Some degree of stress seems to be a normal part of most people’s lives today – having to juggle career, family, finances and housework leaves many of us feeling constantly on edge. But while our bodies are designed to effectively deal with possible dangers, for example a predator attack or other threats, this reaction becomes problematic when it’s constantly switched on in response to everyday hassles. One such problem is the effect this has on your hormone levels.
When we’re faced with a potential threat, our bodies react by turning on what’s called the fight-or-flight response. This involves the release of several nervous system chemicals and hormones, which prepare us to fight or flee by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and the supply of energy to muscles.
And because survival is the objective, other non-essential bodily functions are suppressed to maximise the fight-or-flight reaction. This includes digestion, the immune response, growth and the reproductive system.
But while all of this makes sense if you’re faced with a real danger, such as a hungry lion perhaps, this reaction is detrimental to your health if it doesn’t switch off when the danger has passed or if it’s switched on repeatedly on a daily basis.
Chronic stress is associated with a host of potential health problems, many of which are the result of changes in various hormone levels. The first of these is continuous elevation of stress hormones, primarily cortisol – this can cause heart disease, sleep disruption, depression, memory impairment and digestive problems, because your body is in a constant state of alarm.
Stress has the opposite effect on reproductive hormones, inhibiting their production and causing blood levels to plummet below normal. While it’s logical that your body isn’t too concerned with procreation when you’re being pursued by a famished feline, prolonged suppression of reproductive hormones due to chronic stress can disrupt the menstrual cycle in women and hamper sperm production and sexual function in men, and may even lead to prolonged infertility. Stress also impacts on the production of various hormones involved in your metabolism, appetite control and food intake, and control of blood glucose levels. This may lead to obesity and may even predispose you to developing diabetes or worsen existing diabetes.
All of this means that it’s imperative to manage your stress to avoid serious health problems. While we’re fortunate enough to live in a time where we don’t really need to worry about being served up as the main course at lunch, the multiple demands we face every day in our fast-paced lives means that there’s still plenty to get worked up about. But you can stop your body from responding to each of these ‘minor’ worries as if you were about to dive into a tank filled with razor-toothed sharks.
The first step is deciding to make a change in how you deal with life’s difficulties. Close on the heels of this deciding point is the second step, which involves identifying the things in your life that trigger a prolonged stress reaction. Once you’ve decided to stop working yourself into a frenzy about having to sit in traffic or dealing with a difficult boss every day, for example, you can try to find ways to deal with these stressors.
Sometimes the answer can be as simple as leaving 10 minutes earlier to miss the rush-hour madness, but other times it may not be as straight-forward – it isn’t always feasible to quit your job to get away from your troublesome boss. Instead, you need to find strategies to deal with difficult and unavoidable people and situations in order to reduce everyday irritations. But don’t feel like you need to go at it alone. Ask your family and friends what stress-relief techniques work for them and find strength in their support when going through difficult times.
Using relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation may also work for you. But it’s important to remember that stress management and relaxation aren’t achieved overnight and that stress won’t simply disappear from your life even if you’ve mastered these techniques. What you can change substantially is your reaction to stressful events, thereby improving your ability to cope with life’s challenges. Anti-stress supplementation helps too: Herbal extracts of Rhodiola rosea and Ashwagandha help you cope better with stress. They energise the brain and reduce anxiety. Most importantly they help protect the heart and brain from the damage that stress-hormones can cause to these organs.
1 Mayo Clinic. Stress: Constant stress puts your health at risk. Nov 2012
2 Ranabir S, Reetu K. Stress and hormones. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011;15(1):18-22
3 Whirledge S, Cidlowski JA. Glucocorticoids, stress, and fertility. Minerva Endocrinol. 2010;35(2):109-25
4 Mayo Clinic. Stress management. Nov 2012