Stress Hormones

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

Hormones are chemicals, produced by the body, that control and regulate the activities of various systems in the body. Two hormones are produced for stressful or dangerous situations. They are adrenaline and cortisol. 

When you are in a situation that requires an immediate and powerful response, you need to have your systems working on overdrive and you also need extra energy to fuel the body. This is where adrenaline and cortisol work their magic. Adrenaline primarily works on the heart and the blood vessels. Your heart rate increases, the force of the heart muscle gets stronger, and you experience increased respiration. Cortisol contributes to the fight-or-flight response by prompting your liver to flood the body with extra glucose, by inhibiting insulin to prevent glucose from being stored by the body, and by constricting the arteries to make your blood flow faster.

Everyday life also utilizes cortisol as a way to regulate blood pressure, increase the body’s metabolism of glucose, and reduce inflammation. Without the right amount of cortisol, we would not be able to survive. Elevated levels of cortisol are also vital when we need the extra energy for our short-term survival. However, when we are suffering from chronic stress, the level of cortisol can remain elevated for lengthy periods of time, which can have disastrous effects on our health. These general domains are affected by long-term elevated levels of cortisol:

  • High Blood Sugar – Under normal circumstances, insulin and cortisol are kept in the right balance in order to release just the right amount of glucose into your bloodstream. Elevated levels of cortisol will result in elevated levels of glucose in your bloodstream. This causes the pancreas to produce extra insulin. The strain placed on the pancreas may contribute to type 2 diabetes.
  • Weight Gain – Elevated levels of cortisol are a signal to your brain that you need extra energy. This can make you feel hungry which results in overeating and weight gain.
  • Suppressed Immune System – Cortisol plays an important role in moderating inflammation that results from the immune response. Elevated levels of cortisol can therefore suppress the immune system. Susceptibility to colds and other contagious illnesses increases, and it can also lead to a heightened risk for cancer and autoimmune diseases.
  • Digestive Problems – When one is in danger, the body suppresses those functions that are not critical in the moment, such as digestion. When one experiences chronic stress, the elevated levels of cortisol will signal the digestive system to slow down. This can lead to a number of various digestive problems and illnesses.
  • Heart Disease – Elevated levels of cortisol constrict the arteries and increase blood pressure. As mentioned, this is actually vital when one is facing an imminent threat. However, if it remains this way over time, it can lead to heart disease. 
  • Anxiety and Depression – Although the exact mechanism of the connection between cortisol and anxiety and depression is not understood, the data clearly shows that elevated levels of cortisol are a major risk for anxiety and mood disorders.

If you are experiencing chronic stress, you may already have started feeling some of the symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, upset stomach, insomnia, anxiety, decreased motivation, irritability, and undereating or overeating. These are messages that your body is sending you that something needs to change. Broadly speaking, this would entail removing the stressors or learning how to manage one’s stressors. Your body is talking to you and is urgently asking you to listen.

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