Correlation between Hormone Imbalance and Stress

Long-term stress or chronic stress is detrimental to one’s total health: emotional, mental, physical, psychological, and spiritual. The degree to which hormone imbalances and stress levels are related has been researched for years. However, it is only recently, in the last 10-15 years, that researchers have connected the impact of long-term stress and hormone imbalance.

What is Stress?

“Stress’ may be defined as any situation that disturbs the equilibrium between a living organism and its environment. There are many stressful situations in daily life such as work pressure, examinations, psychosocial stress, and physical stresses due to trauma, surgery and various medical disorders.”

The body is a finely tuned living machine. It reacts to an enormous number of stimuli every second, every hour, and every day. Whether these stress stimuli are from within or without, the body responds to the stress. The initial stress response, known as the flight-or-fight response, is an “instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses” that occur within the body. In this way, the body has developed a survival mechanism. A person perceives a threat, and he/she/they must fight or run. That is the natural response to immediate stress. However, imagine an ongoing stressor that is intense and ever-threatening; how does the body handle this onslaught of stimuli? Perhaps the stressor is working with frequent deadlines, an illness, pain, or starvation—regardless of the nature of the stressor, the body responds.

The Brain and Stress

When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.”

The body’s systems send messages to the nerves and glands, then many of these glands pump a hormone (adrenaline) into the blood system. This action brings many changes, such as increased heart rate, pulse and blood pressure, and rapid breathing. The stress response also causes blood sugar (glucose) and fats to be released into the bloodstream enabling additional energy for the flight-or-fight response.

That is the simple explanation of the immediate stress response.

Long-term or Chronic Stress

Chronic stress can cause strokes, heart disease, endocrine disorders such as Graves disease, obesity, thyroid, and adrenal problems, psychological problems, sleep disruption, and other complex disorders.

Furthermore, there are several conditions set off by the constant release of hormones in the body that can lead to:

  • Abnormalities with reproductive function and typical menstrual cycles
  • Reduced intestinal motility (the loss of muscular activity in the intestine, which can lead to intestinal spasms and paralysis)
  • T3 and T4 levels in the thyroid decrease with stress and, in turn, inhibit hormones that impact the central nervous system
  • Negative impact on the health of the immune system
  • One cause of Diabetes

According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress can lead to these additional conditions:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

The Mayo Clinic reports that genetics and life experiences can also influence one’s response to stress. It is known that ongoing stress, such as domestic violence, food scarcity, and other forms of trauma, can create a state of constant anxiety. This type of stress is also known as toxic stress.

Men and Women Respond Differently to Stress

Research has shown that men and women respond differently to stress “both psychologically and biologically.”

“Gender is an important determinant of human health, and there is a clear pattern for the sex-specific prevalence rates of various mental and physical disorders. Susceptibility to infectious diseases, hypertension, aggressive behavior, and drug abuse is generally observed to be higher in men. Conditions such as autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety disorders are relatively more prevalent among women.”

The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA axis) response and the sympathetic nervous system (the system of nerves that respond to stress, physical activity, and related heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, urination, sweating, for example) are not consciously controlled by the individual. This system responds differently in men and women. Many of the conditions mentioned above are either male or female-dominated. Regardless of gender responses, researchers have demonstrated that psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders have been linked to the dysfunction of the HPA axis.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a “potent anti-inflammatory that functions to mobilize the glucose (blood sugar) reserves for energy and modulate inflammation….” Cortisol is a hormone made by the adrenal glands, also known as the stress hormone. As stated above, the HPA axis suffers from high-stress levels or ongoing trauma. Again, the body needs an immediate and ample supply of blood sugar and fat to respond to a threat.

Cortisol Testing and Hormone Imbalance Due to Stress

While a cortisol test usually is used to test for two severe conditions, it can also reveal whether the hormone levels are due to ongoing stress. Normal cortisol levels fluctuate daily, but the results can indicate an adrenal disorder. The test will indicate whether the levels are high or low. It is then that the investigative work begins: what is causing the abnormal levels?

There are three ways to get a cortisol test: 1) blood test, 2) Saliva test, and 3) Urine test. Sometimes multiple tests must be done as the levels usually change during the day. “Although a stress-induced increase in cortisol secretion is adaptive in the short-term, excessive or prolonged cortisol secretion may have crippling effects, both physically and psychologically.”

In the case of cortisol abnormalities, one’s physical health will not be well. Elevated levels of cortisol can damage the receptors that help modulate the cortisol levels up and down. The cycle of damage to other receptors and the body’s ability to communicate successfully and manage stress is hindered. Stress-induced cortisol dysfunction includes: “bone and muscle breakdown, fatigue, depression, pain, memory impairments, sodium-potassium dysregulation, orthostatic hypotension, and impaired pupillary light reflex [injury to brain stem function].”

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