We say it all the time: "I got sick because I was really stressed," or "I know developing an autoimmune disease was related to my chronic stress," or "I think stress was the cause of her cancer — she never let herself slow down."
Intuitively and scientifically, we know that stress goes hand-in-hand with illness. But how does stress cause disease? Here's how it works.
If you are a practitioner who supports clients through lifestyle changes, it's critical you're able to relay this information to your clients. "Stress is bad for your body," is, often, not enough to motivate lifestyle change for people.
On the other hand, when people understand HOW stress degrades their body, they can recognize how their lifestyle is both degrading their quality of life and shortening their lifespan.
1. Stress triggers the adrenal glands
Integral to our survival mechanisms, the adrenals are supposed to keep us in balance in the face of stress.
The adrenal glands sit like a cap on the kidneys and wait for signals from the brain to produce the main stress hormone cortisol. Every stress response is a signal from the brain to the adrenals to make cortisol. To functionally and successfully deal with stress, we need this adrenal-cortisol response.
Our stress response determines not only our survival, but our success in life. We need our adrenals to be strong and responsive to a stress — to be there for us when we need them.
The adrenal glands are there to supply enough energy to the body and brain during stress. Cortisol’s main job is to stimulate a process where protein, taken from our body’s tissues, is transformed into glucose. This sugar is the fuel needed to mobilize into fight or flight.
Stress demands action, and action demands fuel. So every stress response needs the glucose that is provided by the adrenals kicking into gear.
Additionally, the adrenals make sex hormones, additional fight-or-flight hormones, and produce a hormone that determines sodium levels. In profound ways, the adrenals oversee our survival.
When the adrenals fall out of balance, it is the first step towards disease.
2. The adrenals become hyperactive (the opposite of adrenal fatigue)
The expression Adrenal Fatigue has now become widely familiar. But preceding this exhausted state, and more prevalent, is the Hyper Adrenal Pattern of excessive cortisol output.
This makes sense, given that repeated and chronic stress means chronic output of cortisol.
How do you know if you are in a hyper adrenal pattern? Some signs include:
- Catastrophizing — When a stress occurs, it becomes difficult to calm oneself.
- Feeling “wired and tired” — Complain about chronic fatigue but feel wired.
- Chronic anxiety — A hyper-adrenal state triggers an alarmed response that often provokes anxiety.
- Physically agitated and feeling on-edge — Excess cortisol creates a need for mobilization, manifested by leg shaking and nervous gestures.
- Premature aging — Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and other tissues of the body.
- High blood pressure — Cortisol constricts the blood vessels, increasing blood pressure.
- Human Doing rather than Human Being — An individual judges their life on the criteria of productivity, and finds it challenging to be peaceful in the present moment.
- Pre-diabetes — Cortisol increases blood sugar, and chronically elevated blood sugar leads to insulin resistance.
- Digestive dysfunction — Acid reflux, constipation, ulcers, SIBO. When stress is on, digestion is off.
- Chronic infections — Bacterial, fungal, viral, and parasitic infections. Cortisol depresses the immune system.
- Impatience — This may manifest by an inability to listen and speaking over others.
- Forgetting to breathe — Tightness and shallowness of your breath, and well as unconsciously holding your breath.
- Erratic energy patterns — Feeling tired in the morning then unable to slow down to go to sleep. Or, when not stimulating yourself with stress, dropping into sudden sleepiness.
3. The excess cortisol turns off the body's healing and repair processes
Not only does the Hyper Adrenal Pattern actually alter one's personality and perception of life, the high levels of cortisol wreak havoc on the body's systems.
- Causes insulin resistance by stimulating the conversion of muscle tissue into glucose
- Depresses the immune system
- Inhibits detoxification
- Inhibits the pineal gland’s output of melatonin
- Turns off digestion
- Raises blood pressure by constricting blood vessels
4. High Cortisol Ruins the Cortisol Feedback System
Excess cortisol damages the feedback system that keeps cortisol balanced.
Here's how it works:
Cortisol injures a part of the brain called the hippocampus — this hormone is actually toxic to hippocampus cells. The hippocampus regulates the HPA axis (discussed in just a moment) from producing too much cortisol.
The hippocampus is densely filled with cortisol receptor sites, which means it is continuously monitoring levels of cortisol. Think of the hippocampus as the Cortisol Thermostat. When cortisol levels are high, it’s supposed to relay a message to the adrenal glands that says, “Shhh, you don’t need to to produce any more cortisol.”
When we are in a hyper adrenal state, however, the hippocampus is constantly exposed to cortisol. This repetitive cortisol exposure damages the hippocampus cells with excessive stimulation.
The hippocampus literally shrinks in size with stress.
Not only is the feedback system for cortisol is derailed, but the hippocampus struggles in its other primary job… short-term memory. This will be discussed in a future blog post.
When the hippocampus dysfunctions, the hypothalamus will continue to trigger more cortisol. And constant cortisol turns off healing and repair processes in the body.
That is the beginning of disease.
5. Now, the brain can no longer regulate the stress response
The hippocampus doesn't talk directly to the adrenal glands to moderate cortisol. It relays this message through another system in the brain.
A three-part Chain of Command, called the HPA Axis, is how the brain communicates and regulates the adrenal glands.
Here's how the HPA Axis is supposed to work:
1. Activation of the adrenals begins when the a part of the brain called the hypothalamus signals the pituitary. The hypothalamus is in charge of providing the body with more fuel when a demand is presented.
2. The pituitary is the Hormone Middle Man. It receives hormonal messages from the hypothalamus, and translates these messages into hormones distributed to the thyroid, adrenals, and sex organs.
3. When triggered by the hypothalamus, the pituitary sends a message to the adrenals to produce cortisol.
When there is constantly high cortisol, however, the hippocampus doesn't tell the hypothalamus to "Shhh."
The adrenals keep on pumping out cortisol, and the cortisol keeps the body's repair and healing processes shut down.
As a result, disease — perhaps a flu, or even cancer — occurs.
In conclusion: how stress causes disease
- Stress causes the adrenal glands to pump out cortisol.
- When stress is chronic, the adrenals go into an overactive, hyper adrenal pattern.
- The high levels of circulating cortisol turns off the body's healing and repair processes.
- High cortisol desensitizes and damages the hippocampus.
- The hippocampus no longer tell the HPA Axis to quiet the adrenal glands. As a result, cortisol remains chronically high and the body's repair processes shut down.
Breaking the vicious cycle with Cortisol Brakes™
What do we do with the hyper adrenal pattern that leads to so much dysfunction, disease, and loss of our best selves?
Primarily we work with ourselves or our clients to identify the accumulative stresses. Imagine a container, such as a beaker, and begin to fill it with the stresses. How much of the beaker is filled with the stress of food allergies, too much screen time, toxicity, anxiety, poor digestion, and on and on?
Is your beaker overflowing? If it is, this is where the balancing mechanisms (homeostasis) fail and this is the first step towards disease. It always comes down to what can you change in your life to reduce the chronic stress response. As I like to say: the work is in making changes in your life and the results are life-changing.
I formulated Cortisol Brakes to support the health of the hippocampus. When we have chronic stress, we build the brain pathways (neuroplasticity) for being in stress. Stress becomes our default.
Cortisol Brakes is available here. Applied topically four times per day, it encourages new patterns for stress by encouraging the Hippocampus to know when you have produced enough cortisol.