When you are in a stressful situation such as traffic, a work meeting, or a family gathering, the hypothalamus sends out the signal to release stress hormones such as cortisol. This message begins to trigger the body’s “fight or flight” response, which causes your heart to race, breath to quicken, and muscles to tense.
Stress is a natural bodily response that is designed to prepare you for potential danger ahead. It can be a beneficial way of handling a serious situation. However, when stress is long-term and chronic, it no longer protects the body, rather it can harm it.
When stress signals do not stop firing and stress levels stay elevated, it can negatively impact various aspects of your health:
As the adrenal glands are responsible for releasing and regulating cortisol, they are significantly impacted by chronic stress. This is because when overworked and dysfunctional, your adrenals are not able to compensate for the chronic stress that you have in your life. This can result in adrenal burnout, which is characterized by: Irritability Sleep problems Low blood pressure Blood sugar problems Sugar and salt cravings Body aches Hair loss
When hormonal function is not optimal as it is with chronic stress and adrenal burnout, mental health is likely to also be compromised. The brain (hypothalamus) is involved in initiating the stress response by triggering the adrenal glands to release cortisol. High levels of this hormone has been shown to impair brain function as it can disrupt synapse regulation, which leads to potential social and avoidance issues.
Studies also show chronic stress can shorten the life of brain cells. Moreover, there is evidence that chronic stress is linked the shrinkage of the prefrontal cortex, which is the area responsible for memory and learning.
Psychological and mental symptoms associated with chronic stress include: Irritability Anxiety Depression Headaches and migraines Insomnia
Stress naturally triggers the immune system, which can be beneficial in the short term as it can help improve wound healing and avoid infection. However, in the long term, stress will weaken the immune system and impede the body’s ability to fight foreign invaders.
This is because stress triggers inflammation. Your body understands that chronic inflammation can be damaging and consequently, the immune system is slowed down in order to minimize systemic inflammation. As a result, the immune system is less effective as a whole making people under chronic stress more susceptible to illness and infections. Recovery time from an illness or injury is also prolonged.
It is important to note that the thyroid is also affected in this process since a suppressed immune system can activate viruses capable of attacking and damaging the thyroid.
The thyroid is intricately connected to the adrenal glands via the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal-thyroid-axis (HPAT), which is sometimes just referred to as the HPA-axis. Here’s where the thyroid comes into play in terms of stress:
The adrenals are regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. When cortisol is released, the hypothalamus and pituitary, which work in a feedback loop with cortisol, slow down their production of hormones. Unfortunately, this also slows down thyroid function since the hypothalamus and pituitary regulate thyroid hormones as well.
Moreover, stress can also negatively affect the enzyme that converts inactive thyroid hormone (T4) to active thyroid hormone (T3). There are a few other mechanisms involved in the stress/thyroid dysfunction connection as well. Hypothyroid symptoms such as cold extremities, dry skin, depression, and constipation often indicate sub-optimal adrenal function. Most likely, thyroid treatment will be less effective if the adrenals are not addressed as well.
When cortisol is released, the hormone glucagon is signaled and insulin is suppressed. Glucagon controls glucose storage in the liver so that glucose can be released into the blood. Insulin is the hormone that regulates the amount of glucose being taken from the bloodstream into the cells.
During chronic stress, the cells start to become resistant to insulin, leaving blood glucose levels elevated. This is why insulin resistance is the precursor to type II diabetes.
A few symptoms of insulin resistance include the inability to lose weight, high cholesterol and triglycerides, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood glucose or insulin levels.
De-stressing for Your Health
As it is clear stress can take a significant toll on your health, it is important to learn how to relax and decompress even in trying moments for optimal wellness: