What do Your Stress Hormones Reveal About You?
Did you know stress causes measurable chemical changes in your body?
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to look at those chemicals and see exactly how stress is affecting your health? Read on to discover what your stress hormones are saying about you.
Your Response to Stress
National Stress Awareness Day provides an opportunity to reflect on 2020 and the abundant stress it brought.
Stress is something you perceive to be a threat. Stress itself doesn’t really exist, it’s simply your perception of and how you react to situations posing a danger. To protect yourself, you can either run away or fight back. Once you’ve either escaped from the situation or fought off your attacker, stress will abate, at least for a time.
Your body has developed strategies for dealing with stress. When a threat is perceived by your brain, hormones are released, designed to provoke specific reactions in your cells.
Extra energy is rapidly made available to your leg muscles so you can run away quickly, your heart beats faster, pumping blood and oxygen around your body, and stored sugar is released for a fast burst of strength or speed. Non-essential functions like digestion take a back seat until things have calmed down.
Your HPA Axis
Your reaction to stress is controlled by three organs working together – your hypothalamus and pituitary, both in your brain, and your adrenal glands, perched on top of your kidneys.
First, stress is sensed, then hormones are released and once stress has reduced, courtesy of a complicated interrelated feedback system, hormone levels fall again. All three organs work very closely together to produce your stress response system.
The two hormones most of interest here are cortisol and DHEA because taken together they can clearly reveal how you’re affected by stress.
Cortisol helps you respond to challenges, pushing up blood sugar so extra energy is available, but it also suppresses your immune system to protect it going into overdrive. Because of this, cortisol shouldn’t remain high for too long.
To avoid cortisol doing too much damage in the meantime, your adrenals also release DHEA. This hormone has the opposite effect to cortisol, protecting you from the damage cortisol would otherwise wreak. Both hormones should remain finely balanced, and released in a regular pattern throughout the day.
What happens frequently in modern life however is stressors pile up one after another with no gap in between, or ongoing issues like money worries or relationship problems never allow stress hormones to abate. All sorts of things can cause ongoing stress to your body, from fluctuating blood sugar to disrupted sleep to inflammation.
Miscommunication between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenals during chronic stress will push the intricate HPA axis off balance.
In reaction to long term stress, DHEA falls and cortisol increases, meaning there’s nothing to stop cortisol causing damage to your tissues. You’ll probably feel tired yet anxious, and unable to sleep. This is known as HPA axis dysfunction and it’s more common in women.
Eventually, cortisol may reduce too, and this is linked to extreme fatigue such as experienced in chronic fatigue syndrome.
This situation is often described as adrenal exhaustion, with the glands becoming too worn out to produce enough cortisol. However, this is a little simplistic. It’s more accurate to say the HPA axis will down-regulate when cortisol is constantly high to stop it causing damage. Your adrenals may be perfectly capable of making cortisol, but they’re being told not to.
Testing Your Stress Response
An unbalanced HPA axis indicates stress is influencing your health.
Looking at your hormone levels at specific times can reveal if your HPA axis is out of kilter and help understand how your body is responding to chronic stress.
By knowing when your hormones should be released and in what quantities, you can see where things are going wrong. Cortisol should be highest in the morning, around half an hour after you wake up. It should then taper off as the day wears on until it’s at about half its morning level by noon.
The levels of hormones affecting your cells are accurately reflected in your saliva, making testing simple. Blood tests are not recommended as stress hormones travel around your blood bound to a protein and therefore inactive.
Functional Medicine and Your Stress Response
An adrenal stress test can take the guesswork out of how your HPA axis is performing.
Nutrients and herbs such as B complex vitamins, magnesium, vitamin C and Ashwagandha may then be recommended to gently support your stress response. Meanwhile, lifestyle modifications including exercise, relaxation, improving sleep quality and balancing blood sugar all reduce stress itself.
If you’d like to discover the role stress is playing in your health, I’ll support you every step of the way with strategies to improve your resilience to stress. Contact me here.