Hormones are essential for helping your body respond to high-octane situations, but if you get too stressed on a regular basis, it can wreak havoc on your mind and body.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Anna Bonet
If you narrowly avoid a car collision and can’t stop shaking for 20 minutes, or feel a rising sense of fear when your boss requests a one-to-one meeting, that surge of panic known as fight-or-flight is in fact your sympathetic nervous system at work.
The sympathetic nervous system directs your involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations using a number of powerful stress hormones and is pretty important for self-preservation purposes.
However, times have changed since our hunter-gatherer days and while these hormones are essential for helping your body respond to certain high-octane situations, if you get too stressed on a regular basis, it can negatively impact your health and wreak havoc on your mind and body. So can we learn to control these hormones and keep our stress levels in check?
Consultant surgeon and health expert Dr Sally Norton explains how stress hormones work and offers expert tips on ways to minimise chronic stress:
What are the major stress hormones?
Behind your unconscious fight-or-flight reactions to stress, a number of powerful hormones are in charge:
In order to prepare you for the stressful situation you’re facing, ‘adrenaline raises your heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies,’ says Dr Norton.
In a primal sense, the purpose of this surge in energy is to help you run away from a dangerous situation. Adrenaline is responsible for our immediate reactions when we feel stressed. The hormone is produced in the adrenal glands after our brain sends the message that we’re facing a stressful situation.
A steroid hormone, cortisol is released in order to ‘allow the body to concentrate on the stressful situation,’ says Dr Norton. ‘It does this by increasing sugar in the bloodstream and suppressing the processes that aren’t immediately essential, such as the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth.’
Cortisol is also produced in the adrenal glands, but it takes more time than adrenaline for you to feel the effects.
How chronic stress impacts your health
While a touch of stress is completely natural and helps you go about your daily life, chronic stress can have a negative effect on your overall health.
‘Nowadays, it’s chronic stress that we suffer from,’ says Dr Norton. ‘The problem is, we are rarely tackling an approaching lion or other immediate stress that requires a real fight-or-flight response. This means that our stress hormones are inappropriately prolonged.’
We are rarely tackling an approaching lion or other immediate stress that requires a real fight-or-flight response.
Usually, after a stressful situation passes, your cortisol and adrenaline levels will go back to normal and you will feel calm and at ease. However, chronic stress is on the rise in modern day society – and left unchecked it can have a detrimental effect, because cortisol suppresses bodily functions such as the digestive system.
Chronic stress also puts you at risk of various health problems, including heart disease, insomnia, digestive problems, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, loss of libido, gut disorders such as IBS, memory loss and weight gain.
How to reduce your stress levels
There are a number of ways you can reduce levels of both adrenaline and cortisol:
Suppressing the adrenaline rush
- Try deep breathing exercises
- Practise meditation
- Concentrate your mind on happy, peaceful memories
- Practise muscle relaxation: slowly tense and relax muscle groups across the body
Reducing cortisol levels
✔️ Exercise: Get moving, but not too intensely. During and just after exercise, cortisol levels actually increase, but this is a temporary reaction and the long-term effects are proven to be beneficial to stress. Regular, moderate exercise is best.
✔️ Get the right amount of sleep: Sleep deprivation leads to higher cortisol levels in the bloodstream, so ensure you have good quality sleep by going to bed early, avoiding caffeine, and limiting exposure to bright lights (such as your phone screen) in the evening.
✔️ Have fun: Studies have shown that laughter reduces cortisol levels, so make time to have fun with close friends and family.
✔️ Get a pet : Similarly, a wealth of research proves animal companionship to be a great reducer of stress levels. In one study, 48 adults were assigned either a dog, a human friend or neither. All participants completed a stress test and provided cortisol measures. Those who had canine companionship proved to be the least stressed.
✔️ Eat healthy foods: To reduce cortisol levels, it’s important to eat a healthy and balanced diet. Excessive sugar increases cortisol over time, so cut back on your intake of sugary treats. There are also certain foods that might help keep your levels stable, such as dark chocolate, black or green tea and bananas.