“Stress” is a broad term with different meanings for everyone, and our complicated lives are filled with it. Specifically, the definition of “the stress response” refers to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which results in the scenario of “flight-or-fight.” We often attribute the concept of “fight or flight” to being pursued by actual, meat eating predators, but certainly our ancestors also had their share of tense cave politics with each other as well.
In certain instances, the stress response can be a good thing. It can help us feel stronger, more capable and confidant. The pressure to act can be a positive motivator. Some individuals even crave the rush that comes with particular types of stress. However, stress is usually the result of a demand or threat and it’s generally thought of as a negative environmental change (1).
“Fight or flight” is an automatic (read: unavoidable) chain reaction that occurs in our bodies, particularly controlled by the nervous system. First, the sympathetic nervous system is set off. A lot of short term, intense effects begin to occur: our hearts start accelerating, blood is constricted, hormones are secreted into our systems, digestion is slowed down or completely stopped, fat and glycogen (sugar) are quickly pumped to be used as immediate sources of energy, certain muscles and reflexes are inhibited, others are strengthened, vision and hearing can become impaired (2). The duration of these effects and the frequency for which they occur varies from person to person and from situation to situation.
Effects on Stress Hormones
A hormone is a chemical our bodies create. A stress hormone is one that is activated during stress and that affects other organs in our bodies (2).
Frequently activating the sympathetic nervous system often has extreme effects on our bodies, and specifically our hormones over time. Too much or too little of one can lead to adrenal fatigue, and related illnesses such as chronic depression, Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease. We should keep in mind that the stress hormones aren’t limited to just handling stress; they’re responsible for other processes in our bodies so they should be treated as multifaceted hormones. They also interact with our other hormones, and disturb them as well. The four primary stress related hormones are ACTH, cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic hormone) is the precursor and activator for the release of cortisol. It originates in the pituitary gland, and plays various roles in our bodies. Having too much can contribute to Cushing’s syndrome, where having too little will negatively affect the adrenal glands and the pituitary gland (4). Specific tests are required to measure individual levels.
Cortisol is perhaps the most commonly discussed stress hormone. More than likely you’ve seen the commercial that states too much cortisol leads to belly fat. That barely scratches the surface of what cortisol can do and what kind of role it plays. Almost every type of cell we have contains cortisol receptors — indicating that clearly its role isn’t limited to the stress response. It’s responsible for our daily patterns of energy — often rising in the morning and falling at night. To a certain extent, we can say that during “fight or flight,” it’s responsible for the metabolic processes, specifically, the release of the glucose and fat, for quick energy and alertness.
There are many negatives effects of too much cortisol, but one not usually considered is the onset of clinical depression. This occurs because cortisol depletes serotonin (3). On the opposite end of it, too little cortisol results in adrenal fatigue, where most of the symptoms can be described as the “opposite of alertness.”(5) So, maintaining proper cortisol levels is an important thing and one that unlike ACTH, can be impacted by diet. Magnesium, fish oil and B vitamins have all been found to play a role in regulating levels. Additionally, it should go without saying to avoid eating or drinking grains, sugar, alcohol, and hydrogenated oils in excess (6).
Adrenaline, like cortisol, is responsible for some of the metabolic processes that occur during stress. Specifically, it accelerates heart rate, increases blood pressure, and it helps to maximize blood sugar so it’s available for quick energy. Unlike cortisol, however, adrenaline is pretty much only manufactured during “fight or flight.” This means that it’s relatively unusual to have low levels, but consistently increased levels are quite common (7). Those who don’t practice stress management are putting themselves at risk. We all know that quick accelerations in our heart rate, constant high blood pressure and constant high blood sugar are extremely taxing on the body.
Lastly, norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that seeks to gain access to as many organs as it can — quickly and efficiently so that the body can become mobile. (Remember, we want to run away from the T-rex, not jog.) As many organs as possible are optimized for the stress response. This includes, but isn’t limited to the heart, brain, liver, and stomach. An increase in blood pressure occurs, and the brain is prepped for dealing with the stress. Many systems and organs in the body are activated for handling the stress. A lot goes on in a very short amount of time (9).
After the perceived threat is over, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in and begins to minimize the damage, and “damage” is a good way to think of it. The body is returned to homeostasis; our blood pressure goes down, our heart rate decreases and generally speaking, we calm down (8).
But here’s where the problem of chronic stress comes in: over time, our perception of “normal” and our ability to regulate ourselves back towards homeostasis is comprised, both physically and mentally. If there’s been damage to our hormones, glands or organs, it’s even harder to revert and maintain homeostasis because of the domino effect chronic stress has ultimately created.
Each individual’s stress, their situation and their background varies from the next person’s. Our observation of our external environment is individually subjective and our insight is also limited to our own perception. Each person must learn to find coping mechanisms which they can use to respond to stress, or our health is comprised and our bodies won’t improve. As previously mentioned, the stress response is automatic, but to a certain extent, we should look at it as though we have the ability to change what we view as a stressor.
Healthy Coping Habits
Realistically, changes in our ability to cope with stress won’t happen overnight. But some quick and easy ways to alter our situations may have more of an impact that you might
have initially thought (10). Stress hormones can be affected and maintained by other hormones. Dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin, for example, can counteract the negative effects. Laughing and exercise increase these and other positive hormones. Pets help us to calm down, and they distract us. People who you can talk to and those who can help you find ways to eliminate your stress aren’t just fun- they’re valuable to your health.
Diet is of extreme importance. Eliminating excess sugar, alcohol, coffee and processed foods positively influences health. Let’s say you stress eat: it’s entirely possible a specific type of hormone or vitamin is low and your body is trying to replenish it. This is certainly true in the case of stress and sugar, when glucose is used for quick energy. It’s something to consider the next time you get stressed. Is your body handling the stress, or are you just struggling to get through it? Proper vitamin supplementation, such as magnesium and fish oil, will help to keep your hormone levels in check.
The saber tooth tigers have been replaced by modern day life. It’s safe to say that stress is usually a result of personal worries, insecurities and/or extreme anxiety- it could be financial, life event or relationship related. Finding ways to counteract our “fight or flight” stress response is necessary, but discovering why we respond the way we do is the first step towards minimizing our reactions. Who or what helps you get through your toughest days? It could be one thing, but more often than not, it’s a combination of a few factors. Our lives have to become well-rounded in order for us to maintain health, and also to physically improve. Stress can be as enlightening as it can be destructive, so use it as a way to develop your life. Activating your stress hormones creates a chain reaction in every organ and system. Essentially, we need to learn from stress, stop it before it starts, and now more than ever, use the phrase “try not to panic.”
1. “Researchers Find Out Why Some Stress is Good For You: UC Berkeley.” Sanders, Robert. April 13, 2013.
2. “Hormones.” Medline Plus. June 11, 2014.
3. “Cortisol, Serotonin & Depression: All Stressed Out?” Cowen, P.J. Feb 1, 2002.
4.“Adrenocorticotropic hormone.” SleepDex. August 5, 2015.
5. “Understanding Adrenal Function.” Biohealth Diagnostics. August 27, 2000.
6. “Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight.” Kravitz, Len., Schneider, Suzanne., Maglione-Garves, Christine. January 6, 2015.
7. “You and Your Hormones: Adrenaline.” Society for Endocrinology. January 15, 2015.
8.“Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk.” Mayo Clinic Staff. July 11, 2013.
9. “Norepinephrine.” Rice University. September 30, 2010.
10. “10 Practical Ways to Handle Stress.” Tartakovsky, Margarita. July 11, 2011.