HORMONES of Stress
In the previous three blogs, we talked about various levels of stress – the good & the bad (eustress vs. distress). Eustress, according to Hans Seyle, is positive stress and can enhance one’s functioning; and that persistent stress that is not resolved through coping or adaptation should be known as distress. “The body itself cannot physically discern between distress or eustress. Differentiation between the two is dependent on one's perception of the stress, but it is believed that the same stressor may cause both eustress and distress.” Examples of eustress include: engaging in a challenge, playing sports, watching a scary movie, riding a roller coaster, etc.
So what happens to our bodies when it is under distress? Let’s focus with the hormones ~ our stress hormones increase to continue their role to maintain and protect our vital systems, and at the same time, give us the tools we need, such as more blood, oxygen and sugar, to manage the stress. We are now ready to cope, fight, or run to survive when our body senses a threat to its balance (homeostasis). Unfortunately, each of our stress hormones has two faces: protective and destructive. When our stress system is constantly on the alert, we can experience their unwanted effects. Higher levels of the stress hormones can lead to disease.
Stress hormones include: glucocorticoids (cortisol) and catecholamines (adrenaline & norepinephrine). When a part of our brain (amygdala) senses a threat, it sends out an alarm to another part of the brain called the hypothalamus (bridge between brain & endocrine system), which sends a message further down to the pituitary (hormone-producing) gland, which then sends a message (via the release of ACTH [adrenocorticotropic hormone] into the bloodstream) all the way down to the adrenal glands (top of the kidneys). This is called the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis or the HPA axis. The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol.
Adrenaline underpins our ‘fight or flight’ response by constricting blood vessels and making our heart pump faster to rush blood to the body and brain. This means our muscles are primed to run away or to stay & fight.
Adrenaline in excess can lead to:
Heart disease such as an enlarged heart, heart failure & irregular heartbeat
High blood pressure
Bowel disorders (IBS)
Weakened immune system & autoimmune diseases
Skin diseases such as psoriasis and other rashes
Headaches, irritability, anxiety and shakiness
Memory and learning impairment, and accelerated aging
Optimal amounts of cortisol can be life saving as it helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, while regulating some body functions that are not needed in the moment, like the reproductive drive, immunity, digestion and growth. Almost every cell contains receptors for cortisol and so cortisol can have lots of different actions depending on which sort of cells it is acting upon.
Cortisol in excess can lead to:
Bone loss – risk of osteoporosis
Fat accumulation around mid-section
Diminished cell use of glucose
Increased blood sugar levels – increased risk of diabetes
Decrease in lean muscle (muscle wasting)
Suppression of the immune system
Norepinephrine is related to adrenaline and helps to maintain our blood pressure and ensure adequate fuel for our muscles, brain and other necessary organs; it acts like a backup system to adrenaline. In addition to its hormone actions, it acts as a messenger to transmit signals in our sympathetic nervous system, our brain and other organs (neurotransmitter role). It helps to mediate how our hypothalamus and other parts of our brain respond to stress.
If we are constantly stressed, our HPA axis is telling the body to increase blood pressure and suppress functions like digestion all of the time. Thyroid function is usually down-regulated during stressful conditions. T3 and T4 levels decrease with stress and stress inhibits the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) secretion.
As we talked earlier, there are three stages of adrenal dysfunction due to chronic stress. During each phase our cortisol level changes:
Cortisol is high – body is in go-go mode
Cortisol levels starts to drop – fatigue sets in
Cortisol drops to extreme levels & body begins to shut down resulting in exhaustion, weight gain, depression
Once the point of exhaustion has been reached, almost anything can happen. Our entire body can simply shut down or we can experience a loss of function in any of its various systems. This is the natural result of a decrease in hormones like aldosterone (plays a pivotal role in normal body fluid & electrolyte balance), as well as the gradual depletion of both the levels of cortisol in the body and the adrenal glands’ ability to produce that hormone. While everything might seem manageable during the resistance stage, things can deteriorate quickly once exhaustion begins to set in.
So what does that exhaustion look like as we enter this third and final stage of adrenal dysfunction? Here are just a few of the negative effects that we will experience:
As a result of that depletion of cortisol and aldosterone, our sodium levels will plummet from the abnormal highs they enjoyed during the resistance stage. At the same time, we’ll experience an increased rate of potassium retention, and a drop in glucose production which can lead to hypoglycemia. This will create an imbalance in critical electrolytes. That imbalance will cause the cells to lose their ability to function normally, since they rely on normal levels of glucose and the right balance between those vital minerals.
Without the right electrolytes and blood sugar levels, the entire body will begin to feel weak. As this continues, our ability to create cortisol diminishes, further depriving us of the glucose we need to provide energy for our bodies. This leads to the cravings for sugar and various stimulants that are so common in adrenal dysfunction patients.
Eventually, our cells become unable to operate as designed, and grow more and more damaged as time goes by. Even when we replenish those nutrients, the cells will use most of that energy just to jump-start their own activities, leaving little behind for use in physical activity. The end result: even food will provide little actual energy once we’ve reached a state of compete exhaustion.
So let's not reach the level of Exhaustion - continue with diaphragmatic breathing; self-care via massage, reflexology, cranial unwinding; take time for meditation or guided imagery; release the stressors in your life - negative thoughts, people &/or jobs ... Eliminate foods that cause the body stress - inflammatory foods/drinks, sensitivities, allergies (start a food journal to track symptoms – can take 72 hrs before symptoms appear, which is why a food journal is extremely important).
Here are some tips from Dr. Alan Christianson (author The Adrenal Reset Diet):
The Priorities Game: What Really Matters?
Write down a list of top-ten time commitments – the first ten that come to mind.
Imagine someone close to you just had a health scare. They will be fine, but need your help. Which seven obligations could you cross off your list?
Maybe seven is too much for you, so cross off five – now give yourself two hours each day for rest and personal care!
Circadian rest and repair
Nutritionally – low carbs in the morning
Physically – working out in the morning instead of after work, limiting self to gentle movement after 2pm (i.e., yoga, walking). At this level, too much exercise can do more harm than good.
Thermal therapy – bathing – take a lukewarm bath before bed can help with temperature regulation so you can enjoy a more refreshing sleep.
Take care of yourself and don’t feel you need to rush – like weight gain, it didn’t happen overnight that you reached the level of adrenal exhaustion. Be gentle with yourself as you restore your health to THRIVING.
To Your Health and Happiness,
Michele Root ~ Empowering You!