How often have you heard from doctors or relatives that stress is a culprit of everything as you raise a regular health complaint? Stress does indeed have a profound and systemic effect on our bodies. This goes to an extent where many scientific studies argue that about 70% of illnesses are actually related to stress.1 Besides, since stress stimulates the release of certain hormones, chronic stress often leads to hormone disbalance and long-term health conditions. Interestingly, the reverse is also true - hormone fluctuations can seriously mess up our emotional stability. Let’s dig into this a bit deeper.
What is stress and why do we experience it? Stress is the protective reaction of our bodies to external stimuli, which can cause negative but natural emotions: fear, anxiety, and anger. As a response, the body releases stress hormones, mainly adrenaline and cortisol, which help us to quickly adapt to a new potentially dangerous environment. Anthropologically speaking, this was very relevant at times when your distant relative had to run away from a tiger to save his life.
Nowadays, this might be the case when you lift heavy weights or run a marathon as well as when you sit school exams, have toxic relationships with a partner or a boss or struggle to pay your bills. While in the short-term frame, stress hormones help you to focus and tackle the problem, in the long run, they cause great damage to the immune system, making your body vulnerable to other diseases2 and negatively affecting your mental health.3
Without further ado, meet the culprits of our health issues in modern life.
When talking about stress cortisol presents a particular health hazard. It puts our distressed bodies in alert mode. Cortisol excretes in a short time, although the body experiencing chronic stress releases it constantly. This can lead to drowsiness, sugar cravings, fat deposits, memory impairment and deterioration of attention. Frequent stress contributes to gaining excessive weight and accelerates the ageing process by suppressing other sex hormone production (e.g. estrogen, testosterone).
High cortisol conflicts with the hormones of joy, serotonin and dopamine, leading to higher risks of depression.4 Additionally, cortisol contributes to a decrease in immunity, high blood pressure, hypoglycemia, reduction of the muscle tissue and diabetes, hormone disbalances, autoimmunity and even heart attacks and strokes.1
The release of adrenaline occurs at the peak of your stress reaction. The hormone secretion can be triggered by simply watching a horror movie as well as during a car crash. Adrenaline increases heart rate, blood pressure and energy expenditure. While adrenaline is necessary to use the maximum of body capabilities during a stressful situation, excessive and chronic secretion possesses a real threat to health. In the long term, excessive adrenaline can lead to fat deposits, blood clots, hypertension, causing cardiovascular diseases and excessive weight.5
The following sex hormones are tightly linked to stress hormones showcasing delicate interlinks between hormonal cycles in our bodies:
Testosterone decreases in men during chronic stress and increases in women. As a result, both men and women can experience hormonal imbalances.6
Oestrogen decreases in women with chronic stress, which will disrupt the menstrual cycle and may have a prolonged negative impact on mental health.7
Prolactin levels may increase during stressful conditions and can upset the balance of progesterone and oestrogen and impact hormonal health in both men and women.8
Insulin is directly affected by cortisol and prolonged high levels of cortisol cause an increase in insulin release, disrupting glucose metabolism as well as impacting other sex hormones through insulin.9
Hormonal imbalance and stress are a two-way street: they strongly influence each other. But at the same time, it is important to remember that stress resistance varies dramatically from one person to another and the hormone response does too.10
- Lee DY, Kim E, Choi MH. Technical and clinical aspects of cortisol as a biochemical marker of chronic stress. BMB Rep. 2015 Apr;48(4):209-16.
- Zefferino R, Di Gioia S, Conese M. Molecular links between endocrine, nervous and immune system during chronic stress. Brain Behav. 2021 Feb;11(2):e01960.
- Christian J. Merz, Oliver T. Wolf, How stress hormones shape memories of fear and anxiety in humans. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2002; 142: 104901.
- Morey JN, Boggero IA, Scott AB, Segerstrom SC. Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function. Curr Opin Psychol. 2015 Oct 1;5:13-17.
- Majewski H, Alade PI, Rand MJ. Adrenaline and stress-induced increases in blood pressure in rats. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol.1986 Apr;13(4):283-8.
- Rivas AM, Mulkey Z, Lado-Abeal J, Yarbrough S. Diagnosing and managing low serum testosterone. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2014 Oct;27(4):321-4.
- Roney, J.R., Simmons, Z.L. Elevated Psychological Stress Predicts Reduced Estradiol Concentrations in Young Women. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology1, 30–40 (2015).
- Lennartsson AK, Jonsdottir IH. Prolactin in response to acute psychosocial stress in healthy men and women. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2011 Nov;36(10):1530-9.
- Chao AM, Jastreboff AM, White MA, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Stress, cortisol, and other appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017 Apr;25(4):713-720.
- Ponzi D, Flinn MV, Muehlenbein MP, Nepomnaschy PA. Hormones and human developmental plasticity. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2020 Apr 5;505:110721.
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