Three Ways Stress Disrupts Endocrine System Balance

Three Ways Stress Disrupts Endocrine System Balance

While stress is very real, what’s really important, is how we deal with it.

Do you wake up feeling exhausted? Have pangs of anxiety or anger? Do you find your weight difficult to control? Is your menstrual cycle all over the place? If this sounds like you, don’t stress out…

During times of stress, our heart rate increases, our blood pressure goes up, our blood glucose levels rise, our rate of respiration quickens, and our muscles tense. If the reason for the stress is that we are being chased by an actual mountain lion on a hike, hey, these are all good things. But if the reason for the stress is that it’s Monday and we’re a half hour late to work...does this response make sense? In actuality, our bodies don’t know the difference between the causes of our stress—whether its real or just perceived—it reacts the same. So, what’s really going on behind the scenes in the face of a “crisis?”

The body is miraculous in the way it reacts to stress and continually strives to maintain the delicate balance of everything. That balance can easily be thrown off by overdoing things like: caffeine; alcohol; sugary stuff and refined carbohydrates (remember that pizza binge?); or even by catching the annual flu bug. With chronic stress, our “back-up generator,” aka the adrenal glands, get fired up. And when the adrenals fire, the body listens. Meet cortisol, our body’s “stress hormone.”

Manufactured in the adrenal glands, this hormone is released during times of stress to hype up our body to potentially avoid death. A little dose of this hormone now and then is crucial to protect our overall health, but when we are encountering stressors every day, the elevated levels of cortisol in our body can cause real damage.

Like anything, the adrenal glands can only ‘fire’ for so long before they are exhausted. Think about it. How long can you actually be excited before you come crashing down?

Three ways the body is ‘crashing down’ on the inside:

  1. The liver, which is charged with deactivating and breaking down hormones, takes a major hit—elevated cortisol levels decrease the effectiveness of this function. The liver starts to get congested which in turn, allows toxins to build up leading to moodiness, anxiety, sluggishness, digestive problems, and so on and so forth.
  2. The insulin receptors in the cells stop responding adequately to insulin, causing a major strain on the pancreas when it is ‘asked’ to shuttle more glucose into the cells to maintain proper blood glucose levels—ultimately leading to high insulin levels and the risk of developing diabetes.
  3. The endocrine system takes a hit. You may have read about “adrenal fatigue?” This is what it really breaks down as: the secretion of cortisol is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland, a trio of glands often referred to as the HPA axis. With elevated cortisol levels the HPA axis becomes desensitized and as a result the adrenal glands begin to ‘steal’ nutrients and hormonal precursors from the rest of the endocrine system—throwing off things like the menstrual cycle.


    MOVEMENT: Incorporate meditation or calming exercises like yoga, Pilates, or even just a long walk around your neighborhood. Get outside – nature offers a sense of something bigger than ourselves on which to focus. Aim to move for at least 20 minutes a day.

    ADAPTOGENS: Adaptogens are substances, herbs, and fungi, that help the body adapt to stress by modulating the release of stress hormones from our adrenal glands. Herbs like Holy Basil Tulsi, Ashwagandha, Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng), and Rhodiola can help the body respond properly to stress if consumed regularly. Reishi and Cordyceps are powerful adaptogenic fungi. These medicinal plants have a profound effect on the endocrine system, particularly the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands) because of their ability to calm us down OR give us energy.

    HEALTHY LIFESTYLE: Make it a habit to consume properly prepared whole foods on a daily basis, stay optimally hydrated, and get plenty of sleep. By committing to your body’s health and well-being very day, you are on the right path to helping your body properly respond to stress. 

    The HPA axis is the hormone control center

    Chronic stress can be incredibly taxing on your HPA axis as they have to work extra hard to ‘stay on,’ which affects all of the hormones in the endocrine system. High levels of cortisol can derail important hormonal functionality and lead to everything from moodiness or irritability, low libido, difficulty with memory and concentration, digestion issues, sleep issues, aging, and weight gain.

    While we can’t avoid stress, we can arm ourselves with healthier and more productive ways of responding to it. You have more control over how you respond to stress than you may think you do, and knowing this will allow you to be able to reduce the damage done by the stressors you encounter.

    If you feel like you’re dealing with more stress than your body can handle, I can help you take a step back. We’ll go slow, trust me, it’s better this way!


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