Stress; any situation which tends to disturb the equilibrium between a living organism and its environment. In modern society, we are constantly being exposed to stressful situations. How many times a day do you experience stress? Maybe it’s the stress of a big meeting, an ongoing divorce, or even something simple like being stuck in traffic.
Stress leads to hormonal changes needed for the fight or flight response. But, too many stress-related hormonal changes can adversely impact our health. In this article, we’re going to discuss how stress hormones impact our health and what we can do to reduce stress.
Stress elicits an increase in the secretion of stress hormones. These include corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), cortisol, catecholamines, and thyroid hormone.
Acute exposure to these hormones is needed for the fight or flight response. These hormones increase strength, reactability, concentration, heart rate, blood pressure, and cognitive processes. Imagine you’re being chased by a dog. These hormonally driven changes help you overcome the stressor, i.e. the threat of the dog. Once the situation is dealt with our body returns to normal.
But, chronic exposure to hormonal changes can lead to many endocrine disorders. If we’re constantly being exposed to stressors our bodies do not have time to return to a state of homeostasis. This is when problems arise.
The Effect of Stress Hormones on Health Conditions
Research has shown stress contributes to high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, anxiety, depression, and addiction. Additionally, stress may contribute to obesity directly and indirectly.
Consistent release of epinephrine (adrenaline) can cause damage to blood vessels and arteries. Thus stress increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, and hypertension. Hormonal changes can also impact your cholesterol and cause inflammation within the circulatory system.
Increased levels of cortisol trigger the release of the body’s energy stores. This helps replenish depleted stores during the fight or flight response. Chronically high levels of cortisol thus lead to the accumulation of fat and weight gain. Additionally, cortisol is known to increase appetite, thus indirectly influencing weight gain. Chronic exposure to stress hormones has also been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and thyroid problems.
Sex Specific Problems
In women, chronic stress can lead to anovulation, amenorrhea, and menstrual abnormalities. Stress may also worsen PMS, menopause, and reduce sex drive.
In men, chronic stress can reduce sperm count, motility, and morphology. Chronic stress can also cause erectile dysfunction, and infection in the testes, prostate, or urethra.
Byproducts of stress hormones can act as sedatives. Thus, chronic stress can lead to an accumulation of these byproducts. Consequently, they can contribute to fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
How To Regulate Stress Hormones
“Pressure is a privilege”; a popular quote by tennis legend Billie Jean King. There’s no denying, stress is always going to be prevalent in our lives. Working hard in our careers and personal lives are undoubtedly going to elicit stress. It’s our job as health professionals to provide our clients with the tools to reduce the impact of stressors. There are several ways we can minimise the effect on our client’s long-term health.
Mindfulness is an excellent way to remain in the present and reduce the amount of stress a stressor causes you. As we’ve mentioned, unless you live under a rock, stress can’t be avoided. What we can do is reduce how much of a stress response we elicit. Mindfulness is particularly good at reducing stress from the little things such as being stuck in traffic. We can get annoyed, or remind ourselves that we aren’t causing the traffic – there’s nothing we can do about it. Changing our mindset alters how much stress certain stressors cause us. Encourage clients to use mindfulness techniques when they’re feeling stressed.
Stress plays a role in addiction and may lead to an increased risk of obesity and other metabolic conditions. Chronic exposure to stress may result in clients reaching for hyperpalatable foods such as high-fat and high-sugar. Chronic stress is also related to metabolic changes that promote weight gain. The combination of cravings and metabolic changes can lead to weight gain and an increased risk of health diseases. To minimise the effect stress has on our diet, encourage clients to meal plan and make smart food choices by preparing food for the day. Additionally, offer advice on healthy alternatives when stress cravings kick in.
Regular exercise releases the so-called feel-good hormones. These endorphins can help combat the negative effects of stress by improving mood and relieving stress. Furthermore, regular exercise can help combat weight gain, hypertension, and mental health issues – all problems related to chronic stress.
Ranabir, S., & Reetu, K. (2011). Stress and hormones. Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism, 15(1), 18–22. https://doi.org/10.4103/2230-8210.77573
Yau, Y. H., & Potenza, M. N. (2013). Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva endocrinologica, 38(3), 255–267.
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