The Stress Effect

How stress and hormones impact your health

stress-test

It’s common to make a New Year’s resolution every January. Maybe you want to eat healthier, exercise, get more sleep or lose weight. However, it’s possible to address many of your health-related resolutions by managing your stress and learning about your body’s delicate hormonal balance. The interplay of stress and hormones has a tremendous impact on several things, including your weight, energy levels, how well you sleep and your overall health, according to local medical professionals.

Stress, hormones and health

“Stress affects all aspects of health,” says Dr. Scott Moser, a naturopathic physician with Southern Oregon Wellness Clinic in Medford. The level of stress in our culture is extremely high, he adds. “We live in a society which is constantly busy, so the body is always in ‘flight or fight’ mode and never has a chance to relax.”

What makes our bodies sick is that they get stressed, explains Dr. Laura Robin, an osteopathic physician at Rosa Transformational Health in Medford. Stress can come from different causes, she says, including physical injuries, past infections, gut imbalances and long-term exposure to toxins, each of which can take an enormous toll on the body.

While many people have heard of cortisol (the stress hormone), they may not know the role it plays within the body. “Cortisol is like the body’s ignition switch. When it’s not working properly, we can get tired, gain weight, have brain fog or feel depressed,” Robin explains.

The adrenal glands release cortisol, says Moser, which affects the body’s circadian rhythm. “It wakes us up out of our slumber to feel more energetic in the morning,” he adds. However, over time our response to stress can become compromised, and Moser says people could get irritated more easily. “There’s not a single disease I can think of that isn’t made worse by stress.”

Additionally, if we are pushing ourselves too hard, the adrenal glands can get fatigued, says Robin. “When the adrenal glands are tired, then we feel tired.”

How stress affects the body

Cortisol, as well as other hormones, plays an integral part in how the body functions. “Hormones are great communicators in our bodies,” says Robin. “They bounce off each other. But when one hormone is out of balance, it can mess with the balancing of other hormones and cause trouble in the body.”

In addition to providing the body with an energy surge in the morning, cortisol can also affect weight and belly fat, according to Moser. Under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores in the liver. He explains this energy can help an individual fight or flee from a stressor. “However, elevated cortisol over a long period of time consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels.”

The human body wasn’t meant to endure constant emotional or physical stress, says Robin. “We have to give our bodies and minds a break to rest and regroup,” she adds. When people push themselves just because they can, she says this eventually can hurt the body, leading to chronic fatigue, sleep disturbances, weight gain, depression, brain fog, faster aging and the body breaking down more quickly, she explains. That’s why it becomes increasingly important for people to practice healthy stress management techniques.

Simple ways to manage stress

Sometimes there are stressors we can’t avoid, says Moser, so it’s necessary to work on your stress response and reframe how you react to it. “Exercise is a great way to deal with stress. I often tell my patients to change emotion with motion,” he adds. Even walking around your neighborhood after work is a good stress management technique. “Mostly, we want people to just slow down.”

Robin advises people to think of their bodies like a car. “We do all kinds of things to maintain our cars, like regular oil changes and replacing the filters, but we never think of doing anything to preventatively maintain our bodies,” she says. She agrees that moving the body is important and can be as easy as 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. “Body movement and exercise helps everything: your immune, nervous and hormonal systems.”

The importance of self-care

Robin and Moser agree that our bodies and hormones give us signs when something isn’t right. “If you feel chronically tired, have brain fog or lose sleep, these are signs something may be happening in the nervous or hormonal systems, or with inflammation in your body. If you can find the underlying cause, you can turn things around and start to feel better,” says Robin.

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More to Explore

Stress management techniques

Moser and Robin agree that self-care is the best way to reduce stress. There are several ways people can improve their health and lower their stress level, including:

  • Regular exercise
  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga
  • Spending time in nature

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