STRESS HORMONES - and what you can do to help balance them
In the last blog, we talked about stress and the “fight/flight” response. This time, let’s take a closer look at the hormones involved: adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones, along with a host of others, are made in the adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys.
Adrenaline is our ‘short-term’ stress hormone. It is designed to help us get out of danger - fast. It’s the hormone produced when we get a shock or a fright, like a sudden loud noise or when someone pops out of nowhere and startles you. It communicates with our body that our life is in danger, and everything that happens biochemically is to ensure our survival; such as the blood being diverted from our digestive systems into our limbs to help us fight or flee, or the elevated heart and breathing rate to deliver more oxygen to muscles. Historically this has served us well, as the main stresses we experienced were in fact life-threatening, such as wild animals or members of enemy tribes attacking us.
In these types of situations, whether it was an animal or another human attacking us, we were generally out of trouble quickly – that is, the escape is made, the fight is won (or not). Either way, adrenaline’s job is designed to be short-lived. So what happens when the stress response isn’t completely turned off, and stress becomes chronic?
Cortisol is our ‘long-term stress hormone’, which is designed to get us through periods of extended stress. In times past, this usually meant something like a famine or a war, times during which food was scarce. These days, long-term or chronic stress tends to be things like uncertainty over finances, relationships or health. It can be ongoing pressure at work to meet deadlines or to be contactable for extended hours. It can be suppressed emotional stress, not dealt with for months or even years. The stress that becomes so chronic you can start to think of it as 'normal'.
When cortisol is at optimal levels it does great things for your body, like reduce inflammation and help stabilise blood sugar levels. It is supposed to be naturally at its highest in the morning so you can get started in your day, and drop steadily until it’s at its lowest around 10pm, before beginning the gentle rise towards waking around 2am.
When cortisol is out of balance, the levels which are supposed to be low in the evening can start to spike again, making it harder to sleep. It can also lead to slower metabolism and fat storage, because when cortisol is activated as part of the long-term stress response it’s because your body thinks starvation is imminent.
If the stress continues over a long period of time, your adrenal glands may burn out and you will experience what is known as adrenal fatigue. You feel utterly tired, wake feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus, but sometimes still feel wired and struggle to sleep.
What Can We Do About It?
In today’s world most of us experience some level of stress in everyday life. The pressures of living and working and taking care of family are often unavoidable, so we need strategies to help us deal with stress in healthy ways.
Since the stress response is about your body thinking it’s in danger, to balance it we need to make the body feel safe. We also need to care for it such a way that it can deal with and recover from stress more effectively. Here are some suggestions:
*Rest. Really, truly rest. Take the time to do nothing, or enjoy a relaxing activity like cooking or reading a novel. Stillness may seem pointless or unproductive, but in fact you’re allowing your body to repair and heal itself. The body will always try to balance and heal if given half a chance.
*Engage in restorative movement/meditation. Yoga, Pilates or anything that involves focus on breath will help your body to relax into ‘rest/digest’ mode. Even taking the time to just close your eyes and breathe slowly in and out for a few minutes, moving your belly as you do, will help switch off the stress response.
*Set healthy boundaries with the people in your life, including yourself. Say ‘yes’ only when you truly mean it. Let your health and wellbeing be the priority for you, not pleasing people.
*Seek professional help. Have a massage to help alleviate tension in mind and body. Consider seeing a nutritionist or a naturopath for ways to support your body to deal with stress and maintain optimum health.
Remember that it's the things we do regularly that make the difference. Even if it's a few minutes a day to just breathe.
This article is for information purposes only. Please consult your healthcare professional for further information.
Reference: Weaver, Dr Libby. (2015). Exhausted to Energised. Auckland: Little Green Frog Publishing Ltd.