What are Stress Hormones?
Our psychological and physiological response to stress is no different from the one experienced by our neanderthal ancestors thousands of years ago. What is different is that while cave dwellers were running away from lions, we stress about that Monday meeting instead. The fight-or-flight response gets activated, and with that, the stress hormones kick in. (1)
It’s all in the nerves.
The autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that controls and regulates organs. Simultaneously, this autonomic nervous system is divided into the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The latter is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.
The sympathetic nervous system unites the internal organs and the brain using spinal nerves. When these nerves get stimulated, it prepares the system for the stress at hand by increasing heart rate and blood flow to the muscles. This acute stress response triggers the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
What is Cortisol?
The often called “stress hormone” -cortisol- is a naturally-occurring steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It plays a significant part in the body’s stress response. However, cortisol is involved in other bodily functions, such as:
- Glucose metabolism
- Inflammatory response
- Immune function
- Blood pressure regulation
- Insulin release
How Cortisol Works
A long series of connections result in the release of cortisol into the body. First, the brain’s amygdala acknowledges a possible threat; this sends a message to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus releases a hormone called corticotropin (CRH), which tells the pituitary gland to launch the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which signals the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Indeed, it is a long series of connections.
When the body experiences survival mode, the release of the optimal cortisol quantity can be life-saving. The proper amount of cortisol helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure. It also regulates body functions like immunity, digestion, growth, and reproductive drive that are not critical in survival mode.
Cortisol levels differ throughout the day, and per individual too. On average it appears to be at higher levels in the mornings and decreases throughout the day, being at its lowest overnight.
A release of small doses of cortisol has been known to have positive effects such as:
- Quick energy surge due to survival causes
- A burst of increased immunity
- Heightened alertness and memory
- Lowered pain sensitivity
However, a constant stress response in the body may lead to chronic stress, presenting a series of adverse effects that can negatively impact the individual wellbeing. Chronic stress can cause:
- Anxiety or depression
- Weight gain
- Constipation, bloating, or diarrhea
- High blood pressure
- Problems in the reproductive system
- Poor quality sleep
Adverse Side Effects of Cortisol
Unlike our ancestors, we don’t battle predators in the wild for survival. Instead, we are under constant attack from the complications in our modern lifestyles. Balancing stress at work, during the daily commute, and at home, can cause a continuous cortisol release. This excess may cause serious health problems such as:
- Weight gain around the abdomen area. Studies had shown that high long-term levels of cortisol are a critical factor in abdominal obesity (2)
- Increased blood sugar levels. Under stress, cortisol provides glucose to the body from protein stores. However, sustained high levels of cortisol will produce an excess of glucose which results in high blood sugar levels.
- Studies have shown that people who experience high cortisol levels tend to eat more and prefer food with a higher carbohydrate content. (3)
- Digestive problems. High-stress levels can potentially disrupt the digestive system’s normal process, preventing the proper absorption of food. Individuals experiencing constant stress had been known to also suffer from colitis or irritable bowel syndrome.
- Heart disease. Blood vessels can get damaged because of constricted arteries and high blood pressure due to elevated cortisol levels.
What is Adrenaline?
Also referred to as epinephrine, adrenaline is another crucial hormone for the fight-or-flight response. In the adrenal glands, the medulla produces adrenaline as well as some neurons part of the central nervous system. It only takes a couple of minutes after a stressful situation is presented to release adrenaline into the bloodstream, which then travels to the organs, creating a response to the problem.
Adrenaline may increase strength and performance and raise awareness of an individual experiencing a stressful situation. Also, the ability of the body to feel pain decreases. Adrenaline causes blood vessels to contract, redirecting blood to the main muscle groups as well as the heart and lungs. Adrenaline effects can be present up to an hour after the stress has ceased.
The body definitely changes when adrenaline is released; this is commonly known as an adrenaline rush. It happens very fast, so fast that the individual experiencing it often does not even acknowledge what is happening.
Signs of an Adrenaline Rush
Often an adrenaline rush can look at as a boost of energy, causing
- Rapid heartbeat
- Increased senses
- Quick breathing
- Less pain sensation
- Dilated pupils
- Heightened senses
However, prolonged exposure to adrenaline can also cause health problems like increased blood pressure, damaged blood vessels, a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, anxiety, weight gain, headaches, and insomnia.
How to Regulate Stress Hormones?
To help regulate stress hormones, you can focus on activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which has the opposite effect of the fight-or-flight response in the body. The parasympathetic system is also called the rest-and-digest system because it promotes balance in the body, allowing it to rest and repair itself.
Relaxing the body and mind may help keep cortisol and adrenaline levels low. Therefore, the following techniques are worth the try:
- Performing deep breathing exercises
- Practicing Yoga or TaiChi, which combines exercises and breathing techniques
- Following a balanced and healthy diet
- Implementing a regular meditation practice
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol consumption
- Journaling as a way to keep track of your feelings and thoughts
- Finding counseling or therapy to talk over issues that may be stressing you
- Limiting the use of screens such as cellphones, computers, TV before bedtime
It is important to note that if you may be experiencing difficulty managing your stress levels, it is advisable to contact your physician for more help.