Chronic Stress Hammers Your Health

It is a well-known fact that chronic stress is linked to most, if not all, chronic diseases.

Actually, over 80% of autoimmune conditions are said to manifest after a stressful or dramatic event, such as the loss of a loved one, a divorce, a severe injury, economic bankruptcy, etc [12].

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Stress – no matter its source – can dysregulate the human immune system and make the person more susceptible to disease and infection.

But first, we need to define stress and its different types.

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Stress can be considered as any intrinsic or extrinsic stimulus that elicits a biological response, whether physical, psychological, or emotional“.

The consequent compensatory physiological processes by which the body responds to stress are known as the stress response.

Forms of Stress

Stress can take many forms:

1) Mental / Emotional stress

Feelings such as grief, fear, anxiety, overexcitement and embarrassment can be classified as mental stress.

This stress is based on our perception, not on the real, actual consequences of the stressor.

2) Sleep Disorders

Sleep deprivation suppresses the HPA axis (Hypothalamus- Pituitary- Adrenals) and is the fastest way to get into the loop of chronic stress.

Insomnia, sleep apnea, nocturia (night-time urination), and shift work can all cause sleep deprivation.

Sleep is paramount to mental and endocrine health, as it is the “reset button” for the HPA axis. 

3) Metabolic / Glycemic Dysregulation

Many people are unaware that they have impaired tolerance to carbohydrates, meaning that after consuming carbohydrate-rich foods, their blood sugar levels spike abnormally, causing substantial insulin resistance.

A large insulin release is followed by a rapid drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia), causing symptoms like irritability, depression, lightheadedness, tremors and fainting.

Hypoglycemia necessitates the release of cortisol, one of the body’s primary stress hormones, to help maintain the glucose supply to the brain.

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4) Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is at the root of most diseases of our modern world and can be caused by:

  • The wrong diet
  • Lack of sun exposure
  • Obesity
  • Parasites in the GI tract
  • Release of endotoxins due to lack of intestinal integrity
  • Undiagnosed food allergies/intolerances
  • Constipation
  • EMF radiation
  • Mold
  • Polluted air and water
  • Chemical exposure (i.e., skin, mouth, etc)

5) Environmental Changes

Anytime environmental conditions, such as temperature, air pressure, or the quantity of oxygen, change, the body has to expend energy in order to adapt and retain its internal environment stable and balanced (homeostasis).

That’s a costly and stressful process, depending on the degree of the environmental alterations. 

Stress has both a physical/objective and an emotional/subjective component:

The latter depends on our individual perception of its predictability and controllability [1]

That means that whether the source of our stress is physical (pain-related) or not (i.e., overworking, financial problems, social embarrassment), the perception that we can not control, predict or cope with the environmental demands over us, will most likely evoke a physiologic stress response.

This subtle form of stress will surface as a feeling of uneasiness, insecurity, rumination, worry, and tendency to avoid stress-provoking situations, people and things [2, 3, 4, 5].  

Why “Stress” is Such a Big Issue Today

Modern life’s rhythms and demands are often challenging and overwhelming for us to cope with, requiring great deals of physical and psychological effort by our part.

Many times if a stressor ensues for prolonged periods and we fail to adapt, our immune system gets weak and depleted, and we become highly vulnerable to all kinds of diseases.

The problem with stress is that it often is highly subjective.

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If a person perceives a noxious stimulus as too intense or its duration as too long, he may fail to withstand the pressure, resulting in pathological neuroendocrine alterations, and subsequently the manifestation of the disease process. 

The physiology, as well as the psychology of the individual both need to be thoroughly addressed if the desired outcome is the reversal and prevention of chronic disease.

Humans are physical-emotional-mental-spiritual beings, meaning that imbalances in one area affect all other areas, and vice versa. 

For example, when we experience feelings of anger, fear, embarrassment, worry, guilt or sadness- which all are the result/cause of stress in some way or the other, then corresponding neuroendocrine adaptations affect every part of our body and physiology, including sugar and fat metabolism, intestinal microbiome composition, and brain performance.

Most often, stress stimulates our sympathetic nervous system which sets off our “fight or flight or freeze” response, an evolutionary adaptation against potential (real or imaginable) threats, during which the adrenal glands- two endocrine glands located on top of our kidneys – release stress hormones.

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These hormones lead to accelerated thinking, rapid pulse and breathing, increased blood flow to muscles and brain, increased blood pressure, pupil dilation, and increased blood sugar levels (to fuel intense physical activity, such as running).

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These powerful physiological responses can serve us well if a lion or a tiger is chasing us, but if they are needlessly active for prolonged periods, they can impose a serious threat to our health.

In the last century, the underlying mechanisms by which stress can undermine human health have been mapped.

Human physiology is proven to be highly susceptible to the deleterious and corrosive effects of prolonged exposure to stress, no matter its nature or source.

Stress and the HPA Axis

When we encounter any type of stress, such as financial worry, fear of failure, or a verbally abusing boss, the amygdala, a portion of the brain’s limbic system that controls mood, motivation, and fear, gets activated [6].

The amygdala responds to fear or danger by initiating an immediate sympathetic response, by stimulating our hypothalamus, a neuroendocrine gland located in our forebrain. 

The hypothalamus receives neural input from the higher areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and the cortex, as well as from the peripheral nervous system, and funnels these nerve signals to the pituitary gland.

The pituitary gland, also known as the “Master Gland”, ultimately controls all other endocrine glands and our body’s hormonal response to the environment.

The pituitary gland is divided into two parts: the anterior and posterior pituitary gland.

The hypothalamus interacts with both parts in two different ways:

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Anterior Pituitary

It interacts with the anterior pituitary primarily through the hypophyseal portal system- a capillary system between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, by which directly secretes hormones that go down and signal the pituitary to produce specific hormones (paracrine signaling).

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A good example of hypothalamic-pituitary communication is the hypothalamic secretion of the hormones AVP (Arginine Vasopressin) and CRH (Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone), which reach the pituitary, stimulating its anterior region to produce ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic Hormone).

Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) then goes down to the adrenal glands- two almond-shaped endocrine glands that sit on top of each kidney, and stimulates the release of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

Posterior Pituitary

It communicates with the posterior pituitary gland through the stimulation of specific nerves that run down at the pituitary stalk, stimulating the posterior pituitary to release various hormones.

These hormones have been previously produced in the hypothalamus and stored in the posterior pituitary, meaning that the posterior pituitary does not produce its own hormones.

The main hormones are ADH (antidiuretic hormone) and oxytocin.

ADH stimulates the collecting ducts in the kidneys to retain water, and oxytocin is involved in uterine contractions in women.

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Oxytocin also promotes feelings of love, social bonding, and well-being, and for that reason is currently being tested as an anti-anxiety drug.

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You may learn more about these complex brain structures by interacting with the 3D model below:

During any type of stressful situation, our system prompts the adrenals to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline increase heart rate, elevate blood pressure and boost energy supplies.

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone.

It increases blood glucose to fuel activity through the process of gluconeogenesis and facilitates catabolism in order for the body to access substances needed for tissue repair.

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Cortisol also inhibits processes that are not necessary in a ‘fight-or-flight’ situation.

It also alters immune system function, suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, and all growth (anabolic) processes.

This intricate system of direct and indirect feedback mechanisms that regulate our body’s reactions to stress is called the HPA axis (Hypothalamic- Pituitary- Adrenal axis).

It’s a very complex natural alarm system that is in constant communication with brain regions, such as the hypothalamus and the pituitary, and controls our body’s endocrine and metabolic function.

All Types of Stress- Whether Mental, Physical, or Emotional Activate the HPA axis.

Hypothalamus: The Master Regulator of Metabolism and Stress Response

The hypothalamus is a major neuroendocrine portion of the brain with a variety of physiologic and metabolic functions.

One of the most important functions of the hypothalamus is to bridge the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland.

The hypothalamus partakes in different daily functions, such as digestion, temperature regulation, energy maintenance, memory, and stress response.

Despite the hypothalamus being the “central governor” of the body, a lot of endocrine control in the system is regulated by the pituitary gland, which at the end of the day is under its command.

Every day, various neuroendocrine cascades are taking place, as one part of the body communicates with another (via blood or nerve), which responds with the production and secretion of various substances, including hormones and neurotransmitters.

Stress Response Cascade
  1. The hypothalamus senses stress and releases the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine vasopressin (AVP) hormone.
  2. These hormones trigger the production of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which activates the “fight-or-flight” response.
  3. This triggers the release of norepinephrine and epinephrine from the adrenal medulla, signaling the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol and aldosterone.
  4. Epinephrine constricts our blood vessels and increases blood pressure to make sure our brain is receiving enough blood and oxygen to deal with the “impending danger”.
  5. Cortisol acts as an anti-inflammatory hormone, preventing damage from the inflammation induced by other substances released during stress. It has the important job of maintaining and preserving fuel to keep us going in the case of a crisis that requires energy, which it does by increasing glucose levels through gluconeogenesis in the liver, and causing insulin resistance. Insulin resistance helps us maintain more glucose around and therefore keeps us fueled up with energy.
  6. The main task of aldosterone is to regulate how much fluid is stored in our bodies. Fluid volume in turn also has an effect on blood pressure. The more aldosterone we have, the more sodium and water we retain, and thus aldosterone helps keep blood pressure up.
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The hypothalamus sends messages to the pituitary to control other organs apart from the adrenals, such as the thyroid (HPT axis), the gonads (HPG axis), the ovaries (HPO axis), the liver and the mammary glands.

This is why hypothalamic or pituitary dysfunctions can induce serious hormonal and metabolic problems and insufficiencies, such as hypothyroidism, adrenal fatigue/insufficiency (Addison’s disease), inadequate testosterone production (hypogonadism), etc.

Many times, a particular health problem does not lie in the specific organ itself but the orders (or lack thereof) it receives from its “supervisors”, a.k.a the hypothalamus or the pituitary gland.

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Unfortunately, very few endocrinologists consider possible malfunctions in the higher areas of the endocrine system when they try to address a particular issue (i.e., subclinical hypothyroidism).

Adrenals: The Batteries of the Body

The adrenals are almond-sized organs/glands that sit on top of each kidney and are known as the “Stress Response Glands”.

Each gland has two separate zones.

The inner zone or medulla, secretes the hormones adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine) and small amounts of dopamine in response to immediate stress signaled by the CNS (Central Nervous System).

The outer zone of the adrenal glands is known as the cortex.

The cortex secretes three types of hormones: glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, and androgens.

All these hormones are made from cholesterol and are essential to everyday life, being produced in varying amounts throughout the day.

Their function is to help control metabolism, inflammation, immune function, salt and water balance, development of sexual characteristics, and the ability to withstand illness and injury.

Glucocorticoids

The main glucocorticoid- cortisol, is stimulated by the release of adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland.

The primary functions of cortisol are to help regulate blood sugar levels, increase body fat, defend the body against infections, and help the body adapt to stress.

It does that by providing the body with glucose, by tapping into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver, and increasing blood pressure and heart rate during stressful situations.

Besides, it helps convert food into energy and has anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties.

Prednisone (synthetic cortisol) is one of the most common drugs medical doctors use to treat autoimmune diseases, due to its strong immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory effects.

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Like all hormones, cortisol has a circadian rhythm: It increases during the night and peaks within the first hour after awakening.

Afterward, it drops quickly during the morning hours, increases slightly after the mid-day meal, and declines slowly throughout the rest of the day to reach its lowest levels during the night (around 10 p.m.), to prepare the body for rest. 

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Mineralocorticoids

Aldosterone is the main mineralocorticoid of the body.

It helps regulate blood volume, blood pressure, sodium, and potassium levels.

It does that by acting on organs, such as the kidney and the colon, to increase sodium reabsorption into the bloodstream and increase potassium excretion through urine.

Water is also reabsorbed along with sodium, increasing blood volume, and therefore blood pressure.

Androgens

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and testosterone are androgen hormones present in both men and women.

Women produce DHEA and testosterone in their adrenals and ovaries.

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DHEA has been touted as the “youth” hormone, as its production peaks between age twenty and thirty, and decreases over time.

By age forty, our bodies make about half the amount of DHEA as they did in our twenties, by age sixty-five 10-20 percent, and by age eighty less than 5 percent of the amount produced at age twenty. 

DHEA increases the production of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which is a signal for the production of human growth hormone (HGH), a powerful tissue-repairing and anti-aging hormone.

DHEA also enhances the body’s ability to fight off infections, and high levels of DHEA have been associated with reduced self-antigens and autoimmunity.

Furthermore, DHEA protects the body from the effects of cortisol and the stress that triggers its production.

However, even a slight increase in estrogen strongly decreases DHEA levels, which may explain the low levels of DHEA present in old women, as estrogen synthesis and adiposity both increase with age [7].

How Chronic Stress Makes your Hormones Decline

The adrenal glands are responsible for manufacturing hormones from cholesterol known as steroids.

Cholesterol becomes converted into pregnenolone, which is the precursor for DHEA, estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, aldosterone, and cortisol.

The adrenal cortex secretes varied amounts of hormones throughout the day in a rhythmic pattern, with the highest amounts in the morning and the lowest at night.

When the adrenal glands are not producing enough hormones metabolic and physiologic problems can occur.

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Steroid Biosynthesis Pathway

During stressful situations, the body shifts its steroid hormone production away from the progesterone/aldosterone pathway and the DHEA/estrogen/testosterone pathways to focus on producing cortisol.

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This mechanism is known as “pregnenolone steal”, where the body takes the pregnenolone normally reserved for DHEA and progesterone, and puts it towards cortisol production.

This is a protective way of conserving resources to help us survive stressful “fight-or-flight” situations, like car accidents, being chased by tigers, etc.

This “reserve fuel function” is a brilliant design or evolution of the human body, and is vital when we are fighting or running for our lives.

However, a near-death experience is not always necessary to turn on the fight-or-flight response.

Our stress response can also turn on in non-life-threatening situations we find stressful, like running late, being stuck in traffic, or delivering a public speech.

This can then turn into a chronic overactivation of the stress response.

Your body works extra hard to keep producing more cortisol, even stopping the production of other hormones normally produced by the adrenals, such as progesterone, DHEA and testosterone.

The precursor for all these hormones and cortisol is pregnenolone.

Your body will start “stealing” the pregnenolone and DHEA production to keep up the supply of cortisol.

Putting hormone production on hold for prolonged periods of time can lead to a host of health problems. 

Adrenal Fatigue

Chronic stress leads to a set of symptoms known as adrenal fatigue, which occurs when the adrenal glands can not cope sufficiently with daily stress.

Adrenal fatigue is a condition not recognized and accepted by mainstream medical community, however, countless people swear by, what seems, a common collection of symptoms:

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  • Body aches
  • Unexplained fatigue – even after adequate sleep
  • Nervousness
  • Unexplained anxiety and depression
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Blood sugar problems
  • Hypotension
  • Constipation and other digestive problems.

Adrenal fatigue can be divided into four distinct stages:

Stage I (Alarm Reaction)

It’s also known as the High Cortisol Stage- When the body is bombarded with different stressors it goes into alarm mode and overcompensates by flooding the system with different stress hormones, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.

This response is normal and healthy when the stressor is temporary (acute response).

However, if it pertains, this alarmed, stressful state can become chronic.

Symptoms are not noticeable at this stage.

If a lab test takes place during this first stage it can show elevated levels of adrenaline, cortisol, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), norepinephrine and insulin.

Stage II (Resistance Response)

In this stage the stress is chronic and the adrenal glands are not able to produce the needing stress hormones adequately.

Daily energy levels are decreased and some symptoms are starting to make their entrance, such as anxiety, mild depression, irritability, frequent cold and flus (weakened immune function), PMS, and insomnia.

Stimulant use is needed most of the time in order for the person to feel well, functional and productive.

At this stage, blood cortisol levels continue to elevate, while DHEA begins to drop.

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Stage III (Adrenal Exhaustion)

In this stage, cortisol output drops significantly due to eventual adrenal exhaustion.

All bodily systems not required for survival, such as the reproductive and digestive system, are being slowed down, leading to symptoms, such as lack of libido, infertility, constipation, etc. All bodily systems not required for survival, such as the reproductive and digestive system, are being slowed down, leading to symptoms, such as lack of libido, infertility, constipation, etc.

At this point, the body enters a major catabolic state and tries to conserve energy in any way possible, “stealing” it from various other bodily systems and metabolic processes.

Even with stimulant use and/or other coping mechanisms (massage therapy, acupuncture, infrared saunas, etc) the person can recognize that something is not right with his/her body, as he/she is not able to function normally.

Symptoms of this phase include the same as the previous ones, but more pronounced and with exacerbated metabolic dysregulation being present:

  • Potent anxiety and depression
  • Colds, flus, and recurrent infections
  • Insomnia
  • Blood sugar abnormalities
  • Low and fluctuating blood pressure
  • P.O.T.S, (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome)
  • Panic attacks
  • Muscle atrophy (muscles get broken down to amino acids and turned into glucose)
  • Major fatigue
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In this phase, the side effects of an “adrenal crush” are being felt by the person.

Also, DHEA levels are significantly lower than normal.

Stage IV (Adrenal Failure/Burnout)

If the person has not received any help and medical support in the previous stages, adrenal exhaustion can evolve to total adrenal failure.

This condition can be proven life-threatening, leading to cardiovascular failure and even death.

Many times, this stage of adrenal insufficiency can be confused with Addison’s disease, a medically accepted endocrine disorder in which the adrenals do not produce enough steroid hormones.

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Unlike adrenal fatigue syndrome, however, the mainstream medical community does offer treatment protocols to Addison’s patients.

This stage of adrenal fatigue comes with new and severe symptoms, such as pain in the extremities, abdominal area and lower back, dehydration, vomiting, seriously low blood pressure, intense constipation, and fainting.

Most people that discover they have adrenal fatigue are usually in Stage III.

If you suspect that you have reached Stage IV of adrenal fatigue, you should immediately get proper support from a healthcare professional.

NOTE: In the beginning stages of adrenal fatigue, if the body adequately compensates, blood pressure may be normal, or it may become elevated, if the body is unable to rebalance the hormonal response. In the advanced stages of adrenal fatigue, aldosterone and cortisol production become depleted, and levels of sodium and water drop, resulting in low blood pressure.

Adrenal Depletions

Dehydration

Because people with adrenal fatigue usually have suboptimal sodium retention and hydration due to low aldosterone levels, they may get dehydrated and start craving sodium-rich foods, like tomatoes or potato chips.

Potassium levels may actually rise become, causing an electrolyte imbalance.

Thus, foods containing high levels of potassium, such as fruits, may make the person feel worse.

Also, drinking more water will result in further dilution of the body’s sodium and exacerbate dehydration.

Liberal use of non-iodized sea salt is recommended.

Drinking filtered water with one teaspoon of non-iodized sea salt may also help.

Homemade chicken broths with plenty of sea salt or celery juice are also a healthy way to rehydrate.

Cholesterol

Adrenal hormones are made from cholesterol.

Adequate cholesterol is an important factor in a healthy diet.

Egg yolks, lamb brain, and meat are the richest sources of dietary cholesterol that can be eaten by most people, and will greatly help patients suffering from adrenal fatigue.

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Nutrient Depletion

Vitamin C and B vitamins become depleted during high cortisol production.

Pantothenic acid and biotin deficiency, in particular, have been linked to decreased adrenal function in animals and humans [16, 17].

Potassium, zinc, iron, and copper also become depleted with excessive cortisol production.

Therefore, people with adrenal dysfunction may benefit by supplementing the following:

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  • Vitamin C
  • Niacin
  • Pantothenic acid
  • Folic acid
  • Biotin
  • Potassium
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Magnesium

Chronic Stress Decreases DHEA and Progesterone

Chronic stress leads to a reduction in DHEA and progesterone.

These hormones are often abnormally low in individuals suffering from autoimmune diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and fibromyalgia.

Additionally, seasonal depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hypothyroidism, asthma and eczema have all been linked to HPA axis malfunction.

Low progesterone can lead to menstrual irregularities, infertility, uterine fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, and a shift in immune function.

Progesterone regulates GABA, our “relaxation neurotransmitter”, and a deficiency in GABA may lead to anxiety, insomnia, and rumination (excessive worrying about the past).

DHEA has been touted as an anti-aging hormone and has been correlated with reversing the classic stress-induced physiological response.

To make enough cortisol in stressful situations, ACTH drives elevated levels and depletes DHEA production to adapt.

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Without enough DHEA, the body is unable to produce sufficient amounts of testosterone, which can affect sex drive.

While DHEA levels drop naturally with age, various diseases- including autoimmune conditions, cancers, diabetes, heart disease, dementia and chronic fatigue, have also been associated with low DHEA.

When DHEA levels are down, our immune system becomes more sensitive to pathogens and free radicals.

Chronic High Cortisol Devastates the Body

If secreted in excess, cortisol injures the body’s tissues.

The main role of cortisol is to keep the body fueled up during a stressful time.

Cortisol shifts the body into a tissue-breakdown phase (catabolic), instead of tissue-repairing phase (anabolic).

Under normal conditions, there is a balance between catabolic and anabolic phases.

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As an anabolic steroid hormone, DHEA helps with tissue repair, counterbalancing the effects of cortisol.

However, DHEA becomes depleted during the chronic stress response.

Chronic cortisol release can result in the depletion of many nutrients affecting our physiology, causing serious nutritional deficiencies.

Cortisol releases amino acids from the muscles to help create more glucose via gluconeogenesis in the liver.

One of these amino acids used is glutamine, which is crucial for the maintenance of the integrity of the gut lining, and has been found to be depleted in people with leaky gut syndrome.

Excessive cortisol output also causes a reduction in secretory IgA (SIgA), the most common antibody/immunoglobulin secreted in mucosal surfaces, that helps with viral and toxin neutralization, as well as inhibiting bacterial colonization.

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Cortisol also decreases the activity of vitamin D, preventing calcium and phosphorus absorption, and bone resorption, contributing to the onset of osteoporosis.

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This leads to the breakdown of bone tissue.

In addition, cortisol impedes detoxification due to inhibition of liver function.

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Prolonged cortisol secretion may lead to serious health issues, including overproduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines, poor wound healing, muscle atrophy, bruising easily, infertility, central obesity, and mood and memory disorders, due to increased turnover of neurotransmitters.

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When cortisol runs out and the rest of the body gets depleted, a sickness response occurs, in which fatigue, impaired cognition, sleep disturbances, anorexia, and depressed mood can arise.

As cortisol has anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects, the person lacking cortisol may become more susceptible to allergies, infections, and inflammation.

Chronic effects of high cortisol

On the contrary, low cortisol results in a lack of suppression of sympathetic tone and catecholamines, making us more sensitive to the effects of epinephrine.

We may experience anxiety, an increased sense of smell, and a heart rate that is elevated, or on the higher end of normal (signs of HPA dysfunction).

The levels of cortisol also control thyroid hormone production.

Often, hypothyroid symptoms, such as fatigue, constipation and low body temperature are caused due to adrenal malfunction.

The Stress – Autoimmune Connection

It has been scientifically proven that people who were previously diagnosed with stress-related disorders are much more prone to suffering from autoimmune diseases [8].

Some researchers believe HPA axis dysfunction and cortisol elevation may be the cause, rather than the consequence, of autoimmune diseases.

As a natural steroid, cortisol suppresses cellular immunity (Th1), preventing tissue damage from excessive inflammation.

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Low cortisol allows for the upregulation of cellular immunity (Th1 dominance), resulting in increased production of the pro-inflammatory cytokines TNF-A, IL-6, and IL-2.

During Th1 dominance, the Th2 branch (humoral immunity) is suppressed.

This may lead to the person becoming more susceptible to parasites, allergens, pathogenic bacteria, and toxins.

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Th1 dominance is very often seen in autoimmune conditions.

Thus, the immune system may get thrown out of balance in times of excess cortisol production, but also when cortisol is depleted.

For example, pregnant women’s cortisol levels were measured at week thirty-six of gestation.

Those with low cortisol were most likely to develop postpartum thyroiditis [9].

The hormone DHEA also has effects on the immune system, increasing Th1 and decreasing Th2 cell production.

Stress, along with nutritional deficiencies and intestinal permeability may be at the root cause of most autoimmune diseases, and may perpetuate the disease progression.

How to Combat Chronic Stress

1. Good Sleep

Sleep is a powerful stress reducer.

It increases the body’s overall ability to deal with any kind of stress.

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Good quality sleep affects energy levels and mood by helping to keep blood sugar stable.

Getting consistently low-quality sleep promotes depression, anxiety, mood swings, lack of concentration, and poor blood sugar regulation.

Following a structured, regular sleep routine calms and rejuvenates the body, improves cognition, regulates mood, decreases inflammation, and sharpens judgment and decision-making.

To ensure deep and restorative sleep, some conditions need to be met.

A completely dark, quiet, cool room (about 65 degrees) with proper air supply is thought to be ideal.

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Also, a high-quality mattress that alleviates pressure and supports the bones, joints and muscles is something to take into consideration.

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Invest in a comfortable, high-quality mattress that molds to the curves of your body and supports the natural curvature of your spine.

We recommend Puffy or Comfy as their mattresses are designed for all body types and sleeping positions, provide both durability, support and pressure-relief, and are high-quality lasting strong for many years down the road.

As a more budget-friendly alternative, we recommend Idle Sleep.

Idle allows you to buy a queen-size memory foam mattress + 2 free pillows for $550 (The Idle mattress).

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They offer the longest free trial of all brands (18 months) and free returns if things don’t work out.

If you are looking for an organic, eco-friendly mattress we recommend Plushbeds.

Plushbeds is both a retailer and a manufacturer, meaning that when you order from them you are getting your mattress directly from the factory, which allows for a better price.

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2. Establish Boundaries

Boundaries are rules or limits that a person creates that dictate how other people should behave to that person, and what happens if they cross them.

It’s a way of creating balance and establishing health in your relationships with other people, leading to stronger, more authentic connections.

Our limits and boundaries create an emotionally separate space between ourselves and others.

Personal boundaries are also a sign of self-esteem; people with healthy self-esteem set clear boundaries and don’t allow others, even relatives, to overcome and dismiss them.

On the contrary, emotionally weak and sensitive individuals struggle to protect their own opinions, views, beliefs, life choices, and personal space from their abusive or domineering counterparts, which may be their boss, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, mother, father, or even sibling.

Setting up boundaries can be a life-changing decision when it comes to your emotional health.

In order to set up your boundaries, you first need to define them and know where you stand.

Without a solid sense of boundaries, it becomes difficult to filter out your needs from those of others.

Talking with a professional therapist may help you become more self-aware on what lines you don’t like to be crossed, and re-set your life priorities according to importance.

3. Breathe

Being constantly in a hurry causes you to hold your breath, or to breathe shallowly, leading to inadequate pulmonary ventilation.

Incomplete breathing causes the air to not reach the lower lobes of the lungs, leading to insufficient oxygenation of the body.

That stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and creates a state of tension and stress.

On the contrary, deep breathing tells your brain to calm down and relax, which then transmits this message to your body through hormonal and neurotransmitter communication.

For that reason, you should make deep, diaphragmatic breathing a focus in your everyday life.

Throughout your busy day, try to program yourself to take at least one conscious deep breath periodically, in order to release tension and calm your system.

A good idea would be to even set a timer on your phone.

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4. Listen to Classical Music

Music, depending on the genre, can be a great tool in helping you manage stress and anxiety.

Music has been shown to carry positive functional effects on the psychobiological human stress system [13].

Research shows that listening to music before a stressful event can help the nervous system to recover faster, and lessens the intensity of the endocrine and psychological stress response.

Slow, classical, melodic music relaxes the body, slows down the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and decreases levels of circulating stress hormones.

5. Meditate

Meditation is a practice that has been present in cultural and religious contexts for thousands of years.

It’s a habit that can uplift the brain, mind, and spirit, and also a great weapon in the battle against chronic anxiety and stress.

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Meditation significantly reduces the levels of circulating stress hormones- adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, and promotes feelings of serenity and relaxation.

Also, meditation helps you become more self-aware, able to understand and separate yourself from others and the environment.

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With that heightened awareness comes self-control and resilience to all kinds of stressors- physical, mental, or emotional.

Studies have shown that meditation actually changes the brain on a structural level [14].

People who meditate overtime develop more folds in the outer layer of their brain, called gyri.

It is speculated that a higher number of gyri in the brain is a sign of intelligence, as bigger brains have more neurons, which require more space (surface area) within the same skull volume.

Normal cerebral aging naturally flattens these folds and causes gradual brain atrophy [15], while meditation does the exact opposite.

6. Massage Therapy

Massage therapy can be used to treat any type of stress – physical, mental, emotional – in any circumstance.

It constitutes an effective and beneficial treatment to alleviate feelings of tension, overwhelm and worry by promoting relaxation, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering the heart rate and promoting the release of feel-good hormones, such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin.

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Massage therapy also reduces stress by relaxing muscles and soft tissues in the body, which increases body temperature and blood circulation.

The increase in temperature is stimulated by friction against the skin.

When body temperature is increased, muscles and other soft tissues relax and loosen.

Relaxed soft tissues allow tightness to decrease. 

Additionally, increased circulation delivers more blood and oxygen to the muscles, removing waste products and decreasing inflammation.

Many people often report cold hands and feet, which result from poor circulation, and daily massages can help to counteract that.

Massage also helps decrease stress by releasing endorphins, opioid-like chemicals that are produced by the body and calm the peripheral nervous system.

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The peripheral nervous system comprises one half of our body’s nervous system. Its main function includes the communication relay between the brain and the extremities.

Massage stimulates feel-good hormones and parasympathetic neurotransmitters into the peripheral nervous system allowing the message of calmness and relaxation to be relayed.

When endorphins are released, stress-related hormones are decreased, releasing tension and stress.

Other benefits of massage therapy include:

  • Pain relief
  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Increased feeling of content and well being

For those who need and like a daily dose of massage therapy, a good investment would be a massage chair or a massage gun.

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Enjoying a 15 – 20 minute chair massage session once or twice a day can substantially reduce anxiety and stress, relieve musculoskeletal pain, improve muscle recovery, stimulate the lymphatic system, decrease stiff-neck problems, increase joint mobility and flexibility, promote better sleep, simulate chiropractic maneuvers for sciatica and improve blood circulation.

7. Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogenic herbs are herbs that support and supplement the body’s ability to deal with stress.

Most adaptogenic herbs have been used for millennia in ancient, Eastern medical modalities, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Herbalists can create a variety of herbal mixes for specific patients based on the symptoms as every herb confers specific benefits.

To be considered an adaptogen, an herb must meet some specific requirements:

1) It should be non-toxic when taken at normal dosages.

2) It should increase the whole body’s ability to deal with stress, a.k.a have a systemic effect.

3) It should help the person’s body to return to balance and homeostasis.

Put simply, adaptogens are supposed to help the body relax when it’s overstressed, and invigorate it when it’s tired and lethargic.

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They do this by balancing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, our primary stress response system, which is responsible for the neuroendocrine adaptation component of the stress response.

Adaptogenic herbs include Ashwagandha, Astragalus, Reishi mushroom, Codonopsis pilosula, Eleuthero root, Ginseng (Asian, American, Panax), Jiaogulan, Licorice root, Maca, Schisandra, Spikenard, Suma root, and Andrographis paniculata.

These are examples of herbs that may increase the body’s ability to resist stress, and they have been helpful in relieving adrenal dysfunction when used in combination with other vitamins and minerals.

For example, Licorice root extract prevents the breakdown of cortisol into active cortisone.

Keeping cortisol around longer prevents the body from stealing pregnenolone from the production of other hormones and may help combat adrenal insufficiency.

It is also very beneficial for those with low cortisol and low blood pressure.

However, Licorice root extract should not be used by those with water retention or high blood pressure.

Typically, adrenal-supporting supplements have a mix of adaptogenic herbs, and some may also contain vitamins or glandular extracts.

You may see our brand recommendations for adaptogenic herbs and nootropics here.

8. Seek Emotional Support

Identify the insidious sources of stress in your life and seek the help of a therapist to help you manage them.

A good website that offers online therapy is online-therapy.com.

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Often times, our estimate of things is much higher than it should, leading to unnecessary mental distress and psychological torture.

Conclusion

Chronic exposure to stress increases systemic inflammation and leads to severe pathophysiologic alterations throughout the body that can manifest as metabolic, neuronal, endocrine, behavioral, cognitive, and mood disturbances.

Studies have shown that chronic stress can create serious long-term imbalances, such as:

  • Insulin resistance
  • Low androgens
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Reduced bone mineral density
  • Impaired immune function
  • High susceptibility to colds, flus, and infections
  • Decreased levels of DHEA
  • Muscle loss
  • Hypotension
  • Hyponatremia
  • Increased levels of inflammatory cytokines (TNF-A, IL-6, and IL-2)
  • Abnormally high or low plasma cortisol (depending on the stage of adrenal exhaustion), which all precipitate a chronic inflammatory state within the body
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Additionally, some studies have shown that chronic stress influences the human nervous system, and can cause permanent structural changes in different parts of the brain [10].

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In studies conducted in mice, chronic stress has been shown to lead to brain mass atrophy and a decrease in weight [11].

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Thus, taking into consideration the multiple pathways by which chronic stress exerts its harmful effects, it is made obvious that all individuals – sick or healthy – would benefit by identifying the major causes of stress in their lives and trying to address them to the best of their ability.

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PS. If you haven’t already, you may check out our Recommendations List for high-quality supplements, health products and services you can trust. There is probably nothing health-related you won’t find there + special discount codes are waiting for you.


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About George Kelly

George Kelly M.Sc. is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist that specializes in chronic and autoimmune conditions. He is the CEO and lead author of Metabolic Body.


References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5137920/#B1
[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10788861/
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22791352/
[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21647882/
[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19883137/
[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22223096/
[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28903616/
[8] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2685155
[9] https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/88/3/1126/2845237
[10] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19401723/
[11] https://mjms.modares.ac.ir/article-30-7153-fa.pdf
[12] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18190880/
[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3734071/
[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3289949/
[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3026893/


MEDICAL DISCLAIMER

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Metabolic Body nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.