The Detrimental Effects of Stress on Your Hormones
Is anybody out there not stressed right now? Want to know the physiological effects of stress and some tips to regulate it? Generally, with stress, we're talking about cortisol (stress hormone), glucose and adrenal response. Stress will manifest as either high hormones of the above, or low. Occasionally, you can have swings of high, then low cortisol. Basically, stress and anxiety will figuratively throw your body's systems into a blender.
Chronic stress typically results in low hormones. You might experience trouble staying asleep, daily fatigue, dizziness upon standing, afternoon headaches, and weak nails. If your cortisol is low and you cannot get fuel (usable glucose) at night, then your epinephrine will spike, waking you up in the middle of the night. Some people experience poor digestion with chronic stress. Low cortisol inhibits the enzyme COX-1, which is needed for the maintenance of proper gut lining. If you get energized when eating food, chances are, you have low blood sugar as you aren't breaking down glycogen into glucose. Low blood sugar can also lower GABA production, which is a neurotransmitter that helps decrease anxiety, prevent low blood pressure, and helps you stay asleep. If your adrenals are low, your DHEA can also decrease, which can cause low testosterone and estrogens (called pregnenolone steals). This sets women up for a very rough transition through menopause.
Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR) helps with low cortisol. This entails going outside in the light right when you wake up, ideally putting your bare feet on the ground, then ingesting some DGL or deglycyrrhized licorice, which shuts down the enzyme that decreases cortisol. Next, try 15 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on an empty stomach—30 seconds as hard as you can and a 90-second rest for 3-5 rounds with a warm-up and cool-down. Lastly, with the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR), you'd want to then have a high protein (20g at least), low sugar breakfast. Do beware, though, that DGL can increase your blood pressure and take the stress off your adrenal glands, so it's only good for the people who have low cortisol; DGL increases the half-life or usability of cortisol. The takeaway: get as much sleep as possible, do CAR, and try some DGL.
High cortisol, on the other hand, can, over time, cause your triglycerides to become high due to the excess blood sugar that then turns into triglycerides. It can then trigger your bad cholesterol (LDLs) to rise. This is usually from higher pregnenolone (which comes from cholesterol). LDL is like the transport truck that shuttles cholesterol into the cell to make more cortisol and sex hormones. Because cholesterol is an energy-dependent system, there is only a limited amount of conversion daily. High cortisol can eat away at your muscles, which produces more glucose (sugar).
Your thyroid can also suffer due to high cortisol. If your TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) is below 1.8 and your T4 is below 6, that can cause hyperthyroidism or secondary hypothyroidism. Long-term high cortisol can also decrease your immune system from high IL-6 and cause low total white blood cell.
count. IL-6 controls the activation of osteoclasts, which can decrease bone mineral density, proper calcium absorption and the possibility of developing osteoporosis. Brain fog is
also a common complaint from increased IL-6 due to increased sensitivity in brain astrocytes and microglia cells. One of the most potent natural substances that decreases IL-6
is turmeric. Although, long term, high doses of turmeric can cause your liver enzymes to rise, so just use it when you need it.
Exercise is one of the most powerful antidotes because it activates BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which sparks more neural connections. However, exercise that is too vigorous or long can increase free radicals and inflammation. Therefore, the best practice is to ingest antioxidants and anti-inflammatories such as turmeric and resveratrol after exercise.
Perhaps the most concerning is the relationship between high cortisol and Alzheimer's disease. Too much cortisol can increase beta-amyloids in the brain responsible for Alzheimer's. Both huperzine A and acetyl-L-carnitine have shown promising results for Alzheimer's in double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. (Clinical Theory, 2003;25(1):178-193).
Your sleep, memory and circadian rhythm are controlled by the hippocampus, and chronic high cortisol has been associated with hippocampal dysfunction. A homocysteine blood test is a good marker to determine the status of hippocampal atrophy. Circadian rhythm is our sleep and wake patterns. This is vital to endothelial function and vascular disease, insulin sensitivity, mood including depression, hypothalamic dysregulation in chronic migraine, gut and gastrointestinal function, and even potential risks of breast and prostate cancers. "This biological mechanism may partially explain the higher risk of breast cancer and other cancers in women working rotating shifts." (Integrative Cancer Theory. 2009 Dec;8(4):347-353). Phosphatidylserine can help optimize your circadian rhythm.
If you take melatonin as a sleep supplement, it will cause the hypothalamic feedback loop to continue, which means you will just end up needing more melatonin eventually.
Cortisol can help regulate your melatonin, but just taking melatonin cannot fix your cortisol. This is a one-way system.
High blood sugar will increase GABA, causing relaxation and sleepiness, however, that glucose spike can cause an imbalance in serotonin (your happy neurotransmitter), and
cause an inability to fall asleep along with high blood pressure. The takeaway: a low sugar/carb diet is imperative, do low-intensity exercise, and take turmeric, resveratrol, phosphatidylserine, huperzine A and acetyl-L-carnitine.
Stress can cause a cascade of problems. Decreasing your stress will help your health in many ways. Acupuncture is another incredibly powerful regulator of our cortisol, blood sugar and adrenal functions. Not to mention there is so much unstudied about the effects of acupuncture in general. Regular acupuncture with improved diet and exercise is a great place to start stress management for anyone.
Dr.Christina Fick is a licensed acupuncture physician and owner of Evergreen Medical Acupuncture, LLC. She has studied health and medicine in Hawaii, San Diego, New York, China, Peru and Colorado. She holds two master's degrees and one doctoral degree in acupuncture and integrative medicine. To schedule with Dr. Fick click here!
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