Stress is our body’s way of telling us we need to change! And change quickly. We are all familiar with the ‘Flight or Fight’ response. The signal from our brain in response to stress that prepares the body to ‘run for your life or fight for your life’. But what happens when you activate this flight or flight response over days, weeks, months or even years? What happens when feeling stressed or working under pressure becomes so normal that you don’t even really recognise it as stress any more? When you activate the stress response, certain hormones such as Adrenaline and Cortisol are released. Your system responds to the messages these hormones send and when the threat or stress is over, the body calms back down and you go back to normal. This is a perfect, healthy response, and is likely to be ‘asymptomatic’.
When you activate the stress response over time, the next thing that happens is that these stress hormones, particularly Cortisol,become chronically elevated. When this happens, you may feel “stressed”, anxious, have mood swings or feel a little low ordepressed. You may notice that you have problems sleeping – both falling asleep or staying asleep, and it’s common to feel like you do your best work after 9 or 10 pm, as Cortisol affects the brain and disrupts the normal functions of the hormones that create healthy wake-sleep-cycle. At this point, levels of another hormone, called DHEA may start to drop, and this can have a knock on effect on your sex hormones, creating problems related to testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone. It is possible to be in this second stage for many years, but for some even short-term episodes of stress may cloud thinking, affect sleep and mood and impair performance. Lastly, when this has all been going on for a while, you enter Exhaustion. It becomes difficult for your body to continue the output of the stress hormones, and levels of both Cortisol and DHEA fall.
Symptoms often experienced here are fatigue, depression, noticeable memory problems and brain fog, hormones related problems such as low testosterone, or difficulty conceiving. There is often weight gain around the middle, sometimes inflammatory problems such as muscle and joint pain, migraines, inflammatory skin problems such as eczema, rosacea and psoriasis. At this point you may also be taking medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other symptoms of chronic, systemic biochemical disruption. Long term over-exposure to stress hormones is the number 1 reason people visit primary-care doctors, and is also the number 1 reason people eat poorly, abandon healthy lifestyle habits and self-medicate with alcohol, drugs and food.