In today’s world, we live with constant stress. It’s a reaction that’s helpful in the short run, but chronic stress is hurting our health. Specifically, the way we deal with stress is causing long-term health issues.
What is stress exactly? We tend to see it as something that affects us, but the reality is stress is our reaction to things in our environment and mind.
Something happens, we feel a threat, and we have a reaction—that threat might be physical danger or even the threat of looking bad in front of others.
Stress causes us to release hormones that help us deal with stressful situations. In an acute situation, stress puts us into action mode so we can survive, stay safe, and take action when needed.
For instance, if you see someone yelling at another person on the street, your stress level shoots up, and you become super focused, aware of your surroundings, and ready to either run away or step in and do something.
In another situation, your boss calls you into their office, and you can tell right away that you’ve done something wrong.
Here, your higher stress level might work against you. You can’t “fight” or “flee,” but must listen calmly and devise action steps to correct a problem.
With acute stress, we feel relief once we’re safe or the problem is fixed.
With chronic stress, we never put that anxiety down.
We stress about if we’re performing well enough at work, if we’re in danger of losing our job, if there could be cutbacks in pay, if our children are doing well, if we’re good parents... The list of things to stress over can be endless.
We might even stress about the economy due to what we read and see about our president—this has actually been documented!
The sad fact about this kind of stress is how we’re worried about things out of our control. Even if our stress is job related, it’s often over something that we can affect but not control.
We can put in our best effort, but that doesn’t guarantee a raise.
You see, we stress about many situations that we can’t change, and that causes more worry and stress that we can’t solve.
None of that is new information, but we’re learning more and more about how exactly stress hormones affect our health.
Cortisol, the main stress hormone, has a direct impact on our entire hormonal system. That means it affects the thyroid and all the hormones it produces, it affects insulin and our blood sugar levels, and it even affects sex hormones which control our sex drive and much more.
Stress doesn’t simply trigger one hormone. We experience higher levels of glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormones, and prolactin. All of these have even more effects on us.
We’re busy keeping up with modern life, living on the go, multitasking, exercising and dieting even when we’re exhausted, and battling stress from all angles.
Many people are fighting several vague health problems, feeling drained and sick, and confused about what’s going on and how they can feel better.
Living with high cortisol levels makes it even harder for your body to produce serotonin, which makes you feel good and balances your mood.
The truth is, if you want to balance your hormones to improve your overall health, you need to start by managing your stress.
In a study called “Stress Hormones and Immune Function,” Jeanette Webster Marketon and Ronald Glaserac explained that stress has detrimental effects on our immune function, including:
“Reactivation of latent viral infections” is when people get a cold sore triggered by stress.
They shared, “Such effects on the immune system have severe consequences on health which include, but are not limited to, delayed wound healing, impaired responses to vaccination, and development and progression of cancer. These data provide scientific evidence of the effects of stress on immune function and implications for health.”
It might shock some to see stress linked to cancer. We so often look to environmental factors, i.e. something outside of the body causing harm.
But stress causes us to produce certain hormones, and the role of hormones is to cause change in the body. Cancer is in fact the uncontrolled overgrowth of certain cells, so it makes sense that hormones play a role in that.
When we think about stress throwing off hormones levels and causing growth hormone changes, it’s easy to see how stress damages our cells and bodies.
Researchers Salam Ranabir and K. Reetu studied how stress causes diseases like Graves Disease, gonadal dysfunction, psychosexual dwarfism, and obesity.
Stress activates the pituitary-adrenal axis and releases catecholamines. This leads to increased cardiac output, skeletal muscle blood flow, sodium retention, and many other processes.
Our thyroid function lowers during stressful conditions because stress inhibits thyroid-stimulating hormone secretion through the action of glucocorticoids on the central nervous system.
Many people experience thyroid problems, including weight issues. We’ve been looking at diet and activity level, which are also important, but the picture isn’t complete without looking at stress levels.
Higher cortisol levels cause central fat deposition, meaning we store fat around the waistline.
Cortisol also causes a decrease in the adipostatic signal leptin and an increase in the orexogenic signal ghrelin, and these two changes cause increased appetite and more eating.
For people living thousands of years ago, this helped them survive. If they experienced stress in the fall because they worried about winter food stores, they would hold onto as much fat as possible.
Today, this reaction is causing obesity.
Salam Ranabir and K. Reetu concluded their study “Stress and Hormones,” by saying:
“In today's competitive modern world one encounters stress in various aspects of life. As an adaptive response to stress, there is a change in the serum level of various hormones including CRH, cortisol, catecholamines and thyroid hormone. These changes may be required for the fight or flight response of the individual to stress. However, long-term exposure to stress may lead to many deleterious consequences leading to various endocrine disorders.”
The Mayo Clinic warns that chronic stress puts your health at risk.
Long-term overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones disrupt almost all your body's processes, putting you at higher risk for:
We can’t always escape stress, so the Mayo Clinic advises to manage stress by:
People experience stress differently and find different things to work, so trying many ways to manage stress can help you find the way that works and provide different tools.
On top of stress wrecking havoc on our health through hormones, it affects men and women differently.
The Huffington Post shared that the “fight or flight” response that we’ve heard about for decades is more of a male response.
Stress studies in the past studied mostly men, and it was assumed that males and females would experience stress and respond the same way.
However, the article, “Men Respond to Stress with ‘fight or flight’ while Women ‘Ten and Befriend,’” shares how researchers in Australia found that men respond to stressful situations more aggressively than women.
Women tend to diffuse a situation and seek social support.
That might lead you to wonder if stress affects women less than men, but the opposite is true. We’re learning that “acute and chronic stress may take a greater toll on women’s physical and mental health,” according to many new studies cited in an article from the Huffington Post.
Cortisol causes a temporary increase in energy production at the cost of other bodily process not required for immediate survival, like digestion or immune function.
Women in particular are affected in ways that lead to both short and long term health problems including reduced sex drive, irregular periods, acne, hair loss, and digestive problems.
Some women experience stomach issues that lead to poor appetite, nutrition deficiencies, and weight loss. Others gain weight that they can’t seem to lose no matter what they try.
Research is now linking higher cortisol levels decreased metabolism in women, increased appetite, sugar cravings, and lower waist-to-hip ratios, meaning more weight around the stomach.
Women will eat right, exercise, and do other things to take care of themselves. Yet they can’t lose weight. Instead, they may even continue to gain weight.
Stress can lead to depression. Women are twice as likely to suffer stress-induced depression as men, and new research is showing this is probably due to the different ways that women react to stress.
Stress is believed to account for 30% of all infertility problems.
Symptoms can be more than just irregular periods. Stress causes a suppression of circulating gonadotropins and gonadal steroid hormones, and that leads to the disruption of the menstrual cycle. Prolonged exposure to stress can completely impair reproductive function.
Women with high levels of a stress-related enzyme called alpha-amylase have a harder time getting pregnant. Stress can even cause spasms in the fallopian tubes and uterus.
Women also Experience Stress-related Heart Disease and Stroke.
Historically, we think that men suffer heart attacks due to stress while women don’t.
The truth is, we haven’t understood how women experience stress or heart attack symptoms.
Women living with high stress levels are 40% more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke.
Stress is not a problem “for another day” or something you have to live with uncontrolled.
Because stress affects everyone, we have resources online, at the community level, and professional help.
Many tools for managing stress help you step away and put down your worries for a while, such as having fun, getting absorbed in a hobby or activity, meditating, reading, or being mindful about taking a day off from thinking about work and responsibilities.
We’re not made to carry everything all of the time, so taking some time or a day for just you and enjoying life is a critical aspect of your health.
Find more information about how to deal with stress and balance your hormones at www.powerofhormones.com.
“Stress and hormones.” Salam Ranabir, K. Reetu. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Jan-Mar; 15(1): 18–22. doi: 10.4103/2230-8210.77573
“Examination stress affects plasma levels of TSH and thyroid hormones differently in females and males.” Johansson, G., Laakso, M.-L., Karonen, S.-L., & Peder, M Psychosomatic Medicine, 49(4), 390-396.
“10 Ways Stress Affects Women’s Health.” Carolyn Gregoire. Huffington Post.
Bouchez, C. (2018). Stress and Infertility. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/infertility-and-reproduction/features/infertility-stress#1
“Stress hormones and immune function.” Jeanette I. Webster Marketon. Ronald Glaserac. Cellular Immunology. Volume 252.