For most people stress is a constant in their life, a sort of imaginary friend or foe, depending on the day. This ‘friend’ really can push your buttons, literally. You see, this ‘friend’ activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system, which results in a series of neural and endocrine adaptions, better known as the stress response or stress cascade. In which the hypothalamus launches the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This launch triggers a cascade of events that result in a neural and endocrine domino effect in the body, during which the adrenal glands release adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and cortisol. These stress hormones cause your heart rate to increase, forcing blood to pump faster and blood pressure to rise while increasing the clotting ability of your blood. Your GI system stands-down, and your bronchioles dilate so you can get more oxygen and glucose (sugar) is released to fuel your body so it can run away from the threat. This is terrific if you’re being chased by a tiger, but no so great if you’re sitting in your car on your way to work.
Stress isn’t just psychologically derived either, your body can be under stress from toxins or impaired detoxification, infections (bacteria, yeast, parasitic, viral), allergens (food, mold, dust, pollens, chemicals), and nutrition (dietary insufficiencies or excesses). So, if you have a stressful job, family life, don’t get adequate sleep, have allergies, take any number of common medications that impair the detoxification pathway of the liver, eat a less than optimal diet, have experienced emotional or physical trauma you could very well be experiencing hormonal dysfunction
To start talking about hormones, we have to talk about cholesterol. When you think of cholesterol you probably think of it in relation to heart disease or dietary consumption, but cholesterol is super important to the body. In fact, cholesterol feeds our adrenals and sex glands to produce hormones, the first of which is pregnenolone—the matriarch of the steroid hormone family. Pregnenolone has a key role in hormone balance and is a precursor to cortisol, DHEA, and progesterone. Moreover, it helps the body’s stress response system. However, problems can start to arise when your stress hormone, cortisol, is prolonged or chronically elevated, as this leads to a siphoning of pregnenolone from the pathway responsible for the production of sex hormones. This is referred to a pregnenolone steal.
Chronically elevated cortisol has been associated with:
- Melancholic depression
- Panic Disorders
- Type 2 diabetes
- Central Obesity
- Immune suppression
- GI dysfunction
Just one stressor on the body, such as sleep deprivation, has been shown to increase evening cortisol levels; increase insulin and blood glucose levels; decrease parasympathetic and increase sympathetic tone; increase appetite and energy expenditure; increase levels of proinflammatory cytokines; and increase blood pressure! So, if you find you’re fatigued to the point you have to drag yourself from bed only to douse your inners with caffeine and anyone in your path better watch out until you’ve had at least one cup of your caffeinated beverage of choice…um this may be an issue. Yes, I too, used to believe it was an urban myth that people could function without caffeine, especially first thing in the morning, but it’s not. It may be common that so many people rely on caffeine, but it’s not normal and it precludes one from being in touch with how tired/fatigued they really are. So, if you’re thinking or muttering, “I could never live without caffeine,” you may have some hormone dysfunction.