At FDNthrive, we understand what an important part managing stress plays in your overall health. We regularly see how damaging stress is to your hormones. And how it contributes to hormonal imbalance.
Long-term, chronic stress is one of the top contributors to all chronic illnesses. Every person faces their own individual challenges that cause stress. There are far more things that demand our time and attention every day. Many of us aren’t sleeping as well as we should. And far too many people lead fairly sedentary lifestyles.
Bad news everywhere!
There is seemingly bad news everywhere you turn. We are increasingly becoming a society that is stressed out, overwhelmed, and burnt out! Many regularly eat a diet filled with chemical additives, preservatives, flavorings, and sugar. And it is no wonder so many people struggle with feeling stressed and fatigued. We have gadgets that allow us to be accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Add to that, challenges that we all face, such as a pandemic, natural disasters, and war. So we continue to live in a constant state of stress each day.
We are exposed to sources of mental and emotional stress on a consistent basis. And yet, most people do not take the time to combat the negative effects of stress each day. Few regularly practice any form of regular stress management. Instead, many choose to “decompress” by sitting on the couch in front of the television or scroll social media. Neither of these things is a productive way to reduce stress, 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 handle short-term periods of stress. But for many in the world today, stress has become a chronic, long-term problem. And these long periods of abnormally high-stress levels can take a toll on your health. Stress-induced hormonal imbalance is common in the clients our FDN Practitioners work with.
The stress response
When you face a stressful event or situation, the hypothalamus, a small section of the brain that plays an important part in hormone productions, releases a hormone known as CRH (Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone). When CRH is released, the pituitary gland is signaled. In response, the pituitary gland releases a hormone known as ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic Hormone). The Pituitary releases ACTH 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. Cortisol prepares you to either fight or run away from the stressor (think hungry wolf chasing you).
Hormonal imbalance also causes some physical changes to your body. The heart and breathing rates speed up. And the liver releases glucose for extra fuel. Energy diverts from other body systems like the digestive and reproductive systems. Your thinking and decision-making capabilities get sharper.
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. Acid reflux
During the stress response, digestion slows down in response to the release of cortisol. The body conserves energy and directs it to where it’s needed. The body also slows down the production of hydrochloric acid. Digestive issues such as GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux) or acid reflux, which typically is caused by low stomach acid levels are the result.
2. High blood pressure
When your body is experiencing a stressful situation, the body increases your heart rate. It also causes your blood vessels to constrict. This is so more oxygen can be sent to your muscles so that it is easier for them to either fight or run away. 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
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 contribute to diabetes.
4. Lowered immune system
When you first face a stressful situation, the body stimulates the immune system to give you more support. This is a defense mechanism that is designed to protect you against infection and help to heal wounds. But ultimately, the longer chronic stress remains an issue for you, the weaker the immune system becomes. Being on overdrive begins to weaken your immune system. The immune system becomes so weak that it leaves you susceptible to viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungal infections.
5. Fertility problems and loss of libido
When Cortisol is elevated, the reproductive system is shut down significantly to conserve energy. The release of certain hormones is stopped. This includes important sex and reproductive hormones. This can cause problems with fertility. It can also contribute to low libido. Hormonal imbalance is one of the top causes of fertility issues. Getting a better handle on stress can help reverse those imbalances.
6. Mood problems and mental illness
There is a strong connection between anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses when there is a chronic elevation of cortisol levels. Chronic stress reduces the level of vital neurotransmitters in the brain. The neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of your brain. Two important neurotransmitters that can impact your mood and mental health are serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of either of these important brain chemicals can leave you depressed and/or anxious. Not only do low levels of these chemicals impact your mood, but they also increase the risk of binge eating and other addictions.
7. Weight gain
While facing a stressful situation, your appetite will increase. Your body will also send a signal to increase the release of insulin. The adrenal glands release Cortisol causing the body to begin to crave carbohydrates or fatty foods. The body stores these foods as an energy reserve in the form of fat. So, while in a time of chronic stress, not only will your appetite for carbs and fatty food increase…so will 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 stops completely. And brain cells begin 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 hormonal imbalance should be a priority. Make time to actively manage stress daily. Meditating, deep breathing, walking in nature, exercises such as Tai Chi and yoga are just a few things you can do to help lower stress. Finding something you can do to reduce stress can help to lower Cortisol levels. A regular stress management practice can help to stop the chronic stress response in your body. And it allows 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.
If you need help reducing stress, the FDN Practitioners at FDNthrive can help! A regular stress management practice is one part of the protocol we use with our clients. Contact us today to see how one of our FDNthrive Health Detectives may be able to help you to get well, and stay well naturally.