Hormones and stress, stress and hormones! Everyone has stress, but not everyone deals with it in the same way. And everyone has hormones, but not everyone’s hormones are balanced.
If you suspect that stress is impacting your hormones, or if you’re feeling anxious, tired, irritable, bloated, or tense, read on. I want to arm you with knowledge and bolster you with encouragement so that you feel motivated and equipped to take positive action… so that you can re-establish proper hormonal balance in your life… so that you have increased energy, better focus, cheerful moods, efficient digestion and elimination, fewer headaches… so that you are consistently happier, healthier, more stable, and wonderfully resilient. Sounds like a worthy pursuit, right?! Let’s dive in.
Hormones are, in the simplest terms, messengers. They send messages. They “talk” to different parts of your body. Hormones are typically made from proteins, cholesterol, and fats. Your hypothalamus, which is your brain’s control tower, receives different signals about imbalances in your body, usually caused by your diet, lifestyle, and psychological habits. Examples of signals that alert your brain are: low or high blood sugar, feelings of irritability or pressure / being rushed, a negative memory, an infection, fear, feelings of sadness or loneliness, and pain or inflammation. So your brain gets these signals that you’re stressed in some way – emotionally or physically. In response to these signals, your brain releases hormones that instruct different glands in your body to secrete more hormones that will help to deal with the immediate stressor and bring those imbalances back to normal, back to homeostasis. So when you’re physically or emotionally stressed, there’s lots of hormone activity going on in an attempt to deal with the stressor and get you feeling and functioning back to normal.
The hormones most intimately associated with stress are cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone, and adrenaline is the fight or flight hormone. Let’s start with adrenaline, also known as epinephrine.
Adrenaline is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, which means it sends messages via both our endocrine (hormonal) and nervous systems during the fight-or-flight response via the sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline is responsible for the immediate reactions you feel when confronted with a stressful situation. When you slam your brakes to avoid a car accident or get into an unexpected argument with a coworker, within seconds your brain alerts your adrenal glands to pump out adrenaline. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure, dilates your pupils, quickens your breathing, tenses your muscles, and gives you a surge of energy. The point of adrenaline is to heighten your alertness and responsiveness to effectively deal with the fight-or-flight situation. On the down side, it can make you hyper-reactive, anxious, jittery, and tense.
Now let’s talk about cortisol, the stress hormone. After confronted with a stressor (it can be a real life stressor, or it can be a bad memory or a fearful thought about the future) the brain signals the adrenal glands to pump out cortisol, and within minutes (not seconds like adrenaline) cortisol begins to act powerfully within the body. To understand what cortisol does, it’s helpful to understand what cortisol is. Cortisol is a glucocorticosteroid. Let’s break that down. “Gluco-” refers to glucose, or blood sugar. Cortisol increases mobilization of energy sources in response to stress to help us adapt to the stressful circumstance, whether that be a car accident, a work project, an exam, a knife cut, an argument, or a viral infection. Simply put, cortisol mobilizes energy, aka blood sugar, to fuel the brain and body to respond to stress.
Cortisol is also a “corticosteroid” – which means it is involved in the inflammatory response to pain and other stressors. Cortisol is possibly the most powerful anti-inflammatory substance known to man, hence the creation of synthetic corticosteroid medications – modeled after the cortisol molecule and used to reduce inflammation. Think of steroids and cortisone found in nasal allergy sprays (Flonase, Nasonex, etc) and anti-inflammatory meds such as cortisone injections, creams, and pills (Prednisone).
It’s important to know that small amounts of cortisol are good when faced with a stressor. And brief amounts of adrenaline are good when in a fight or flight situation. In fact, these stress hormones are potentially life saving, giving us the energy, mental focus, and anti-inflammatory protection to deal with threats to our life and well-being. These stressful situations are temporary. The stress response was designed by our Creator to be temporary. Hormones are pumped out, the body is made temporarily more “super” and “hyper” to deal with the stress, and then everything goes back to normal. Blood pressure goes back to normal. Heart rate back to normal. Breathing back to normal. Muscle tension back to normal. Mental focus back to normal. Beautiful, precious homeostasis returns.
But for many people – and possibly you – things have not gotten back to normal. The stress response has gotten stuck in “on” mode. Maybe because you’re repeatedly facing stressful situations, or you’ve got a long-term hidden infection that’s creating inflammation, or your diet is full of foods and toxins that you’re not digesting and metabolizing well and that’s causing your body stress. Quite possibly, you’re stewing about things that have long ago happened or you’re dreading things that haven’t even occurred. The point is, there may not be a real physical threat to your or your well-being that’s activating your stress response. It’s likely your negative perception of an issue (unforgiveness, worry, fear, lack of love, lack of grace) that’s got your cortisol and adrenaline on overdrive. After all, the definition of stress is the perception of a threat to one’s life or well-being. Your perception of your life is everything. In my opinion, it ranks even higher than exercise and diet. Stress destroys. Negativity deteriorates the brain and body. And it works through cortisol, which is good when needed, but super bad when unchecked.
Cortisol is literally called the “wear-and-tear” stress hormone. It breaks down body tissues for energy to deal with stress. Cortisol is concerned with your survival, not your long-term well-being.
So if it has to break down your gut lining and your muscles to keep you going, it will.
And if your body has to shut down production of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone in order to produce more cortisol, it will.
And if your body has to compromise your digestive, reproductive (fertility), and immune functions to keep you alive because your brain is sending signals that you’re stressed – that you’re under threat of survival, even if it’s just mental and emotional, it will. And it does. And it’s doing that to millions of people every day.
So how can you make sure your cortisol levels don’t run rampant?
How can you make sure your brain-to-body messaging system (aka your HPA axis, aka Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis) doesn’t get stuck in the “on” mode and dysfunction?
I test many patients for their cortisol and neurotransmitter health, and 90% of the time, their labwork reveals HPA axis dysfunction, indicating abnormalities with cortisol and adrenaline production. And you’re familiar with serotonin and dopamine, the “happy” and “focused” neurotransmitters, right? Well, serotonin and dopamine are always compromised if your HPA axis is off and if your cortisol levels have been pushed high and eventually depleted from chronic stress. You’ll likely produce less serotonin in your brain and your gut, so you may feel unhappy or depressed, anxious, harbor negative thoughts, suffer migraines, have PMS, or experience digestive issues. And your dopamine production will plummet, so you’ll feel unmotivated, moody, forgetful, have a hard time experiencing pleasure, and struggle with good quality sleep. And with the cortisol dysregulation you may feel sluggish in the morning, hit a wall in the afternoon, feel wired but tired at night, and feel anxious and irritable in general.
This is no way to feel. This is no way to live. I urge you to stop accepting this as “normal” in your life. It might be common nowadays to feel stressed, anxious, and depressed, but it’s absolutely not normal, and it’s certainly not God’s design or plan for you. You can feel better. With the right diagnostic tests we can figure out what’s going on with your hormones. And then we can look at your lab results in the context of your life, your thought habits, your diet, your movements, your whole picture, your whole story. Then we work on making you WHOLE and BALANCED again. Do it for yourself. Do it for your family. None of us are an island unto ourselves. Your health is not just your own – it affects everyone around you. You can feel better, shine brighter, be a light and emerge from any darkness. Both science and spirituality support you. But you’ve got to make the first move.