Stress… How It Affects Our Lives and Hormone Balance

“I’m all stressed out”. How many times have we heard this expression in our lives? Has this become such a common remark that we forget to really understand what it means? More than likely, it is overstated, but maybe not. I don’t think we understand how much stress we all have in our lives. We have become very accustomed to daily stress and in most cases have been forced to adapt to stress even in the most extreme cases. STRESS HAS BECOME A WAY OF LIFE.

In this article, I will discuss “stress” and how it affects hormone balance; which consequentially and dramatically affects our health and daily lives.

What is the definition of stress? In short, almost anything and everything can produce stress. Even when we are “not stressed” we can be stressed thinking about why we are not stressed. Below are some of the common stressors in our lives:

  • Job and finances
  • Illness, surgery
  • Parenthood (Who wrote the book?…I want a refund)
  • Hormone imbalance (age related, stressed induced)
  • Pollution (all types including radiation pollution)
  • Diet (sugar, high carbohydrate foods)
  • Emotional stress (divorce, relationships, death of a loved one)
  • Physical stress (over exercise)
  • Alcohol
  • Poor life decisions
  • School
  • Hydration (fluid balance)

There are basically three types of stress: Acute stress; stress that has a sudden onset and is quickly resolved. Chronic stress; stress that may or may not have a sudden onset, but lasts for a prolonged period of time (maybe our whole lives). And oxidative stress; or metabolic stress. This is stress at the cellular level which is generally chronic and will without a doubt destroy our bodies if left unchecked. Chronic stress causes the formation of free radicals such as the, “reactive oxygen species” (ROS). These free radicals are absolutely necessary to our health. They are used to kill foreign bacteria, viruses and the like. But when unbridled, they are indiscriminate killers. These very useful but very destructive free radicals when left unchecked can kill healthy cells. The body uses “antioxidants” such as: super oxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, and glutathione at the cellular level to neutralize the ROS and other free radicals to keep their destructive behavior in check. In short, anti-oxidant, anti-oxidant, anti-oxidant becomes absolutely paramount to good health. Chronic stress leads to oxidative stress and anti-oxidants are the answer. Chronic stress also affects the “telomeres”, which are the end caps of a strand of DNA. Telomeres are constantly regenerated by “telomerase” and chronic stress reduces this regeneration process. As a result, the DNA, which contains the chromosomes (which has the genetic sequencing code to reproduce a cell) becomes damaged and the cell dies. This can lead to many cell deaths and tissue necrosis, or death of tissue.

The body tries to control the inflammatory process of stress by increasing the release of “cortisol” or “hydrocortisone” produced by the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands sit just above the kidneys and have a monumental job to perform. They produce cortisol to control inflammation and stress. They produce

Aldosterone, which regulates fluid balance in the body. They produce adrenalin and nor-adrenalin for our fight and flight mechanisms. Additionally, they produce 40% of our sex steroid hormones, i.e. estrogen, testosterone, DHEA, progesterone.

Fortunately and unfortunately we have a system in the brain called the “Limbic System”. It is a primitive part of the brain, which through the process of evolution hasn’t changed much. It is a part of the brain which has allowed “man” to survive. It always acts as a defense mechanism. Through the release of adrenalin, cortisol and aldosterone, man has been able to survive. In today’s world, we have replaced primitive man’s survival dilemma with the stress of everyday life of modern man. The limbic system of survival does not make a distinction when it comes to stress. Stress is Stress. Ancient or modern it is all the same. Good and Bad. Not every stress in our modern day lives involves a life or death situation as in primitive man. But the body still responds to stress as a life or death situation. Therein lays the problem. Modern man (in many ways due to the Limbic System) is no different than primitive man. Modern man has exchanged the extreme stress and challenge of ancient man to survive with the chronic stress of everyday life of today’s world to survive. This can lead to hormone imbalance. Remember that the adrenals produce 40% of the sex steroid hormones in the body. That is on a good day with minimal stress. When we become stressed, sex steroid hormone production  basically stops to increase cortisol production to control stress. Primitive man’s life expectancy was only a fraction of today’s modern man. They probably never lived long enough to experience menopause or andropause.

Understanding the adrenal contribution of sex steroid hormones and the effect that stress has on the production of these hormones is absolutely the key to understanding “Hormone Balance”. Simply stated: “the more stress, the less hormones”. When hormone levels become imbalanced or reduced, quality of life changes. The many benefits of hormone balance can be jeopardized or complicated with stress and it’s effect on the adrenal glands.

Any and all stressors cause an increased production and release of cortisol. Cortisol increases our appetite and causes us to eat more to provide and store more calories for the next stressful event. Cortisol also activates the liver to produce more glucose for more fuel. Ancient man burned off these excess calories. Modern man stores and does not generally burn off these additional calories. These extra calories are stored as fat tissue. Stress can lead to obesity. Particularly central truncal obesity and belly fat.

An elevated cortisol level with chronic stress suppresses thyroid activity. Thyroid hormone controls man’s “basal metabolic rate” (BMR). This is the rate of metabolic function or the rate at which we burn calories. As we age, BMR decreases. Chronic stress decreases BMR. This is part of the Limbic system of the brain. As BMR goes down, we burn less calories and store more calories. This provides a fuel storage for the next life or death situation. In modern man, this helps contribute to obesity and belly fat.

Elevated cortisol levels with chronic stress suppresses thyroid activity in three ways:

  1. Suppression of TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone)
  2. Decreased conversion of T4 to T3
  3. Thyroid resistance

As thyroid activity decreases, cholesterol levels generally increase and body temperature decreases, thus decreasing peripheral circulation which can cause high blood pressure. These are just 2 of the many potential problems which chronic stress and thyroid suppression can produce.

How do we control stress? There is no ONE answer. Some stressors cannot be avoided. Jobs are considered to be one of the major stressors in our lives today. However, diet, lifestyle changes, behavioral modification, rest and relaxation, prayer, meditation, yoga, a good night’s sleep are just a few ways that may reduce stress.

Also, remember to conserve that life saving, precious adrenal hormone, CORTISOL. “Don’t give anyone or anything a single milligram of cortisol that doesn’t rightfully deserve your donation”