For most people stress is a constant in their life, a sort of imaginary friend or foe, depending on the day. This ‘friend’ really can push your buttons, literally. You see, this ‘friend’ activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system, which results in a series of neural and endocrine adaptions, better known as the stress response or stress cascade. In which the hypothalamus launches the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This launch triggers a cascade of events that result in a neural and endocrine domino effect in the body, during which the adrenal glands release adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and cortisol. These stress hormones cause your heart rate to increase, forcing blood to pump faster and blood pressure to rise while increasing the clotting ability of your blood. Your GI system stands-down, and your bronchioles dilate so you can get more oxygen and glucose (sugar) is released to fuel your body so it can run away from the threat. This is terrific if you’re being chased by a tiger, but no so great if you’re sitting in your car on your way to work.
Stress isn’t just psychologically derived either, your body can be under stress from toxins or impaired detoxification, infections (bacteria, yeast, parasitic, viral), allergens (food, mold, dust, pollens, chemicals), and nutrition (dietary insufficiencies or excesses). So, if you have a stressful job, family life, don’t get adequate sleep, have allergies, take any number of common medications that impair the detoxification pathway of the liver, eat a less than optimal diet, have experienced emotional or physical trauma you could very well be experiencing hormonal dysfunction
To start talking about hormones, we have to talk about cholesterol. When you think of cholesterol you probably think of it in relation to heart disease or dietary consumption, but cholesterol is super important to the body. In fact, cholesterol feeds our adrenals and sex glands to produce hormones, the first of which is pregnenolone—the matriarch of the steroid hormone family. Pregnenolone has a key role in hormone balance and is a precursor to cortisol, DHEA, and progesterone. Moreover, it helps the body’s stress response system. However, problems can start to arise when your stress hormone, cortisol, is prolonged or chronically elevated, as this leads to a siphoning of pregnenolone from the pathway responsible for the production of sex hormones. This is referred to a pregnenolone steal.
Chronically elevated cortisol has been associated with:
Type 2 diabetes
Just one stressor on the body, such as sleep deprivation, has been shown to increase evening cortisol levels; increase insulin and blood glucose levels; decrease parasympathetic and increase sympathetic tone; increase appetite and energy expenditure; increase levels of proinflammatory cytokines; and increase blood pressure! So, if you find you’re fatigued to the point you have to drag yourself from bed only to douse your inners with caffeine and anyone in your path better watch out until you’ve had at least one cup of your caffeinated beverage of choice…um this may be an issue. Yes, I too, used to believe it was an urban myth that people could function without caffeine, especially first thing in the morning, but it’s not. It may be common that so many people rely on caffeine, but it’s not normal and it precludes one from being in touch with how tired/fatigued they really are. So, if you’re thinking or muttering, “I could never live without caffeine,” you may have some hormone dysfunction.
About a year and half ago, I was suspicious I had burnt the candle from both ends for far too long. I was having horrible bouts of fatigue, needed lots of sleep sometimes and other times I would have insomnia. I definitely needed my morning coffee(s), and usually caffeine around 3pm because I felt like I hit a wall. I was becoming too tired to even exercise and if I did, I felt weak and had increased muscle soreness after the fact. I would also feel like I was coming down with a bug, where my lymph nodes would swell, I’d get a sore throat, and feel oh so tired, but never get sick. I felt anxious and irritable and less able to problem solve and would forget things more easily. I wasn’t sick per se, but I didn’t feel like myself either and knew something was wrong. Being certified in Functional Medicine Coaching, I’ve had lots of education on hormones and was highly suspicious I had full blown adrenal fatigue, so I ordered myself a salivary cortisol test that included DHEA , and what I found did not surprise me. My cortisol levels were well below normal and my DHEA was low too. In response, I went to an IFM certified functional medicine provider who is also a medical doctor (MD) and board certified in internal medicine and showed her my labs. She confirmed what I suspected -adrenal fatigue. After additional lab work, she prescribed me supplements to support my adrenal function and boost my immune system. Additionally, I tried even harder to optimize my lifestyle factors (i.e. sleep/relaxation, exercise/movement, nutrition, stress, relationships). After about 6 months, I was able to eliminate my caffeine dependence and live to tell the tale. After about a year, I felt ‘normal’ which to me was energetic, healthy, and positive—a ‘take on the world’ sort of vigor I hadn’t had in years.
What are some things you can do to counteract stress hormones? Step one, activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Remember, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are the yin and yang of stress response. The sympathetic gets activated when the body is under stress, and the parasympathetic needs to be activated to bring it back into a neutral state. Massage, acupuncture, yoga, laughter, adaptogenic herbs all help activate or support the PNS. Step two, boost your oxytocin, with cuddles and love! Hanging out with friends and family (as long as they are nurturing and supportive of course) helps produce oxytocin, which has powerful anti-stress effects. Step 3, replace judgement with curiosity. This lessens the release of stress hormones, which limit our perceptions (i.e. our inability to see the forest from the trees) by shifting threat-focused-thinking to opportunity-focused-thinking. Step 4, eat a variety of whole (unprocessed) foods and get plenty of rest Step 5, seek out professional help if you think you’re experiencing hormone dysfunction or have a condition associated with hormone dysfunction. You don’t have to feel this way!
What signs is your body giving you about your current lifestyle (or pace of life)?
When was the last time your stress was significantly lower? What has changed?
What’s one change that would make the biggest difference in your stress level?