Stress has always been an unavoidable part of life. Whether positive or negative, stress is the body’s reaction to any situation that requires a physical, mental or emotional response. The human body is designed to react to occasional times of stress by releasing epinephrine (a hormone and neurotransmitter known as adrenaline) and cortisol (a corticosteroid hormone) to help you spring into action and conquer the situation at hand. When the source of stress has passed, adrenaline quickly returns to normal. But, unless time is taken to rest and restore following a stressful event, cortisol levels tend to remain elevated.
The Negative Effects of Stress and Cortisol
Unfortunately, stress has become chronic in today’s world. For many people constant, unrelenting stress is the norm rather than the exception. The ever-increasing demands that come with managing our personal lives, family’s lives and our careers, bombard us with seemingly never ending “to-do” lists. Even when our exhausting tasks are complete, concerns about the economy and our personal financial security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rising unemployment rate etc. loom ever-present causing subtle yet profound stress. When chronic stress continually forces the adrenal glands to sustain elevated cortisol levels, a cause and effect loop of mental, emotional and physical health challenges ensue.
Without a period of relaxation to counterbalance the body’s chemical response to stress, disease is inevitable. Numerous emotional and physical health conditions have been linked to stress including weight gain, depression, anxiety, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension and immune system disturbances. Stress affects the skin (rashes, hives and dermatitis), the gastrointestinal system (GERD, peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis) and contributes to degenerative neurological disorders. Not only does stress aggravate any existing health condition, more and more research is showing that it may actually be their originating cause.
Stress and the Immune System
Long-term stress weakens the immune system and prevents the proliferation of disease fighting killer cells. When chronically stressed, the immune cells are literally bathed in molecules that essentially tell them to stop fighting. You see, the brain and the immune system are intimately linked and capable of reciprocal communication. When cortisol levels remain elevated, the brain sends a message that the immune response is no longer needed, causing it to shut down. Therefore, in situations of chronic stress your immune system is less able to respond to bacterial or viral infections and disease in general.
Learning to reduce and manage the stress in your life is essential and begins by identifying your stressors and observing your mental and physical reactions to them. How you react to stressful situations is determined by how you perceive them. Modifying your thoughts and perceptions can change a life of stress and discomfort to one of challenge and excitement. Simply bringing your focus to your successes and achievements can empower you with the confidence you need to handle and overcome stressful times more gracefully.
Stress management techniques can activate your body’s relaxation response, creating a calm, relaxed state. These include meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, listening to soothing music, journaling and positive imagery. Moderate exercise and dietary improvements are also helpful. Stress depletes your body of essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients so be sure to eat fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates, whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds and protein. While chronic stress often results in insomnia, getting plenty of restorative sleep is among the most important steps in relieving the damaging effects of elevated cortisol levels in the body.
Stress and Women’s Hormone Health
Women, with their inherent tendency to care for others while neglecting their own needs, are especially prone to the harmful effects of stress. They are particularly vulnerable during perimenopause and menopause when changing hormones have already begun to impact the adrenal glands, an intricate part of the endocrine system. Most women who experience the uncomfortable emotional and physical symptoms of “the change” have previously experienced times of prolonged emotional and/or physical stress. Progesterone, a calming hormone, helps ease your response to stress. Unfortunately, most women are severely lacking in progesterone.
Cortisol literally “steals” progesterone from the adrenal glands. If your adrenals are continually releasing cortisol into the bloodstream, your body will take any available progesterone and divert it to meet that demand. Because cortisol and progesterone compete for common receptors in the cells, cortisol impairs progesterone activity and interferes with the action of other important female hormones too. Cortisol, testosterone and estrogen are all made from progesterone. If too much progesterone gets diverted for cortisol, there isn’t enough to make the testosterone needed for a woman’s sexual response, etc. creating a domino effect of troublesome symptoms.
Progesterone is essential for hormonal balance yet it is increasingly deficient in women of all ages. Progesterone is the only hormone that converts into other vital hormones as needed to create a balancing affect on the entire endocrine system. It nurtures the adrenal glands and has a very calming effect on the nervous system. It reduces your risk of osteoporosis, converts fat into energy, metabolizes glucose, and performs many other vital cell functions. Common symptoms of insufficient progesterone levels include an inability to cope with stress, depression, weight gain, insomnia, low libido, heavy and prolonged menstrual cycles, compromised thyroid and adrenal function and a host of potentially serious health conditions.