The definition of stress, according to medical literature, is the body’s response to mental, physical or emotional pressure. The innate mechanism protects the body against possible threats. The hormones related to stress play a pivotal role in alarming the body and the brain against the potential stressors. While the circulation of stress hormones in the body confers protective effects, things get haywire when the levels fail to defuse. The types of stress are thus categorised as – acute and chronic. Let’s read through to understand all about stress and how to reduce stress hormones for a better life.
What are Stress Hormones?
Stress hormones are secreted by the body upon encountering a potential threat. When the body finds itself in a stressful situation, the hypothalamus, the tiny region at the brain’s base, triggers off an alarm. Both adrenaline and cortisol hormones are secreted as a response to this stress alarm.
How Hormones Related to Stress Work?
The two stress hormones that trigger into action upon facing a stressful situation are adrenaline and cortisol. Let’s understand how hormones related to stress work:
You would have certainly heard about the ‘adrenaline rush’. The term is used to define an intense feeling of excitement and stimulation. Adrenaline secretion prepares the body for the fight-or-flight situation. As the adrenaline levels in the body increase the heart rate and blood pressure increase. The adrenaline in the blood causes the air passages to dilate, making way for the muscles to receive extra oxygen. At this point, the blood vessels begin to contract as they redirect the blood to the heart and the lungs. Thus, the vital organs in the body have an increased supply of blood and oxygen to face the situation.
Under stressful situations, Cortisol helps the body by increasing the supply of sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream. This is done by tapping into the protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. The increased levels of cortisol released in the bloodstream help the brain work more effectively. The glucose supplies are also increased to large muscles for immediate energy. It also makes greater accessibility to substances that aid in tissue repair. The increased levels of cortisol inhibit the production of insulin. This is to ensure that the glucose is not stored. Instead, it is put into instant use to generate energy. The arteries get narrowed to make the heart pump blood quickly.
Types of Stress
The body’s response to stress is positive. These chemical changes prepare the body to safeguard itself from impending threats. Once the fear or threat subsides, the levels drop down to normal.
But the problem can get overwhelming when the intensity and frequency of stressful situations increase. The different types of stress can thus be marked as:
1. Acute Stress
This is short-term stress. The body undergoes a series of chemical reactions (adrenaline and cortisol increase) to help it manage risky situations. Once the fear or threat fades, the levels get back to normal, allowing the body functions to normalise. Remember, acute stress does not harm the body in any way.
2. Episodic Acute Stress
As the frequency of episodes of acute stress increases, the situation is termed episodic acute stress. The levels of cortisol in the body begin to remain high and the stress symptoms like headache, fatigue, lack of sleep, etc. become more prominent. If not dealt with appropriately, episodic acute stress paves way for chronic stress.
3. Chronic Stress
Chronic stress lasts for a longer period, maybe weeks or months at a stretch. This means that the body is constantly experiencing a hike in adrenaline and cortisol levels. This prolonged activation of the body’s stress response mechanism and the increased exposure to stress hormones disrupt the normal functioning of almost all body processes. This puts the body at an increased risk of many health problems.
Chronic Stress and Symptoms
With chronic stress, the body is always in a state of alert. Thus, it marks that chronic stress is not good for the body. Signs and symptoms of too much stress can be:
- Upset stomach with frequent episodes of diarrhoea or constipation
- Frequent body aches
- Lack of energy
- Sexual problems
- Stiffness in neck muscles
- Prolonged feeling of tiredness and fatigue
- Trouble sleeping with too much or too little sleep
- Substance abuse
- Unintentional weight changes
Chronic Stress and Associated Health Problems
As the stress-response markers fail to settle, the body is at an increased risk of the following health problems:
- Diabetes – The levels of glucose in the bloodstream remain constantly high and the body remains in a general insulin-resistant state, leading to diabetes.
- Obesity – Increased cortisol levels directly influence cravings and appetite as it triggers the hunger hormones.
- Immune System Suppression – Increased cortisol levels are important to reduce inflammation in the body. But unending effort to cut down inflammation suppresses the immune system.
- Gastrointestinal Troubles – During stressful times the body focuses on eliminating the threat. The digestion and absorption mechanisms are compromised. Thus, prolonged stress leads to digestive issues and gastrointestinal troubles
- Cardiovascular Disease – Increased levels of cortisol constrict blood vessels, and increase heart rate and blood pressure to augment the delivery of oxygenated blood to the brain and large muscles. Consistently high levels of cortisol, thus, lead to heart ailments.
- Reproductive Issues – Elevated cortisol levels due to chronic stress hampers the optimal production of sex hormones leading to erectile dysfunction, impaired ovulation and irregular menstrual cycles.
How to Reduce Stress Hormones?
Lifestyle changes are the best and only way to reduce the cortisol levels in your body. Once the cortisol levels in the body begin to go down, the stress levels also reduce. The potent ways to reduce the stress hormone are:
- Sleep Well – Sleeping well helps the body recoup from stressors. This mitigates the intensity of the body’s stress-response mechanism. Follow a consistent bedtime routine with bedtime hygiene for a good night’s sleep.
- Exercise – Exercise helps lower cortisol levels. Low-intensity, regular exercise is more helpful in lowering the levels of the stress hormone.
- Mindful Thinking – Recognising stressful thoughts can help curb them. Thus, focusing on your mental and physical well-being reduces stress.
- Deep Breathing and Yoga – Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The body’s stress-response mechanism and parasympathetic nervous system cannot work in tandem. As deep breathing exercises stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the stress levels reduce automatically.
- Practice Hobbies – Indulging in the work you love doing triggers the production of dopamine, the happy hormone. This automatically leads to a reduction of stress hormones.
- Meditate – Meditation, spiritual inclination and performing acts of kindness stimulate the happy hormone, leading to a reduction in stress levels.
- Healthy Diet – Your diet directly influences your cortisol levels. It can make your stress better or worse. Unhealthy foods like high sugar intake, saturated fats, and refined grains can affect your cortisol levels negatively. Instead, consume whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and polyunsaturated fats to help reduce cortisol levels.
- Stay Hydrated – Dehydration may lead to a temporary increase in cortisol levels. So drinking plenty of water throughout the day is important to cut down cortisol levels.
- Add Supplements – Supplements help reduce deficiencies of micronutrients. Research suggests that optimum levels of Vitamin B12, folic acid, and Vitamin C help the metabolism of the cortisol hormone. This helps in bringing down the levels of cortisol in the body.
- Avoid Alcohol – Alcohol is a diuretic. It dehydrates the body leading to an increase in cortisol levels.
- Pen Down Your Thoughts – Write down your positive and negative thoughts in a journal. This will help you vent out your feelings. Getting rid of negative thoughts is a great way to reduce cortisol levels in the body.
- Spend Time Outdoors – Being surrounded by trees, birds, flowers and plants confers a calming effect on the body and mind. Step out in nature to help your cortisol levels reduce.
The definition of stress is simple and straightforward. It is the body’s response to threats and danger. Protective in nature, this innate ability of the body to release adrenaline and cortisol hormones to prepare the body to overcome potential damage is self-limiting. But things can blow out of proportion if these hormones related to stress cease to fade away.
Understandably, the chronic types of stress are the most damaging for the body and mind. Thus, knowing how to reduce stress hormones is essential to cut down the secretion and circulation of stress hormones. Lifestyle changes play a pivotal role in reducing the levels of hormones related to stress, thereby protecting the body from stress-related damage.