Updated: Mar 30, 2021
Are you in stress hormone overload? Chronic exposure to the stress hormone cortisol can have a profound impact on your health.
We are currently living in a time where it is normal to be stressed out most of the time, and where the pace of our lives leaves little time for relaxation and recovery. Most of us are aware that our stress levels are too high, and often a health crisis is what bring it back to perspective again. It is estimated that between 79-90% of all visits to primary care practitioners in North America are due to stress-related illness.
One of the consequences of being under a prolonged period of high stress is that our brain forgets how to turn off and reset. We’re constantly on alert with poor sleep, sensitivity to stress, poor digestion, hormone imbalance, impaired fertility, weight gain and blood sugar imbalances. This is what I call ‘stress overload’. It’s where you can’t relax, even when you have time off to recover, and your mind is constantly going. Interestingly, it is more common to feel tired when you’re in stress overload than to feel energetic. This is a common misconception with high cortisol.
It is extremely important to get your body and hormones out of stress overload, because it can have a profound impact on your health, affecting your weight, blood sugar metabolism, hormone balance, fertility, digestion, increasing cancer risk and even more importantly, cortisol can turn on over 2000 disease-causing genes! Here are more details:
1. Cortisol affects your genes
Genes are interesting, in that you can carry many disease-causing genes and never manifest them. One of the biggest factors in turning on these disease-causing genes is prolonged high cortisol. What this means, is that if for example you carry a gene that makes you more susceptible to Alzheimer’s, breast cancer or an autoimmune disease, you would be more likely to express this gene if you are living in a constant state of high stress. This for me is the most alarming impact that chronic high cortisol can have.
On the opposite side, meditation has been shown to turn off these same genes. Meaning that if we take steps to manage our stress levels, we can safely live with these genes without ever becoming ill. Here are some of the ways that stress levels impact your physiology and health.
2. Stress and weight are tightly connected
Cortisol impacts so many areas related to weight, appetite, fat storage and metabolism, especially causing you to never feel satisfied with a meal and tend to want to over eat through it’s action on leptin and ghrelin. You tend to crave more fatty foods like cheese, nuts and chips as well as alcohol because dopamine levels are low. And, your body stores a much higher proportion of calories as fat rather than glycogen.
3. Blood sugar regulation, insulin resistance and diabetes
Cortisol actually triples the release of insulin to all grains, starches, fruits, sweets and alcohol. What this means is that you become more sensitive to high-carbohydrate foods, and over time this high insulin response will cause insulin resistance and later diabetes. In practical terms, what it means is that 1 apple gets treated like 3, 1 cup of rice is treated like 3 cups, and 1 cookie is treated like 3 cookies. No wonder your blood sugar metabolism will be off and weight will go up with prolonged high stress.
4. Digestion and IBS
Digestion is affected by chronic high stress for the simple reason that there is less blood flow to your digestive organs with high cortisol, as blood is redirected to the heart and muscles to deal with the stress. With less blood flow, you can have more acid reflux, bloating, food reactions and irritable bowel syndrome.
5. Fertility and hormone balance
Stress is an important factor to address in most cases infertility, especially unexplained infertility. Although I would never blame fertility struggles entirely on stress, chronically high cortisol levels and prolonged exposure to stress hormones will amplify whatever the underlying causes is. Here are some possible mechanisms: Since all of our hormonal systems are interconnected, high cortisol will affect the thyroid and ovarian hormones. Underactive thyroid can cause difficulty conceiving and miscarriages, and the body’s response to high cortisol can include spasms of the fallopian tubes, inflammation and more uterine cramping, poor implantation, irregular ovulation and more oxidative stress which will negatively impact egg quality.
6. Cancer promotion and recovery
One of the body’s key immune responses against cancer cells is natural killer cells. With chronically high cortisol, natural killer cell response will drop as much as 56%, leaving us more vulnerable. Furthermore, if you are diagnosed with cancer and have chronically elevated cortisol, it can lower life expectance by 58%. Improving your body’s response to stress is an extremely important factor in cancer prevention and treatment.
7. Increased risk of osteoporosis
Chronically high cortisol level also puts your bone density at risk, similarly to how a steroid medication works. This is especially important if your cortisol is high as you’re going through menopause and estrogen is dropping. Some of the more surprising cases of osteopenia and osteoporosis I have seen, where calcium and vitamin D intake are good, and exercise is consistent, have all happened for this reason. This is another reason to both test and treat stress hormones (cortisol and DHEA) in the years leading up to menopause as an important preventative strategy to maintain optimal bone density.
Solutions to Stress Hormone Overload & next steps
On a positive note, once you have determined that you are living in a constant state of stress-overdrive, there are many steps to take that will address the high cortisol levels, and restore your health. This includes
building in downtime and relaxation into your week
taking regular breaks during your workday
using supplements to stop the high-cortisol cycling
optimal nutrition to repair the adrenal glands
becoming more mindful of your stresses
If you have identified with this really common state of stress, please discuss this at your next appointment – you can make a tremendous impact on your current and future health by dealing with cortisol imbalance right now.