Stress and anxiety have a HUGE impact on hormonal health. When we are stressed or anxious we are telling our bodies to be in a fight or flight state. This causes the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands and the re-direction of blood flow and nutrients to our stress responses, rather than to regular body processes such as digestion, reproduction, sleep, etc.
Your brain is the master controller of hormonal balance. An area of the brain called the hypothalamus communicates with the pituitary gland located at the base of the brain. The pituitary gland in turn communicates with the adrenal gland and governs the amount of cortisol secreted in response to stimuli. When we are re-setting the cortisol response we often have to work at the level of the adrenal glands themselves, making sure they have all the nutrients necessary to perform their function, but we also need to re-balance the hyopthalamus’ stimulation as well.
In a healthy individual, cortisol secretion is highest at 6am and declines throughout the day. Such a person has good energy in the morning, which is sustained through the working day, but they are tired at bedtime and sleep well across the night.
Inverted curve: their cortisol secretion is highest in the evening. For these people they often have low energy in the morning, and a surge of energy in the evening paired with some for of insomnia. A keynote of this state is waking at 2-4am with an inability to get back to sleep.
Hyperstimulated adrenals: these people are oversecreting cortisol, cranking it out all day long, and are performing well in the day but may have symptoms of stress or anxiety with heart palpitations, restlessness, digestive concerns, breathing irregularities, etc. Many people actually feel good in this state, like they are naturally caffeinated or something of that nature. The problem is that this is not a sustainable state, damages the thyroid and eventually leads to burnout.
Images courtesy of Experience Life.
Burnout: all roads lead to burnout. The adrenal glands can only be overtaxed for so long. Eventually they lose their ability to respond to the high demands of the hypothalamus and pituitary and they start to under function. These are the people who are strung-out, exhausted, and sometimes on leave from work. And often the other hormones have been impacted at this point, and we also see thyroid issues or female hormone imbalances.
Step 1 is lab testing. We need to rule out any other causes of your symptoms, so a review of your typical laboratory testing is crucial (blood sugar, thyroid panel, iron, etc).
Step 2 is possibility doing more in-depth hormone testing such as salivary hormone testing or DUTCH testing.
Step 3 may use nutriceuticals, herbs, lifestyle modifications, dietary changes, gentle exercise, meditation, physical medicine, bioidentical hormones, etc. Step 3 varies greatly between patients as you are all unique and have unique health requirements and goals. The good news is that the cortisol curve recovers beautifully and often quickly!