The impact of stress on your health, hormones, and aging
Jenn was a thirty-nine-year-old patient who visited me complaining she felt burned out. Her overwhelming work schedule left her fatigued, with frequent headaches, miserable colds, and raging tension that cut into her sleep. On top of that, she confessed that lately life had become meaningless, which she attributed to an early midlife crisis, and her libido had hit an all-time low. Sounds familiar? I am sure it does!
I see this almost every day. Stress is unavoidable, rampant, and growing. Under normal conditions, your body produces a brief surge of cortisol – the hormone released when you’re under stress—that benefits and protects you. For example, let’s say a car almost hit you on the street, you will act quickly to avoid an accident, right? That is your cortisol acting on your body and preparing it for ‘’fight’. As soon as you are safe however the levels should return to normal. That is the ideal scenario.
However, for many women like Jen, that cortisol surge never turns off. The scientific term for stressed out is hyperarousal. So many of us struggle with the effects of unrelenting stress and hyper-vigilance. Simply put, chronic stress, thanks to cortisol-beyond-its-prime syndrome, causes accelerated aging.
Beyond hopelessness and irritation, the manifestations of chronic stress appeared around Jen’s waistline. She also discovered stress made her fat, especially around her belly – and not just because the ‘’comfort foods’’ she sometimes ate. But because belly-fat cells have four times more cortisol receptors than fat elsewhere in the body.
Not all stress-triggered accelerated aging becomes so obvious. People are surprised when I tell them chronic stress can shorten the telomeres (the end area of a chromosome which protects it from deterioration) damage your energy-producing mitochondria, and generally leave your energy levels stagnating while your brain fog kicks into overdrive. I will also affect your sleep and immunity which will leave your body weak.
Look at seven stress-related issues that often go unnoticed:
- Growth hormone. Excess stress (that’s you, cortisol)—crashes growth hormone (GH) as you grow older. GH decline accelerates aging, decreasing muscle mass, increasing in adipose tissue, reducing libido and energy, and declining blood levels of sex hormones in both women and men. Improved GH is what makes body fat lower, waist thinner, and lean body mass higher. GH also promotes a healthy metabolism while boosting energy levels.
- Gut bacteria. Stress can disrupt the number and type of bacteria in the gut, adversely impacting immune function and overall health. Gut bacteria regulate immune function, digestion, and absorption of essential nutrients. Gut flora gone bad create numerous problems such as bacterial and fungal overgrowth, weight gain, impaired glucose metabolism, poor digestion and absorption, and a weakened immune system.
- Insulin. This is very important because even small increases in cortisol can raise blood sugar and increase insulin resistance, a condition where cells that get too much insulin can become resistant to it. Insulin resistance accelerates age-related diseases, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Or simply put: Want to really accelerate aging? Create insulin resistance.
- Thyroid. Chronic stress delivers a serious whammy to your thyroid because a deficit or an excess of cortisol dysregulates thyroid function. In other words, body’s response to chronic stress is poorly regulated so that cortisol is either too high or too low. The result? Widespread hormone imbalance which will affect your energy, weight, metabolism, and, well, pretty much everything.
- Sex hormones. Excessive cortisol decreases the hormones necessary for sexual desire and function, such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen. Plus, when your level of cortisol gets too high, it can block cells from getting progesterone, which calms you down.
- Chronic inflammation. Inflammation that sticks around for too long makes you fat and contributes to nearly every disease on the planet. If your body stays in a fight-or-flight mode, a chain reaction of inflammatory responses occurs that spells trouble on the scale and on your overall health.
- 7.Telomeres. Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes. Size matters here: Shorter telomere length signifies poor health and mortality. Chronic stress creates oxidative damage and free radical production, aging at the cellular level and shortening telomeres.
So how did we help Jen? We started with an easy stress reduction program, a couple of 4-7-8 relaxing breaths, walking for short distances and meditation. She also got tested for adrenal fatigue and we designed a supplement protocol to heal her adrenals and normalize the cortisol levels. We cleaned up her diet and encouraged a mild detox protocol to help with inflammation. She is now trying Reiki -a powerful stress reduction technique and reports her energy levels are much better and her headaches are almost gone.
Her healing journey has started, how about yours?
Let’s create a healthier you!
Dana Neacsu, MD