaul


Are your gut health issues adding additional stress in your life? Let’s tackle that together!

Schedule a meeting today to get started on the pathway to better gut health. Let me help you can gain control in your life and stress less.

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