We live in a day in age where everyone seems to be stressed out all of the time. In fact this way of living has become somewhat praised. The truth about it though is that our bodies have not adapted to be well equipped to deal with this amount of continual stress. Our ancestors lived day to day in a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state, unless danger struck, such as an attacking bear, and they were forced to turn on their stress response. This fight or flight stress response is normal and actually healthy. It only becomes unhealthy when it becomes chronic. And though most of us are not being chased by a bear, our bodies perceive all stress the same. They do not know the difference between the latter and something as simple as opening a stressful email.
Of course this means we have to learn how to perceive and handle stress in a different manner to save ourselves from the negative effects it can have on our health in the short and long run. But in order to let the importance of this set in for you, I want to cover all the ways that stress affects our health, particularly it’s negative effects on our hormones. Chronic stress means chronic elevated levels of cortisol. This chronic elevated level of cortisol can lead to a number of health issues including: Cardiovascular diseases, mental health issues, blood sugar imbalance and diabetes, thyroid issues, breakdown of bone and muscle tissue, increased inflammation, weight gain, lowered immune function, UTIs and hormone distribution leading to loss of libido, irregular periods, amenorrhea, PMS and infertility.
With all that covered, it’s no question that stress is devastating to our health. But how does stress and cortisol affect our hormones? Well let’s take a look. I will try my best to keep this as simple as possible while also giving enough detail to make it completely understandable.
When we receive a stressor in life, our fight or flight response is turned on by the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) through the production of cortisol. This signals the hippocampus to tell the hypothalamus that danger is here and it’s time to respond. This causes the hypothalamus to release Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH) which signals to the pituitary gland to release Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH). ACTH is sent to the adrenals in order for them to release cortisol and adrenaline. When this release of cortisol happens, our body is notified to prioritize only the most important bodily functions for survival.
As you may guess, when you are running from a bear (or stressed out by your boss), functions such as digestion, reproduction and muscle growth are not that important and so they get put on the backburner until your body knows you are safe again. The problem here is that the stress response is continually turned on, our bodies are never told that we are safe and so these functions end up being placed on hold for far too long. This ends up affecting a whole list of functions including your metabolism, immune function, reproductive abilities, insulin sensitivity and more.
Now to understand how stress affects hormones, let’s dive into the HPG axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis). This axis is in charge of growth, development and reproduction. The hypothalamus releases Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone (GnRH) which tells the pituitary to release Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH). These hormones signal your gonads to produce estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. However, stress can easily disrupt this cycle.
Chronic levels of cortisol will reduce the production and release of GnRH, FSH, LH, estrogen and progesterone. This is an evolutionary defense to avoid reproduction in times of “danger” so it can save resources for more important functions such as staying alive. This is why those with chronic stress may have decreased levels of estrogen and progesterone.
Another large player when it comes to stress and hormones is something called the “pregnenolone steal”. Pregnenolone is very important in the body because it is the precursor many of our sex hormones. To lay this out in simple terms, the building block of sex hormones starts with cholesterol which is then turned into pregnenolone. Pregnenolone is then turned into either DHEA or progesterone. From here it will be converted into either testosterone and estrogen or cortisol.
To help better understand this process, here is a simplified breakdown of the two main pathways:
Cholesterol -> pregnenolone -> DHEA -> testosterone or estrogen
Cholesterol -> pregnenolone -> progesterone -> cortisol
In a state of stress, more pregnenolone goes to the use of making cortisol and less is left for the use of sex hormones. This is what is occuring when we refer to the pregnenolone steal, pregnenolone is stolen for the use of cortisol rather than sex hormones because the body will always prioritize survival over reproduction.
If you have had your hormones tested or struggle with symptoms of low or disrupted hormones, stress management may be one of the most important steps in your health journey.
To truly address stress you will need to reassess your life and priorities. Reducing stress in life is very important, but maybe more important is learning to reframe the way you think about and deal with stressors. Looking at stressful situations in a different light, deep breathing, meditating, time in nature, reducing worry, cutting back on high intensity exercise, prioritizing sleep, saying “no” to things you don’t want to do, cutting out caffeine and alcohol, eating a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet and possibly incorporating an adaptogenic or adrenal support supplement, such as Designs for Health Adrenal Complex, into your routine can all be very beneficial as stress management techniques.
Understanding just how impactful stress is on our health gives us a whole other avenue of improving health. Sometimes just supplements and nutrition aren’t enough, we need to look at the whole picture and realize just how complex and amazing our bodies truly are!