The Stress and Hormone Connection


By Debbie O’Neill, Atrium Nutritionist

Hormones are chemical messengers produced from various endocrine glands, transported throughout our body to reach target organs to facilitate numerous functions within our body.  Regulating blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and body temperature, growth and development, fertility, libido, digestion, sleep-wake cycle and even our moods are some of the functions in which  hormones play an important role. 

The stress hormone cortisol is a steroid hormone derived from cholesterol and produced in the adrenal cortex. It is essential for survival and, together with adrenaline, increases in times of stress, modulating pain and fight or flight response.

Stress is our body’s natural response to threats or situations we feel we can’t control or cope with.  While our ancient ancestors had to deal with the possibility of being hunted down by wild animals, our day-to-day challenges of tight deadlines, paying bills and being overworked with minimal sleep are keeping us in stress response mode.  Stress is becoming a regular response, requiring our body to keep up the production of these hormones. 

To deal with the stress response, our bodies go through physical and mental changes to prepare for what is about to happen. The body releases cortisol and adrenaline to facilitate these changes, the heart beats faster, body temperature rises, our breathing becomes shorter and quicker, and we start to sweat.

Stress can be defined as either acute or chronic stress. Acute stress occurs in an emergency or if we need to fight off the threat or flee. Our body will give us a boost of energy and sharpen our mental responsiveness to prepare. Once we feel we are safe, the stress response is switched off and the body returns to regular functioning with the hormones decreasing.

Chronic stress, however, is when we are constantly living in a stress response state for prolonged periods and the switch doesn’t get turned off.

Being in this state can lead to serious health consequences including mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, social isolation, insomnia, mood swings and lack of concentration, and, together with other issues such as gastrointestinal disorders, a possible increased risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. It also affects productivity at work, with an increased need for extra days off.

Now more than ever, we need to understand the tools to help us switch off the stress response. Engage in fun activities that make you feel good, have a good belly laugh, a leisurely stroll during your favourite time of day or a big bear hug from a loved one. Being surrounded by urban green spaces has had quite the positive effect on mental health. Walking through gardens, forests or open spaces covered in vegetation with small bodies of water, in addition to caring for indoor plants, have shown a restorative effect on mental health and restoring your body to its restful state.  Start a new hobby or re-read an old book. Whatever your tool is, put it into practice today. If you need support, reach out to Atrium’s wellness team and book an appointment.