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Stress Hormones

Stress Hormones – What Are They?

Written by Author - Authors Medical experts of the National HRT Clinic - August 2, 2019

Stress can come in many forms – it can be a momentary response to a dangerous occurrence, such as a car cutting in traffic, or it can be a long-term condition due to situations such as carrying for a terminally ill loved one, or a high-stress job with constant deadlines. How the body’s stress hormones respond to these issues depends on whether it is an immediate threat or long-lasting situation. The body also has different types of stress hormones that it uses for these instances, and as these chemicals increase, they tend to inhibit or prevent other hormones from doing their jobs.

In this report, we answer the following questions:

  • What are the stress hormones, and what are their functions?
  • How do stress hormones influence other hormones?
  • What are the effects of stress hormones on the body?
  • Does chronic stress affect one’s health?
  • How can I reduce stress naturally?

We begin by answering the following – what are stress hormones and what are their functions?

The most common stress hormones are:

  • Cortisol: as the body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol inhibits nonessential responses in the body that could impede crucial “fight or flight” actions. Cortisol’s primary functions include:
    • Balancing the levels of water and salt in the body
    • Blood pressure regulation
    • Boosting energy
    • Control of the sleep/wake cycle
    • Fetal development
    • Memory formation assistance
    • Metabolism support
    • Regulating blood sugar levels
    • Supporting anti-inflammatory actions
  • Adrenaline (epinephrine): adrenaline is the primary “fight or flight” hormone that goes into action in high-stress situations, working on both the alpha and beta receptors in the arteries. As it enters the bloodstream from the adrenal medulla, adrenaline causes the heart rate to increase, along with the following actions:
    • Enhancing blood flow to the muscles so they can act quicker
    • Increasing blood sugar levels for added energy
    • Inhibiting pain sensations to allow for fleeing when injured
    • Pupil dilation for sharper vision
    • Relaxing smooth muscles in the airways to improve breathing
    • Sharpening focus and mental alertness for quick reactions
  • Noradrenaline (norepinephrine): a catecholamine compound like adrenaline, noradrenaline works only on alpha receptors. Unlike adrenaline, noradrenaline comes from nerve endings in the sympathetic nervous system. It has a slow and low-level release compared to adrenaline’s burst within 2 to 3 minutes of the stressor onset. The functions of noradrenaline include:
    • Boosting heart contractility
    • Increasing blood sugar levels for energy
    • Narrowing blood vessels to raise blood pressure to support action
    • Raising heart rate

In the next section, we will look at other hormones influenced by stress, and changes that stress hormones have on other critical chemical messengers.

Takeaway: The three primary stress hormones are cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, and they help regulate the body’s “fight or flight” responses.

Hormonal Changes During Stress

The body’s stress hormones function to help it respond to emergencies. For example, boosting muscle strength to lift a heavy object off a trapped person, or increase speed to race to knock someone out of the way when a car is heading towards them. Even something as simple as the unexpected bark of a large dog when taking a walk can trigger stress hormone responses, such as racing heartbeat and increased energy. Hormonal changes during these times of stress are often short-lived. Once the stressful situation is past, stress hormone levels decline, and other hormones can then return to normal.

In times of chronic stress, the actions are different. Long-term effects of stress on the body can alter hormone levels, causing significant changes in health, which we will study in the next section.

The brain is the command center that initiates stress responses in the body. The eyes and ears alert the amygdala (brain area that processes emotional sensations) of impending danger, which then interprets the sounds and images it receives. If the amygdala senses danger, it sends immediate signals to the hypothalamus for help. The hypothalamus then begins communicating with the rest of the body via chemical signals to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Hormones sent out in a chain response through the pituitary gland tell the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline into the bloodstream.

In the list of stress hormones actions below, we see what happens to crucial hormones in the body in response to an increase in cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline:

  • Vasopressin: also called anti-diuretic hormone, vasopressin release during times of acute stress stimulates ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) secretion from the pituitary gland that regulates cortisol production.
  • Gonadotropins: stress suppresses gonadotropin (sex hormone) release, which can impact reproduction and menstrual cycles. More on this, as well as growth hormone, in the next section.
  • Thyroid Hormones: the production of crucial thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) decreases in times of stress. Thyroid hormones are essential for regulating metabolism, digestive function, brain development, heart health, muscle control, mood, and bone maintenance.
  • Prolactin: the level of prolactin can decrease or increase during emotional or physical stress. Vasopressin secretion can influence prolactin production.
  • Insulin: Cortisol inhibits the production of insulin so that the cells do not take in circulating blood glucose. In times of stress, the body needs blood sugar for immediate use, so cortisol’s antagonistic actions prevent cellular glucose uptake. Hyperglycemia is possible if too much glucose remains in the bloodstream.

When stress-related hormones do not decline back to their normal state after a stressful event, they can have serious consequences on the body, as we will examine next.

The release of stress hormones leads to changes in other essential hormones in the body that can impact functions.

Effects of Too Much Cortisol and Stress

Although cortisol has its time and place, when it is not needed, it can interfere with learning, memory, immunity, bone density, weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and more. The immediate effects of stress hormones on the body are vital in times of danger. They can help a person spring into action when it is necessary. However, as with everything, hormonal balance is critical to maintain.

Cortisol keeps the brain on high alert, preventing it from relaxing. That results in sleep disturbances, such as insomnia and frequent waking. Sleep is crucial for the production of testosterone and somatotropin (growth hormone). Lack of adequate sleep inhibits the secretion of these hormones, reducing their efficacy in the body. That is why learning how to lower stress hormones is crucial to a person’s health.

Growth hormone and testosterone are antagonistic towards cortisol. When they are high, cortisol is low, and vice versa. Because these hormones also help influence fertility, people who are under chronic stress may also suffer from infertility and low libido.

The body requires a release of stress associated with the action that caused the cortisol increase to prevent cortisol build up in the bloodstream. For people with ongoing stress, there is no way for cortisol release to occur, causing the body and the mind to stay in a high state of alert, resulting in chronic stress influence on the health. We will examine the impact of chronic stress on health and well-being in the next section.

Too much cortisol in the bloodstream results in a decrease of growth hormone and testosterone levels, contributing to insomnia and numerous health issues.

How Does Chronic Stress Affect Your Health?

Being under constant deadlines, dealing with a sick relative, or having one’s own health concerns can lead to a state of chronic stress. While stress hormones are beneficial in times of acute danger, long-term exposure can lead to many problems. Chronic stress impacts the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, negatively influencing the secretion of crucial hormones. Too much cortisol in the bloodstream inhibits the production of testosterone and growth hormone.

How can stress affect hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone?

Because of the antagonistic action mentioned in the previous section, high levels of cortisol keep testosterone and GH levels low. Testosterone and growth hormone both support muscle and bone structure. Without enough of these hormones, muscles shrink and weaken, and bones become brittle, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in later years.

Low T and GH deficiency also reduce metabolic functions, often causing weight gain, insulin resistance, and elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure levels. Cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes risks increase.

Since both hormones also influence brain functions, memory, learning, and emotional well-being are at stake. Chronic stress increases the risk of developing dementia. In fact, in one study, older adults with elevated nocturnal levels of cortisol were found to have reduced brain size. They performed more poorly on cognitive tests than adults with normal cortisol levels. Brain functions impacted by chronic stress and high cortisol levels include:

  • Attention and concentration
  • Memory recall
  • Planning
  • Processing speed
  • Organization
  • Switching focus

Another significant issue associated with chronic stress is weakened immune system functions. Growth hormone is necessary for the production of immune-fighting B and T cells. If GH levels are low, the body’s immune system will not function properly. Instead of fighting off invading microorganisms, the body will succumb to illness, and it will take longer to recover. Injury healing also slows down.

Other effects of stress hormones remaining in the bloodstream include:

  • Adrenaline – continual surges of adrenaline can lead to artery and blood vessel damage, high blood pressure, and increased heart attack and stroke risk.
  • Cortisol – high levels of cortisol increase fat buildup and weight gain, causing an increase in the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates hunger to make up for lack of energy. Too much cortisol decreases insulin production, causing blood glucose levels to remain high, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Irregular menstrual cycles, insomnia, depression, mood swings, and adult acne are all associated with chronically high cortisol levels.

Chronically elevated cortisol levels not only increase the risk of depression and mental illness but can also lower a person’s life expectancy.

Chronic stress not only affects other hormone levels, but it also increases the risk of many health conditions, including dementia, heart attack, stroke, and depression.

How Can We Reduce Stress Naturally?

For people under chronic stress, it is imperative to learn how to reduce stress hormones to prevent further impact on one’s health. There are many methods and techniques available to reducing stress, and subsequently, lowering stress hormone levels.

Some people find it easier than others to relax. For them, deep breathing exercise, meditation, and visualization are useful tools. Individuals who are in a constant state of elevated stress may find it difficult to quiet the mind long enough to engage in these activities. They may only be able to take a few slow deep breaths before their thoughts take them back into the middle of the action. Even taking one, slow, deep breath can help, although conscious thought to keep that going is essential to practice.

Other ways of how to decrease stress hormones in the body include:

  • Socializing with others is an excellent way to reduce stress buildup, as it allows for focusing outward rather than inward on one’s problems.
  • Listening to music, especially a favorite song, can decrease cortisol levels, improve mood, and reduce overall stress.
  • Laughter is another excellent method of decreasing stress. Watching a comedy show or funny movie can make a tremendous impact on stress hormone levels.
  • Developing a hobby or volunteering your time to a worthy cause are other actions that can help reduce stress.
  • Reading a book (not a mystery or other suspense novel) can help decrease stress levels.

Physical activity is an excellent way to release stress from the body. Most people have seen movies where an actor punches a wall in response to a stressful situation. That simple act of rapidly releasing energy (and aggression) does wonders for reducing cortisol levels. No, that does not mean to go and punch a wall, as that might result in structural damage and a broken hand. The same effect can be accomplished through the use of exercise to reduce stress hormones, including:

  • Kickboxing
  • Punching bags
  • Jogging
  • Biking
  • Weightlifting
  • Swimming
  • Brisk walking

All it takes is 20 to 3o minutes a day to significantly lower stress hormone buildup. Even if you do not have that much time, small doses of activity, such as stair climbing, can also help.

More controlled forms of exercise can help reduce stress and calm the mind in as little as 10 to 15 minutes, including:

  • Yoga
  • Qi gong
  • Tai chi

For some people who have elevated cortisol levels that decrease other essential hormones, the use of doctor-prescribed hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help. By increasing low testosterone or growth hormone levels, HRT provides the body with the antagonist that can reduce stress hormone production. To learn more about options for decreasing stress hormones, contact National HRT for a free, confidential consultation by phone.

Medically reviewed by   Reviewers National HRT Staff - Updated on August 2, 2019

Please note that the information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.