5 Potential Effects of Stress on Hormones

February 8, 2024
A stressed woman sitting at a computer

Stress is a natural part of life that we all experience at some point. It can arise from various sources, such as work pressures, financial difficulties, or relationship challenges.

While stress can be helpful in small doses, chronic or prolonged stress can have detrimental effects on our physical and mental well-being. Stress and hormones can interact and contribute to chronic diseases.

Chronic stress can cause hormonal imbalances, which can trigger a wide range of symptoms, such as mood swings, anxiety, menstrual changes, hot flashes, sleep disturbances, and weight gain.

The Stress Response: A Natural Survival Mechanism

When we encounter a stressful situation, our body responds by triggering the “fight or flight” response. This response is a survival mechanism that prepares us to either confront the threat or flee from it. The brain plays a crucial role in this process, as it identifies the stressor and initiates the release of stress hormones.

The adrenal glands release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. They help us mobilize energy and focus our attention, enabling us to respond effectively to the perceived threat. Your heart races, your breathing quickens, and your muscles prepare for action. This response is beneficial in acute situations, allowing us to navigate through challenges and restore balance once the threat has passed.

The Three Stages of Stress: From Alarm to Exhaustion

Understanding the different stages of stress can provide valuable insights into how it affects our hormones and overall health. The stress response typically unfolds in three phases: alarm, adaptation, and exhaustion.

Stage 1: Alarm Stage

During the alarm stage, our body experiences an immediate response to a stressor. Adrenaline and noradrenaline, also known as catecholamines, are released in large quantities. These hormones increase heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption, preparing us for action.

Cortisol, a stress hormone released more slowly, supports the effects of adrenaline by conserving energy and redirecting resources to the stress response. While this response is essential in acute situations, chronic activation of the alarm stage can lead to imbalances in the body.

Stage 2: Adaptation or Resistance Stage

If stress persists, our body enters the adaptation stage. This stage involves long-term adjustments to sustain the heightened state of stress. The immune system may become suppressed, and other organ systems may adapt to the ongoing stress. The digestive system, for example, may decrease hunger cues and allocate less energy for digestion. Prolonged periods of adaptation can lead to fatigue, impaired focus, burnout, memory issues, and mood disturbances.

Stage 3: Exhaustion Stage

The exhaustion stage occurs when the body experiences long-term hormonal imbalances related to cortisol and other stress hormones. Body systems, including the reproductive system, may begin to lose optimal function. Increased anxiety, depression, hunger, and fatigue are common symptoms during this stage. Chronic stress can also raise blood pressure, weaken the immune response, and make individuals more susceptible to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking.1,2

Stress and hormones can interact and cause disease.

The Impact of Chronic Stress and Hormones Out of Balance

Hormones play a crucial role in maintaining overall health and well-being. Various endocrine glands, such as the adrenal glands, ovaries, and thyroid glands, produce and release hormones that regulate essential bodily processes. Chronic stress can disrupt the delicate balance of these hormones, leading to emotional, mental, and physical symptoms. Stress and hormones interact and contribute to chronic disease.

1. Ghrelin: The Hunger Hormone

During acute episodes of stress, your body sends less blood to the gastrointestinal tract, suppressing your appetite by regulating gut hormones. More blood is available for the fight-or-flight response.

With chronic stress, some people lose weight because of the impact of stress hormones on gastrointestinal function and appetite. However, many people gain weight when they experience chronic stress. Research suggests that chronic stress can alter the way we perceive food. It can predispose some people to consume more high-calorie food than they would otherwise.

Ghrelin is a hormone that regulates appetite by stimulating hunger. Extended periods of stress can cause increased ghrelin levels, leading to more frequent hunger, reduced use of body fat for energy, and increased carbohydrate utilization. This imbalance may contribute to weight gain and metabolic disturbances.8

2. Insulin: Blood Sugar Regulation

Insulin is a hormone that reduces blood sugar levels by shuttling glucose (sugar) into body cells for energy and bringing it back to the liver for storage. During periods of stress, insulin secretion may be reduced, potentially causing elevated blood sugar levels. This is helpful during periods of acute stress because it provides a ready source of energy for body cells.

Prolonged stress can make your body’s cells less sensitive to insulin. A decreased sensitivity to insulin is called insulin resistance. It can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Chronic stress can also cause some people to overeat and experience sugar cravings. Overeating can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can contribute to weight gain and increase the risk of developing obesity or type 2 diabetes.3

3. Thyroid Hormones: Metabolism and Balance

The thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate metabolism and growth. Chronic stress can downregulate thyroid function, leading to decreased T3 and T4 hormone levels. This disruption may cause symptoms such as fatigue, fertility difficulties, and weight gain.4

Chronic stress is associated with an exacerbation of autoimmune disorders such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease. Stress can worsen inflammation and increase the immune response. Chronic stress will not cause thyroid disease, but it can make the condition worse.5

Chronic stress can worsen thyroid disorders. The opposite is also true. Symptoms of thyroid disease can contribute to acute and chronic stress.

4. Gonadotropin Hormones: Reproductive Health

Gonadotropin hormones play a role in reproductive health by stimulating sex hormone production. Chronic stress can suppress the release of these hormones, potentially affecting fertility and menstrual regularity. It may also contribute to symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, and decreased libido.2

Chronic stress effects in men

Chronic stress can affect testosterone production. Decreased testosterone can cause a decline in sex drive or libido. It can also cause erectile dysfunction by affecting blood flow into the penis.

Chronic stress can also negatively impact sperm production and maturation, leading to decreased fertility.

Chronic stress effects in women

Chronic stress can affect hormone release and cause absent or irregular periods, more painful periods, and changes in menstrual cycle length and regularity. Stress can worsen premenstrual symptoms and increase the risk of depression and anxiety.

Acute and chronic stress can affect mood and energy levels, leading to a decrease in libido. It can also cause difficulties with arousal, lubrication, and orgasm.

Stress can worsen the symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, sleep disturbances, and mood swings.6

5. Growth Hormone: Maintains Bone and Muscle Tissues

Growth hormone promotes growth in childhood and adolescence. It maintains body tissues, such as bone and muscle, throughout life. Growth hormone levels increase with physical stress, sometimes up to a tenfold increase. Very high levels of physical activity can cause an increase in growth hormone, a decrease in insulin, and an increase in metabolic activity.

With psychological stress, the opposite response is seen. Growth hormone levels decrease with chronic psychological stress.4 Growth hormone is primarily released when you are in deep sleep stages, especially in the first half of the night. Chronic stress can prevent you from reaching deep sleep, reducing growth hormone secretion.

Potential effects of decreased growth hormone levels in adults include7

  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Increased body fat
  • Decreased bone density
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased energy
  • Increased cardiovascular disease risk
  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Mood changes
  • Decreased libido
  • Skin thinning and prolonged wound healing
  • Decreased exercise capacity

Sermorelin is a synthetic peptide that mirrors the structure and action of growth hormone-releasing hormone. It stimulates the natural release of growth hormone. This can give you the edge you need to manage stress and hormones.

5 Potential Effects of Stress on Hormones

Managing Stress and Hormones

While stress is an inevitable part of life, there are strategies we can employ to manage its impact on our hormonal health. Here are some practical steps you can take:

  1. Adopt a healthy lifestyle: Engage in regular exercise, maintain a balanced diet, and prioritize adequate sleep. These practices can support overall well-being and resilience to stress.
  2. Practice stress-reducing techniques: Incorporate relaxation exercises such as yoga, deep breathing, and meditation into your daily routine. These activities can help calm the mind and promote a sense of tranquility.
  3. Seek social support: Maintain healthy relationships and surround yourself with a supportive network of friends and family. Sharing your experiences and concerns can alleviate stress and provide emotional comfort.
  4. Set boundaries and manage time: Evaluate your workload and commitments and establish boundaries to prevent overwhelming stress. Prioritize tasks and delegate when necessary to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  5. Seek professional help: If chronic stress persists or becomes unmanageable, consider consulting a mental health professional. They can provide guidance and support in developing effective coping strategies.

Conclusion: Stress and Hormones

Stress and hormones are intricately connected, with chronic stress disrupting the delicate balance of our body’s hormonal systems. Understanding the stages of stress and their impact on our health is crucial for mitigating the adverse effects of stress. By adopting healthy lifestyle practices, practicing stress-reducing techniques, seeking social support, managing time effectively, and seeking professional help when needed, we can navigate through stress and maintain hormonal balance for better overall well-being.

If you deal with chronic stress and are experiencing adverse health effects, talk with a treatment specialist at Invigor Medical. Medications, such as oxytocin, can reduce appetite, increase bonding, and reduce the perception of stress.

Get started today with a subscription for oxytocin.

5 Potential Effects of Stress on Hormones
Author: Leann Poston, M.D.
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