The Second Cornerstone of Epigenetics – Stress Management

Here we are, talking about stress again.  Seems everyone is talking about stress in some form or fashion, and for good reason!  Stress is one of the biggest influencers of our health.  Period.  And I’m saying this as a physician, a coach and a woman who has had to learn the hard way about managing stress. 

This is where we have to make changes to impact our health.  If we do all of the other for-your-health things perfectly but stress stays the same as it is today – I believe we’ve wasted our time, energy and opportunity. 

If you recall, with epigenetics we are looking for changes we can make in our day-to-day routine that alter how our body’s biochemistry does or doesn’t work.  Epigenetics is like a light switch – when we’re stressed, we turn certain genes (or enzymes) on or off.  When we’re relaxed and calm, the opposite effect happens.  We’re looking for the pro-health effects!

Have you ever noticed that when you’ve been stressed for a long period of time, your mood isn’t as optimistic or happy, your gut just doesn’t work as well as it used to, your appetite is screwy and you crave certain foods, and your sleep isn’t as restful?  Really…it just feels like everything is crooked!  That’s not unique to you.  And it’s not strange at all! 

It’s biochemistry.  

Forgive me for a little biochemistry mumbo-jumbo…  Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning you need it in your diet because your body doesn’t make it on its own.  In your body, tryptophan gets turned into serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of contentment and self-confidence.  Serotonin also plays a huge role is gut health and motility.  And then some of your serotonin is turned into melatonin, the sleep hormone.    

When we’re stressed – whether emotional (like worrying about the bills) or physical (like a chronic disease) – our body steals tryptophan from its typical journey to serotonin (literally known as the Tryptophan Steal) and converts it into a neurotoxin which only perpetuates depression.  (Ugh!)

Less tryptophan is then available to be turned into serotonin which means there is less serotonin available for mood and gut health.  There is also less serotonin to be converted to melatonin so you have a hard time sleeping.  (And wasn’t that the First Cornerstone of Epigenetics?!)

Can you see how stress is impacting your mood, gut and sleep? 

What about the food cravings?  Most of us start craving carbohydrates when we’re stressed.  Carbohydrates give you a bump in serotonin, although only for a short period.  In an effort to intuitively correct your biochemistry, you eat more carbs because it makes you feel better for a while.  And that’s the issue – we’re not addressing the root cause of our mood, gut and sleep issues. 

What is the root cause?  Honestly, there could be several different answers here, but the most common and most readily changed by any of us is our stress level.  (And keep in mind this is just one example of how stress impacts your biochemistry and overall health.  It’s quite the stinker!)

By taking inventory of the bigger stressors in your life and then assertively looking for ways to decrease those stressors, you are taking very deliberate, active steps to improve your mood, support your gut and sleep better!  Honestly, this is a better approach than running out and getting a bottle of tryptophan to start taking tomorrow morning.  Remember, we want to address the root cause! 

Keep in mind, too, each of these cornerstones of epigenetics overlaps and intertwines with the others.  By decreasing stress in your life, you are actually doing a lot more than just increasing tryptophan, serotonin and melatonin.  There aren’t any downsides to decreasing your stressors…knowing that none of us will ever completely eliminate stress from our life. 

And who would want to?  It does have some good effects!  Stress pushes us to build relationships and community.  It pushes us to do more and create more.  And stress, in many situations, simply means we care about what is going on. 

The key is balance.  And that starts with knowing how your unique body and personality respond to different stressful situations.  Always remember – what helps someone else manage their stress may not work for you.  And that’s ok.

There are no rules here other than you need to listen to your body and be true to you.  So, no reason to stress over the stress in your life!  Find one stressor in your week that you can either quit/get rid of or do less frequently.  That’s it.  That’s a start.

Sixty-Second Self-Care Tip...

Let’s do it!  Grab a timer, a sheet of paper and your favorite writing utensil.  Set the timer for sixty seconds and list out all of the stressors you can think of in your life.  Don’t be polite or delicate or politically correct – you’re not going to share this with anyone!  If it comes to mind, scribble it down!

Once the timer goes off, take a look at the list you just put together.  Is there just one thing on that list that you could stop doing tomorrow, either by quitting or by addressing it so it’s gone? 

There are no right or wrong answers here…just the one that will serve you and your health the best! 


60-second self-care, epigenetics, serotonin, stress, tryptophan steal

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