“It’s just stress.” Maybe you’ve said that to yourself, to your family—or even to your doctor during a visit as you were complaining about back spasms, headaches, hair loss, weight gain, fatigue and even depression.
But the “It’s just stress” statement is a myth. Stress can trigger physical changes in your body that cause poor health—and that poor health can cause more stress. You have to interrupt the stress cycle. But how?
Stress is the body’s response to stressors. Stressors come in all shapes and sizes. Emotions and thoughts can cause stress. Infections and injuries can cause stress. Even your surroundings can cause stress. Whatever the cause, your body only has one way to deal with stress—releasing a hormone called cortisol.
What is Cortisol?
The purpose and function of the adrenal glands is to produce hormones that help the body deal with stressors. That hormone is called cortisol. Contrary to beliefs made popular by diet pill manufacturers, cortisol is not a “bad” hormone. Cortisol is one of the few hormones the body demands at every moment. In fact, depriving the body of cortisol for only 20 minutes can causes death.
The Cortisol-Stress Connection
The body naturally defends against and responds to stress by way of the cortisol pathway. The goal of cortisol is to help guide the body back to a natural state of health in the face of stress. From that perspective, cortisol is actually a “good” hormone.
Imagine suddenly encountering a bear. Without cortisol, your body cannot produce the fuel it needs to fight or run. Cortisol increases blood sugar levels to give the body the energy it needs to respond to stress. Cortisol also reduces inflammation so that once you start running from that bear you can keep going without your knees locking up.
Cortisol and Chronic Stress
The stress response—including the release of cortisol—is normal and natural. However, problems arise when the stress response is prolonged, intense or suppressed.
When you are under severe or prolonged emotional or mental stress, or are suffering from infections or injury, the cortisol response can remain elevated. Although elevated cortisol levels help the body face immediate stress, long-term cortisol elevation can cause damage to the body. That damage includes weight gain, fatigue, decreased mental focus, insomnia and anxiety.
By contrast, if you have experienced prolonged periods of stress your adrenal response could be lower than normal as the body’s ability to produce more cortisol falters. In addition, when dealing with chronic infections like Lyme Disease or Epstein Barr Virus, the adrenal glands may purposefully blunt the cortisol response to allow the body to respond more intensely to the infection. So low cortisol levels can help the body’s systems fight stress, but, like elevated cortisol levels, low cortisol levels can cause damage. That damage includes profound fatigue, insomnia, decreased mental focus, and anxiety.
Whether cortisol levels are too low or too high, the root cause of the stress needs to be identified and corrected in order to allow the body to return to the natural state of health. The goal is to balance the cortisol hormones.
You can treat stress through stress management techniques or through removing the stressors. Whatever the root cause of stress, though, it needs to be treated to avoid damaging the body.
Cortisol is the strongest of all the known hormones. When cortisol is high, it suppresses production of the hormones which build up the body, like testosterone and DHEA. When the cortisol is low, hormones like thyroid do not work effectively, providing yet another reason why people feel tired.
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