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What Are Stress Hormones and How Do They Impact You?

by Medical Review Board
by

We’ve all heard of and experienced stress before. Some describe it as that feeling we get when we’re overwhelmed, anxious, or afraid. But, essentially, stress is that nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it. In other words, stress is the body’s way of responding to anything that requires extra energy or effort.

It’s a natural and essential part of life. Stress can be helpful in small doses, providing the extra energy or focus needed to meet a deadline or handle an emergency. But when stress is constant or overwhelming, it can have serious consequences for our physical and mental health.

One of the ways stress manifests itself in the body is through the release of hormones. These hormones are designed to help us deal with stressful situations by preparing the body for fight-or-flight. This primitive survival mechanism is hardwired into our brains and bodies, allowing us to respond quickly and effectively to danger.

However, in today’s fast-paced, constantly connected world, we’re often bombarded with stressors that don’t require a physical response.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common stress hormones, how they impact our health, and what we can do to manage them.

What Are Stress Hormones?

When we experience stress, our bodies release hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline), cortisol, and norepinephrine. These hormones are designed to help us deal with stressful situations by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. However, chronic stress can take a toll on our bodies and minds over time. So here’s a closer look at some of the main stress hormones.

Cortisol

Cortisol is the main stress hormone that people are familiar with. It’s a steroid hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It can have many different effects on the body. Unlike catecholamines — a group of stress hormones released in large bursts — cortisol is released in smaller amounts but more constantly. This is because cortisol is involved in the body’s long-term stress response. 

Cortisol has many functions, but one of its main roles is to help the body respond to stress. It does this by increasing blood sugar levels and boosting energy production. Cortisol also suppresses non-essential functions like digestion, reproduction, and immunity. This allows the body to redirect its resources to more pressing matters — like dealing with a stressful situation.

While cortisol is an important hormone, too much can be a problem. When cortisol levels are constantly high, it can lead to weight gain, anxiety, depression, and other health problems.

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Catecholamines 

Catecholamines are a group of hormones that includes epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and dopamine. These hormones function as neurotransmitters in the human body, sending signals between nerve cells (neurons) to help the body respond to stress.

Catecholamines are released in response to emotional stress and help to increase heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. Catecholamines also play a role in the “fight or flight” response, which is the body’s natural way of dealing with perceived threats. Here’s a little more insight into each of the main catecholamines.

  • Epinephrine (Adrenaline) – Epinephrine is the hormone most associated with the “fight or flight” response. It’s released in large amounts and has a number of effects on the body, including increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Epinephrine also boosts energy production and blood flow to muscles. While epinephrine can be helpful in short-term situations, too much can lead to anxiety, irritability, and difficulty sleeping.
  • Norepinephrine (Noradrenaline) – Norepinephrine is similar to epinephrine but is released in smaller amounts. It also has a number of different effects on the body, including increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Norepinephrine also boosts alertness and vigilance. It is a metabolite of dopamine, which is produced from dopamine in the body. Like epinephrine, too much norepinephrine can lead to anxiety, irritability, and difficulty sleeping.
  • Dopamine – Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood, motivation, and pleasure. It’s sometimes known as the “reward hormone” because it’s released when we do something that feels good. Dopamine is also involved in the stress response. However, it’s a complex relationship that researchers are still investigating. They know dopamine is essential for coping with stress because it allows adaptation to various environmental stimuli.

Vasopressin 

Vasopressin (also known as an antidiuretic hormone) is a hormone that helps regulate blood pressure and water metabolism in the body. Vasopressin is produced in the hypothalamus (a region of the brain) and stored in the pituitary gland (a small gland located beneath the brain). 

Vasopressin is released into circulation when the body experiences physical or psychological stress. Once in the bloodstream, vasopressin binds to receptors on blood vessels and increases blood vessel constriction. This results in an increase in blood pressure. In addition, vasopressin signals the kidneys to reabsorb more water from urine, which leads to less urine production and helps prevent dehydration during times of physical stress (for example, during exercise). 

Why Humans Have a Stress Response

The stress response is there to help us deal with potentially dangerous or life-threatening situations. When we sense danger, our body kicks into gear and prepares us to either fight or take flight. This is done by releasing a surge of hormones — including vasopressin, adrenaline, and cortisol — which give us extra energy and strength.

The “fight or flight” mode triggered by stress is a survival mechanism that dates back to our days as hunter-gatherers. When faced with a dangerous situation, we fought or took off running. As a result, our heart rate and blood pressure increased, and we released adrenaline and other stress hormones like cortisol. This stress response gave us the energy and strength to confront the danger or quickly escape.

In today’s world, we don’t often find ourselves in life-or-death situations. But our bodies still respond to stress, like when chased by a bear or tiger. The problem is that this constant state of stress takes a toll on our bodies over time. 

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Chronic Exposure to Stress Hormones

Most people know that stress is bad for them, but many don’t realize the full extent of the damage it can do. Stress hormones can wreak havoc on the body, and chronic exposure can lead to various health problems.

Heart Disease

Chronic stress has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. This is likely because chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms. In addition, constantly elevated levels of cortisol can damage the arteries and lead to plaque buildup.

Stroke

One of the most dangerous health conditions caused by chronic stress is stroke. When we’re under stress, our bodies constrict blood vessels to conserve energy. Unfortunately, this can cause a buildup of plaque in the arteries, leading to a blockage and, eventually, a stroke. 

Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety are two common mental health disorders that are often comorbid, meaning they occur together. For example, it’s estimated that up to two-thirds of people with depression also suffer from anxiety and vice versa. While the exact causes of these disorders are unknown, it’s believed that they result from a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors. 

Stress is thought to play a role in the development and worsening of both conditions. This is because stress affects how our brains process serotonin, a chemical responsible for regulating mood. It can also disrupt other systems in the body, including the endocrine and immune systems, which can further contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.

Memory Problems, Brain Fog, and Cognitive Decline

Another effect of chronic stress is memory problems and cognitive decline. This is because when we’re stressed, our brains release cortisol, which may actually kill brain cells. In addition, cortisol has been researched for its ability to inhibit the formation of new memories. If these findings are valid, it would further support the ideas that stress makes it difficult to focus on tasks or remember information. Over time, this can lead to serious problems with memory loss and cognitive decline. 

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is characterized by extreme tiredness that doesn’t improve with rest. In addition, people with CFS often have other symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating and memory problems. While the exact cause of CFS is unknown, it’s believed that chronic stress may play a role.

Weakened Immune System

Exposure to endless stress hormones may weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds, viruses, and other infections. It’s believed that since stress hormones also function as neurotransmitters responsible for communication between cells, they may interfere with the ability of our immune cells to communicate appropriately or improperly allocate resources within our body meant to keep us healthy. 

This can lead to a decrease in the efficiency of our immune response. The exact mechanisms and how they work are still being studied, but chronic stress can affect your immune system.

Gastrointestinal Problems

The gut-brain axis is a theory that suggests there’s a connection between the microbiota in your gut and your brain. This connection is thought to be mediated by the nervous system, hormones, and the immune system. According to this theory, chronic stress may lead to gastrointestinal problems because it affects these systems. 

For example, chronic stress can lead to inflammation in the gut, which can cause various symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. In addition, chronic stress may also alter the composition of the microbiota in your gut, which can lead to imbalances and further gastrointestinal problems.

Weight Gain

In the short-term, stress may cause people to lose their appetite. This is part of the fight-or-flight response. However, why are gaining weight and being under constant stress so synonymous? They seem to go hand-in-hand for a couple of reasons. First, the release of excess cortisol can stimulate appetite causing you to eat more. But it also can trigger cravings for specific foods, including sugary, fatty, and salty items, which tend to be unhealthy. Coupling that with the fact that chronic stress can lead to sleeplessness is a recipe for gaining weight.

Hair and Skin Problems

Chronic stress can also lead to hair and skin problems. This is because cortisol and other hormones produced in the stress response can interfere with the production of collagen and keratin. Collagen is a protein that helps keep our skin looking young and elastic, while keratin is a protein that helps keep our hair strong and healthy. 

When these proteins are reduced, it can lead to dry, brittle hair and skin more susceptible to wrinkles, acne, and other problems. Hair supplements are a great way to help keep your hair looking its best during times of stress. 

Further, many skin conditions are also linked to immune system dysfunction, which, as we’ve already discussed, can be a side effect of chronic stress. Researchers are still investigating the brain-skin connection, but preliminary evidence suggests that chronic stress may negatively impact our hair and skin.

Sleep Problems

One of the most common side effects of chronic stress is insomnia. When stressed, our bodies are in a state of high alert, which can make it difficult to relax and fall asleep. In addition, cortisol and other stress hormones can interfere with sleep by causing us to wake up frequently. This can lead to fatigue during the day, further exacerbating stress levels. It becomes a cycle that’s difficult to break out of. But it’s essential to try, as chronic sleep deprivation can have several negative consequences, including impaired cognitive function, increased risk of accidents and injuries, and weakened immunity. It may also worsen other issues like depression and anxiety

Managing Stress Hormones

Though it might seem a little doom and gloom, solutions are available. If you’re struggling with chronic stress, there are things you can do to help manage your stress hormones and improve your overall health. Here are some measures you can take:

Identify Triggers

One of the best ways to manage stress hormone levels is to identify what causes them to spike. Of course, this can be different for everyone, but there are three primary triggers: physical, mental, and emotional. Once you know your triggers, you can start making changes to avoid them or minimize their impact.

  • Physical Triggers – These include sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise. If you feel stressed more often than not, take a close look at your lifestyle and see if there are any areas where you could improve. Getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and staying active are all necessary for managing stress hormones. 
  • Mental Triggers – These are worry, anxiety, and negative thinking. If your mind constantly races with anxious thoughts, it can be tough to relax and de-stress. Practicing meditation or mindfulness can help you learn to control your thoughts and focus on the present moment. Sometimes, you may also need to work with a mental health professional to address underlying issues. They may suggest techniques or prescribe certain medications to help you.
  • Emotional Triggers – These are things like grief, anger, and anxiety. It can be challenging to cope healthily if you’re dealing with intense emotions. Talking to a therapist or counselor can help you constructively manage your feelings.

Address Underlying Medical Issues

Endocrine disorders and related medical conditions like Graves’ disease (a form of hyperthyroidism), gonadal dysfunction, and obesity can all contribute to the production of stress hormones. To deal with these issues, you’ll need to work with a healthcare professional who can help you manage your condition. In some cases, a program may be necessary to control hormone levels. This would begin with hormone testing to identify imbalances, after which a treatment plan would be developed.

Develop Better Lifestyle Habits

Lifestyle habits include diet, exercise, sleep, and relaxation techniques. Changes in these areas can help reduce stress hormone levels and improve overall health. 

  • Diet – Eating a healthy diet is vital for managing stress hormones. Foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats help promote balance in the body. In addition, certain supplements like omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium can also be helpful to help combat inflammation and help you sleep better.
  • Exercise – Exercise is a great way to release tension and improve mood. It also helps to regulate hormone levels by reducing cortisol production. Set a schedule to ensure you keep up with your new routine and continually select activities that bring you joy. If you really like it, you’re more likely to do it. 
  • Sleep – Getting enough sleep is crucial for managing stress hormones. Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Some quick tips for better sleep hygiene include: avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, establishing a regular sleep schedule, and creating a relaxing bedroom with a comfortable bed and soft lighting. 
  • Relaxation Techniques – Yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation can all help to reduce stress hormone levels. These activities help to promote a sense of calm and well-being. They’re also good for your overall health. If you don’t have time for a class, there are plenty of online resources and apps that can guide you through simple relaxation exercises. 

Supplement Your Diet

Certain supplements can help to improve stress hormone levels. Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and B-complex vitamins are all great for reducing inflammation and promoting balance in the body. There are also specially formulated stress supplements containing ingredients like herbs, amino acids, and vitamins. They are great for those who want a one-stop solution to help reduce stress hormone levels. 

Get Help from a Healthcare Professional

If you struggle to manage your stress hormones, talk to a qualified healthcare professional. They can help you identify any underlying medical issues and develop a treatment plan. Sometimes, they may also recommend counseling or therapy to help you deal with stress and anxiety. Taking steps to manage stress hormones can improve your overall health and well-being.

Final Thoughts on Stress Hormones and Health

Stress hormones have a profound impact on your health. They can contribute to various health problems — from anxiety and depression to heart disease and obesity. Managing stress hormone levels is essential for maintaining good health. There are many things you can do to help reduce stress hormone levels, including talking to a therapist, addressing underlying medical issues, developing better lifestyle habits, and supplementing your diet. If you’re struggling to control your stress hormone levels, talk to a healthcare professional who can help you develop a treatment plan. Taking steps to manage stress hormones can improve your overall health and well-being.

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