A few weeks ago, I wrote about the body’s stress response, or “fight-or-flight” response. The article described what happens inside the body in a situation of immediate danger – the alarm phase. The changes I described are mainly due to the stress hormone adrenaline. It triggers a cascade of mechanisms designed to save our life. The effects of adrenaline are very short lived.
Another stress hormone, cortisol, kicks in right after adrenaline. It is produced in order to continue fighting the effects of a stressor long after adrenaline has worn off. Cortisol stimulates the conversion of protein into glucose to ensure that the body has a sufficient supply of energy even after the emergency stores of glucose have been depleted. For the same reason, it also continues to inhibit the functioning of insulin and sustains the changes to the cardiovascular system – among others elevated blood pressure and a fast beating heart – that are designed to transport oxygen and glucose to those cells that need them most in an emergency situation. Cortisol also helps us deal with emotional crisis, performing strenuous task and fighting pain and infection.
This is all extremely useful in an actual dangerous situation. Although physical danger is undesirable, it doesn’t normally go on forever. When it is over we can start recovery – again with the help of cortisol, which stimulates appetite and has anti-inflammatory properties. Eventually, all is well again and we move on.
Yet, today’s stressors are different. We are – luckily! – rarely under physical threat these days, but most of us are stressed, some of us often, some of us all the time. What this means is that our adrenal glands, where stress hormones are made, have to continuously churn out those hormones, with hardly any break, and in the long run, this can have serious consequences. If cortisol is constantly or very frequently present in the blood stream:
- Blood pressure is high.
- Insulin function is impaired, which over time can lead to diabetes II.
- The heart beats fast and works overtime.
- We are on high alert, which interferes with concentration and can contribute to anxiety.
- Digestion is erratic at best.
- Fertility is on hold, because as far as the body can tell this is not a good time to procreate.
This is clearly not good! Prolonged stress really is not just tiring, unpleasant and a matter of the mind. It affects the whole body and can be at the root or at least a contributing factor to a whole host of chronic illnesses.
Stress is often seen as “busyness to an unpleasant degree”, but having to rush around all day long is not the only and not the worst stressor by far. Technically, almost any change in our environment is a stressor: hot or cold, physical trauma such as illness or injury, stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and sugar, environmental toxins (including exhaust fumes, pesticides, chemical exposure from furniture, cosmetics etc.), even exercise, if excessive. Then there are emotional stressors, like bereavement, divorce, bullying, job loss, debt and more.
Apart from the effects continuous stress hormone secretion has on the body, it also affects the adrenal glands, where they are made. For one, these little glands that sit on top of each of your kidneys, have other jobs as well. They make a wide range of other hormones besides stress hormones, too. If the adrenal glands are busy making stress hormones for a long time, this takes up most of their capacity and other hormones fall by the wayside. Remember: acute stress is meant to be a priority (and short-lived), so all efforts are diverted to them.
Stress hormones also hog the “raw materials” other hormones need: Cortisol and ultimately the sex hormones progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone are made from a hormone called pregnenolone, which in turn is made from cholesterol. If all the pregnenolone is diverted towards the production of cortisol, this will have a knock-on effect on sex hormone levels: think premenstrual syndrome (PMS), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fertility, libido and more.
Co-factors required for other hormones, too, are going towards the production of stress hormones. Stress uses up vital vitamins and minerals that will be missing elsewhere.
If stress persists over years and years, the adrenal glands can wear out and struggle to produce any hormones at all. You’d feel very tired and exhausted to the extent where even sleep does not refresh you enough, struggle to concentrate, and might even experience depression. It is possible to recover, but it may take a long time. After all, it took a long time to get to this stage, too.
So, what to do? Watch this space! While you wait, you may want to subscribe to Nutrilicious News. Tomorrow’s contains a yummy stress-busting recipe, which is easy to make, as always. There’ll also be a breakdown of what it is that combats stress in this particular recipe.