“Stress is a killer” has been a common phrase in American culture. We often say it and most of us are unaware of how true this statement is on a physical level.
Stress can actually be measured by measuring a hormone called Cortisol, the stress hormone. Now, most people act like it is bad, but cortisol is actually a good thing. We need it so that we can have energy throughout the day. The time we want it to be at its highest is as soon as you wake up in the morning. Then you use it up throughout the day until it comes down to its lowest point right before bed. This is perfect because now you have a low enough energy level to go to sleep. As you sleep, you build back up your cortisol so that it is at its highest again in the morning and you’re ready for tomorrow. However, this system can go wrong.
If you have an abnormally stressful event or constant, abnormal stress all of the time then you will start to produce too much cortisol. This amount of stress can overwhelm the system. Instead of the cortisol being high in the morning and lower in the evening, the cortisol is high all of the time or at least too high at night. These people can be full of anxiety and may have a lot of trouble sleeping. Eventually their cortisol skyrockets too high. At this point, the brain actually will step in and shut off the cortisol causing the cortisol to be low all day every day. This is to protect the body from causing too much stress on the heart and other organs, but now the person cannot increase their cortisol to deal with ANY stress. The person is fatigued, low energy, and can be depressed.
This type of malfunction of the stress response system can lead to problems all over the body. As cortisol increases so do many inflammatory chemicals in the body. These can cause inflammation all over the body including in the brain, heart, joints, and muscles.
As cortisol increases, the body needs to take building blocks for the cortisol from elsewhere. Well, guess what? Testosterone, Estrogen, and Growth Hormone all have the same building blocks as Cortisol. If you think about, the body will prioritize surviving a stressful encounter with a bear over having more kids. The person’s system will build cortisol at the expense of those healthy, sexual hormones. This can lead to any number of sexual problems for both men and women.
As the estrogen decreases, the body will partially lose the ability to make good, active thyroid hormone (T3) from the inactive hormone (T4). This can cause thyroid problems for the person. See thyroid gland article.
The influx of cortisol can even affect the gut. As the cortisol increases, it causes mast cells to leak inflammatory liquid (cytokines) into the gut causing the lining of the gut to effectively get holes in it. This can lead to too many foods getting into the system causing a large number of food allergies and increasing inflammation even more. See leaky gut article.
Chronic inflammation throughout the body can cause a number of problems such as autoimmune, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, pain, heart disease, and many other things.
The most important thing, if you have a health condition characterized by high inflammation or low sex hormones, is to find out if your adrenal/stress/cortisol system is acting appropriately. If not then remove the stressor. However, some people can remove the stressor but the process has become self-sustaining. This is because as the inflammation raises cortisol, it causes more inflammation which further raises cortisol. So it becomes necessary to work with a practitioner who knows to look at the adrenals and cortisol as possible causes of health problems. It is even more necessary for that practitioner to be able to recognize and stop a self-perpetuating cycle if it is happening.