Stressed Out- pt 1

Human bodies are built for survival.   

Back before the modern luxuries of houses and cars, our ancestors lived in a difficult and threatening environment.  Out of nowhere, a tiger could emerge from the trees ready to pounce and make you lunch. Fortunately, our bodies are equipped with an amazing system to deal with stress.  Here is what happens:

Stress aka “the tiger” causes a rapid response by our hormonal system.  Immediately your adrenal gland produces the hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine.  Adrenaline, often referred to as the “fight or flight” hormone, raises your heart rate and pumps blood throughout your body.   In fact, blood is diverted from your skin and redirects it to the muscles, heart, and lungs. [note]https://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/hormones/adrenaline[/note]  You are responding to stress in an incredible way.  Your body, without caffeine, Monsters or pre-workout, is on full alert.

These stress hormones give your body a surge of energy and awareness to run from the tiger and try to survive.    

In addition to adrenaline, your body also releases the hormone cortisol.  According to an article written by Sarah Klein in the Huffington Post, [note]https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html [/note]

“In survival mode, the optimal amounts of cortisol can be life saving. It helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, says Sood, while regulating some body functions that aren’t crucial in the moment, like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion and growth.”

A healthy person experiences normal fluctuations in cortisol levels throughout the day.   Some positive effects of cortisol include [note]https://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health/hormones/cortisol [/note]

  • Keeping us awake and alert
  • Preventing fatigue or brain fog
  • Keeping metabolism running
  • Balancing sugar levels
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Balancing fluid levels
  • Helping us respond to danger (see tiger example)

Klein continues,

“But when you stew on a problem, the body continuously releases cortisol, and chronic elevated levels can lead to serious issues.  Too much cortisol can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure and sugar, decrease libido, produce acne, contribute to obesity and more.”

Acute stressors, like the tiger, impact the system in the short term.  Although many of us don’t face tigers very often, this human emergency response system can help you dodge a swerving vehicle, avoid stepping on a snake, or speed to the rescue of a toddler about to grab something hot.   After responding to any of these short acute stresses, your body resets. Hormone levels return to normal and your body resumes normal function.

But unlike our ancestors running from tigers, we now face modern day chronic stressors our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.   Instead of resetting hormones, our stress response systems are working continuously. In fact, we jokingly call modern day stressors normal life.  

  • Issues with co-workers or boss
  • Family arguments
  • Kids and school drama
  • Bills or financial concerns
  • Politics
  • Health Problems
  • Social Media

Think about it, work now follows most people home blurring the lines between professional and family time.   Social media allows stress to enter into your most private spaces.

It follows you into the bathroom, the bedroom, the gym, your kitchen table, everywhere.   

So, what happens to our bodies when our stress response system has to work in overdrive?  What happens to our bodies when acute stress becomes chronic stress….when cortisol remains elevated??  What do we do about it?

In part 2, we will look at exactly how chronic stress can negatively impact the body.  Stay tuned for next week’s post!