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Stressing Out the Hormonal Balance

Generally speaking stress means pressure or strain, which, our busy lifestyle is subjecting us to on a daily basis. It can be physical, emotional, or psychological, but everyone experiences stress at times. How well we cope with stress depends on a number of factors, one of which is hormone balance.  The body's experience of stress is carefully mapped out by a series of hormone responses.

The changes that happen during moments of stress can be very helpful when they happen for a short time. The adrenal glands are small glands that sit on top of the kidneys and produce different hormones. Under stress, the adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol along with the catecholamine hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. When this happens for a long period of time, producing too many stress hormones can affect your health. Because more than 70% of disease is believed to be stress-related; early identification of the effects of chronic stress is an important step in reducing the incidence of chronic disease.

Since cortisol plays a role in a variety of positive functions in the body including regulating glucose metabolism, blood pressure, immune function and inflammatory response it is important to learn how to manage your stress levels. Well managed stress levels can also help you maintain a healthy weight and provide you energy when you really need it. Otherwise, you may start experiencing symptoms you don’t even realize are indications of adrenal fatigue or burn out.

Here are four ways cortisol affects your health that may indicate an imbalance:

  Your cardiovascular system is directly affected by cortisol levels. Increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and your level of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood are impacted by stress and are risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD). In men, elevated hair cortisol levels may predict future risk for heart disease and in individuals who have been diagnosed with heart disease and type II diabetes high hair cortisol levels are more common than in a normal healthy population.
  Chronic stress may lead to adrenal glands overproducing cortisol which can contribute to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by compromising digestion and absorption functions. Indigestion develops and the mucosal lining becomes irritated and inflamed. The flux of estrogen and progesterone in women may also play a role in IBS as well as it can make a woman’s gallbladder empty more slowly and increase the cholesterol in her gallbladder, doubling her risk of developing gallstones.
  Repeated elevation of cortisol can lead to weight gain via visceral fat storage. Increased abdominal fat is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. A second way in which cortisol may be involved in weight gain is a blood sugar imbalance. Consistently elevated cortisol over the long term steadily produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels. High blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression lead to cells that are starved of glucose. This results in hunger signals, or cravings, being sent to the brain which often results in overeating. Theoretically, this mechanism can also increase the risk for type 2 diabetes. Cortisol may directly influence appetite and cravings by binding to hypothalamus receptors in the brain as well and can indirectly influences appetite by modulating other hormones and stress responsive factors known to stimulate appetite.
  Cortisol functions to reduce inflammation in the body. However, over a long period of time, these efforts to reduce inflammation also suppress the immune system. Chronic inflammation, caused by lifestyle choices such as poor diet and stress, wreak havoc on the immune system. An unchecked immune system responding to persistent inflammation can lead to a whole host of issues such as an increased vulnerability to colds or other infections, a tendency to develop food sensitivities, an increased risk of gastrointestinal issues and possibly an increased risk of autoimmune disease.

If you think you are experiencing adrenal fatigue or a cortisol imbalance, talk to your healthcare professional about cortisol testing.