The effect of stress hormones on the body

6 months ago by Dr Iwona Pogoda

Reacting to stress is necessary for our survival.  Every time our brain detects a stressful situation (this can be physical, physiological or psychological) our hypothalamus stimulates our pituitary glad to secrete a hormone called ACTH which travels to the Adrenals and makes them release Cortisol. 

This process is called HPA axis (Hypothalamus - Pituitary - Adrenal). 

In addition, our Sympathetic Nervous System is activated and stimulates the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline.  This reaction is described as 'fight or flight' and allows us to avoid danger.  When we are startled or threatened (for example, in the past when we needed to run away from wild beasts or these days when we need to move away quickly from an approaching car), the brain instructs the adrenals to pump more cortisol.

What is happening in our bodies during a stress reaction?

Cortisol increases the glucose level in our body (which creates more energy) and together with the adrenaline directs blood supply from our digestive track and brain to muscle (so we can run faster), our heart rate and breathing increases allowing for oxygenation and as a result we might sweat and feel nervous.

These changes should be temporary.  When the stresses go away we relax and our physiology goes back to normal.  However, in our fast paced modern world, we often are subjected to frequent or even constant stresses.

Chronic stress can be a root cause of many diseases.  It can lead to abdominal weight gain (central obesity), hypertension, diabetes, stroke, cancer and premature aging.  High cortisol can effect various hormones (thyroid, sex hormones affecting for example fertility).

On the other hand, constant activation of the HPA axis can lead to overuse of adrenal reserves and this condition is called Adrenal Fatigue and manifests itself as mental and physical exhaustion, low blood pressure, low libido and greater susceptibility to infection.

Allopathic medicine recognises only extreme high levels of cortisol (Cushing's syndrome) or non existing level of adrenal hormones (Addison Disease).

At The Natural Practice we can facilitate measuring of diurnal values of cortisol by organising and adrenal stress profile or Evaluation of cortisol as part of DUTCH test.

If either of these tests reveal an abnormal cortisol pattern this can be addressed with personalised therapeutic interventions such as:

  • Dietary/lifestyle advice (like stress reduction techniques, exercise, breathing techniques, chanting, meditation, adequate protein/slow-release carbohydrates.
  • Targeted suppllements
  • Hormone therapy (DHEA, malatonin)