Stress and our Endocrine System
Updated: May 14, 2020
Chronic elevated cortisol levels can lead to an unbalanced endocrine system. Our body naturally produces over one hundred hormones, some of which are stress hormones. Our ancestors viewed stress as running from a predator or war, things that did not happen every day. This is a stark comparison to what stressors humans encounter today. It can start as early as first thing in the morning by running late, getting the kids ready for school, traffic, stress at work, rush hour commuting home, preparing dinner, etc. The list goes on. And some humans are more sensitive than others, making even minor incidents extremely stressful. This constant stress really wears down our body on a physiological level. As a result of stress, our adrenals release more of a hormone called cortisol. Releasing cortisol is a normal function of the body, it becomes a health concern if it happens all day. Chronic elevated cortisol increases heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, and respiration. It temporarily shuts down the body’s systems that aren’t needed in times of emergency, such as digestion, reproduction and our immune system.
That being said, constant stress and the release of cortisol can lead to many health issues. One is irregular periods called amenorrhea, and a difficulty to become pregnant. It can also affect women going through menopause. The average age for menopause is about 50 to 60 years old. There are reports of women as young as 35 going through it, due to high levels of stress that throw off our normal reproductive hormones and thus cycle. The symptoms of menopause can be much intense in a woman who has hormonal imbalances. Because the body views dealing with the stressful situation as more important than reproductive function, your body releases cortisol and suppresses the secretion of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone that lead to ovulation and normal menstruation. In severe cases, this can make it difficult for women to become pregnant since their body is not allowing them to produce normal reproductive hormones.
Chronic elevated cortisol levels can also affect the sex drive of both men and women. Once again, the stressed body thinks that releasing cortisol is more important than releasing hormones that stimulate our sex drive. Continuous levels of elevated cortisol block the production of testosterone making them have an antagonistic relationship. Testosterone is also a steroid hormone like cortisol and is the primary male sex hormone. A stressed life leads to chronic elevated cortisol levels, meaning suppressed testosterone and a lowered libido. This also negatively affects reproduction by reducing the desire to have sex and lowering sperm counts. Pair this with a female is who also under high stress and is suffering from an imbalanced reproductive hormone secretion, becoming pregnant will prove to be difficult.
Another way chronic elevated cortisol level’s affect the body is by causing men to develop benign prostate hypertrophy (BPH). The prostate naturally increases with age,
but since the hormones are imbalanced, it can grow too big in size leading to many other health issues such as signs of a UTI, low stream of urine, high frequency of
urination, incontinence, and impotence. High cortisol also increases inflammation, which can be another leading cause of BPH.
Being conscious of our stress levels is extremely important for our health. Yes, the stress of day to day is normal. Managing it and incorporating relaxing practices are crucial. Breathwork, walks outside, being around loved ones are all easily attainable ways to destress. Unplugging from our cellphones is also a very effective way to remove stress. Think or journal about some ways that make you truly relax, and take some time every day or a few times a week, to practice this important act of self-care.