Chronic stress disrupts your hormones

Chronic Stress

Ongoing stress due to an unhealthy diet and lifestyle elevates cortisol, the body’s emergency response. This leads to endocrine or hormone depletion and imbalances, which may result in obesity, insulin resistance, Type 2 Diabetes and fertility issues.

What is the endocrine or hormone system?

The endocrine system is a complex collection of glands that produce chemical messengers called hormones. Hormones regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep and mood. The major endocrine or hormone glands include the pineal gland, pituitary gland, pancreas, ovaries, testes, thyroid gland, parathyroid gland, hypothalamus, gastrointestinal tract and adrenal glands. 

Your body creates over 100 hormones that transfer information and instructions from one cell to another. Hormones therefore affect virtually all body tissue. 

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid or steroid hormone produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney. The secretion of cortisol is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenals, which together are called the HPA axis.

Cortisol is essential to the maintenance of homeostasis or balance, and is normally released in response to normal and abnormal stressors such as waking up in the morning, exercising and acute stress. Cortisol helps maintains blood glucose by metabolising fat, protein and carbohydrates (gluconeogenesis); decreases the immune response; lowers inflammation; moderates blood pressure; is involved in heart and blood vessel tone and contraction; and activates the central nervous system. In short, it plays a key role in the body. 

Stress steals nutrients from your hormones

Chronic elevated cortisol levels result from your body’s ongoing stress response. This can be caused by lifestyle factors or by eating a high-glycaemic (refined carbs) diet. The problem is that adrenal function is a major priority of your body, temporarily increasing energy production at the expense of processes that are not required for immediate survival. These include reproduction, the metabolism and other hormone functions. 

When your body enters a state of chronic stress and the adrenals have to work overtime, they steal nutrients and hormonal precursors from other parts of the hormone system leading to a cascade of endocrine gland failure, including along the HPA axis. Without sufficient nutrients, your hypothalamus down regulates, leading to reduced pituitary activity, which lowers thyroid activity and the secretion of hormones impacting your metabolic rate and protein synthesis.

Stress can cause hormone imbalances

This stealing of nutrients and hormonal precursors leads to low DHEA, a precursor to other adrenal hormones, and low progesterone. This in turn leads to abnormal estrogen-progesterone ratios, which feeds back into pituitary imbalances.

When your pituitary gland is adversely effected, it fails to produce sufficient TSH, the hormone that tells the thyroid what to do. If the thyroid can’t produce healthy levels the hormones T4 and T3 drop, leading to reproductive dysfunction and immune system problems resulting in a lowered metabolism. 

Blood sugar problems create hormone imbalances

In terms of blood sugar, chronic elevated cortisol leads to excesses of testosterone and/or oestrogen, which can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin mimics insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which binds to theca cells in the follicles of the ovaries, and encourages the production of testosterone. This may lead to hyper-androgenism in women.

Insulin resistance is also linked to obesity, which can cause oestrogen dominance due to the storage of oestrogen in fat cells. Even without obesity, elevated cortisol may slow the breakdown of oestrogen in the liver, leading to an excess.

Thyroid problems

Also from a blood sugar angle, chronic elevated cortisol output by the adrenals stimulates the liver to break down fats and stored glycogen to increase blood sugar. In addition, high cortisol stimulates the thyroid to increase metabolism to convert the sugar into energy. As the adrenals become exhausted, the thyroid receives less stimulation and may struggle to keep up with the energy needs of the body.

The liver

Long-term high cortisol levels also affect the liver. The liver is responsible for deactivating excess hormones that are no longer functional. These hormones need to be broken down, conjugated and removed from the body. But chronically high levels of cortisol decrease the liver’s ability to detoxify by decreasing the effectiveness of the liver pathways that perform the conjugation.

The pancreas

The pancreas is also impacted by chronic elevated cortisol levels. When cortisol levels are constantly elevated, insulin receptors on your cells do not respond properly to insulin. This puts a strain on the pancreas to secrete more insulin in order to transport glucose into the cells. This in turn leads to high insulin levels and all the adverse impacts that come along with it, negatively effecting the body’s ability to control blood sugar and possibly leading to obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. 

Reduce chronic stress

Decreasing chronically elevated cortisol levels may be one of the most important things you can do for your hormones as well as general health. Stress is additive and cumulative, forming a total load. Chronic prolonged stress can cause degeneration and disease in every system of your body

  • Eat a whole food diet, cutting out processed foods, including especially refined carbohydrates and sugar

  • Reduce or cut out coffee and alcohol

  • Ensure you get enough sleep

  • Move more

  • Practice mindfulness, focusing on positive thinking and reducing negativity

  • Do yoga and breathing exercises

  • Spend time in nature regularly

  • Have you got your priorities right? What might you need to change?

    You can’t do the same thing and expect different results