How much do you know about the connection between stress and hormonal imbalance?
Stress is on the rise throughout the modern world. We have an increasing number of things that demand our time and attention every day. Many of us aren’t sleeping as well as we should and we lead fairly sedentary lifestyles. And many more of us consume a diet filled with chemical additives, preservatives, flavorings and sugar, all which leave us feeling even more stressed and fatigued. We have gadgets that allow us to be accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is seemingly bad news everywhere you turn. We are increasingly becoming a society that is stressed out, overwhelmed and burnt out!
We are exposed to sources of mental and emotional stress on a consistent basis. And yet, at the same time, most people do not regularly take the action necessary to combat the negative effects of the stress that they encounter. Few regularly practice any form of productive stress management. Instead, many opt to decompress by sitting on the couch in front of the television or with their nose buried in a computer, smart phone, tablet or video game. These things are not productive ways to reduce stress levels, and in fact may contribute to additional stress.
Stress is a natural response to the things that we encounter in life. And the body is designed to endure short term periods of stress well. But for many in the world today, stress has become a chronic, long term problem. And these long periods of abnormally high stress levels take a toll on health.
What happens during the stress response?
When you face a stressful event or situation, the hypothalamus releases a hormone known as CRH (Corticortopin Releasing Hormone). With the release of CRH, the pituitary gland is signaled and in response releases a hormone known as ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic Hormone). The ACTH is released into the bloodstream, where it travels down to the adrenal glands. Once there, it triggers the release of the hormone Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. When cortisol is released it prepares you to either fight or run away from the stressor (think hungry wolf chasing you). It also causes some physiologic changes in the body. The heart and breathing rates accelerate, the liver releases glucose for extra fuel, energy is diverted from other systems like the digestive and reproductive system. Your thinking and critical decision making capabilities sharpen.
In a healthy body, once the stress has passed and Cortisol levels decrease, the hypothalamus signals to the pituitary and adrenals to stop hormone production. But this doesn’t happen when chronic stress is involved. It becomes a loop of continual release of all of the stress hormones. The result is dysfunction in the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal).
When levels of these hormones, particularly Cortisol, remain elevated in the body, specific symptoms will begin to occur.
Symptoms that indicate that stress is causing a hormone imbalance
1. Poor digestion
When cortisol is released, digestion slows down. This happens so that energy can be conserved and diverted to where it’s needed. The production of hydrochloric acid also slows along with the digestion process. This can often lead to GERD or acid reflux, which usually is caused by low stomach acid levels, not high levels.
2. High blood pressure
When you are under stress, the body increases your heart rate. It also causes the blood vessels to constrict. This is so more oxygen can be diverted to muscles so that it is easier for them to take action. This causes a rise in blood pressure. If stress becomes chronic, high blood pressure issues can become chronic as well. High blood pressure ultimately increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
3. High blood sugar levels
When faced with stress, the body releases glucose to help provide fuel to the body. This increases blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels remain high for an extended period of time, such as during periods of chronic stress, it can increase the risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.
4. Lowered immune system
When you first deal with a stressor, the body actually stimulates the immune system. This is a defense mechanism that is designed to protect you against infection and help to heal wounds. But ultimately, the longer the chronic stress remains a problem, the weaker the immune system becomes because it just can’t keep operating on overdrive forever. The immune system becomes so weak that it leaves you susceptible to viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungal infections.
5. Loss of fertility and libido
When Cortisol levels are elevated, other systems of the body are put at a level of minimal function and release of certain hormones is suppressed. This is true for the reproductive system. When stress and Cortisol are high, sex hormone production is kept at a minimum. This will cause a loss of reproductive function and libido.
6. Anxiety, depression, mood disorders and mental illness
There is a common connection between anxiety, major depression and other mental illnesses when there is a chronic elevation of Cortisol levels. Chronic stress also reduces the level of vital neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of either of these important brain chemicals can leave you depressed and/or anxious and increase the risk of binge eating and other addictions.
7. Weight gain
While in the midst of a continual stress response, the appetite will increase along with the release of insulin. When facing stress, after the release of Cortisol by the adrenal glands, the body believes that it needs carbohydrates or fatty foods that can easily be stored as an energy reserve in the form of fat. So with chronic stress, your appetite for carbs and fatty food increases….and so does your waistline. Cortisol induced weight gain tends to happen around the abdomen, where the fat cells are more sensitive to the effects of Cortisol.
8. Memory loss
When stress becomes chronic, it has a damaging effect on the brain. Production of new brain cells slows or even ceases completely and the brain actually begins to shrink. Cortisol damages the Hippocampus…the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, learning and regulating emotions. The result is memory loss, decision making problems and loss of impulse control.
Managing stress so that you don’t face these health issues should be a priority. It is important that you make time to actively manage stress daily. Meditating, deep breathing, walking in nature, exercises such as Tai Chi and yoga can all help lower stress levels and turn off the stress response so that you can lower Cortisol levels. This in turn can help to stop the chronic stress response in your body and allow the HPA axis to begin to return to normal function. Ultimately, doing so will help you to feel better and live a longer and healthier life.
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