Understanding Stress and the Cortisol Release Mechanism

This is just the first article in a series on stress and digestion and will give you a basic understanding why stress is necessary for human survival, but when the a person remains stressed for long periods, days or even years, a host of health problems surface.

The first step is to understand that cortisol which gets released during stress is actually your friend, but it turns into an enemy when you yourself misuse its immense power.

The Stress Hormone – Cortisol

Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is a steroid hormone which is released into the bloodstream when a person feels stressed. This allows them to switch to a flight or fight mode to deal with the threat they are facing. High cortisol levels are known to cause disturbance to the gut harmony.

Cortisol also regulates energy by selecting the right type and amount of nutrients the body requires to meet its physiological demands. In today’s ever-stressed, fast-paced lifestyle, the body is pumping out cortisol almost constantly, wreaking havoc on the person’s health. When cortisol levels remain chronically elevated, this can have undesirable effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.

Understanding the Cortisol Release Mechanism

Martial artists often experience high stress levels during their training and tournaments. The desire to perform and excel while attempting to maintain strict discipline of mind and body may lead to anxiety. The anticipation of the fight and the anxiety about their performance tend to lead to very high cortisol levels. This is to be expected and it is one of the factors that help them endure the difficulties in training and win the tournament.

The problem arises when these cortisol levels remain elevated for days afterwards. High cortisol levels over a prolonged period of time wreak havoc on the digestive system leading to a multitude of health problems. Alcoholism and high level of panic or depression also has its effect on spiking the stress hormones. Sometimes athletes and martial artists are given corticosteroid medications like prednisone to treat back pain or other aches. This may cause hypercortisolism. Other causes for cortisol levels that remain high include tumor of the adrenals or other glands.

The Sympathetic Nervous System

In times of stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. It is responsible for the increase in heart rate, quick breathing, which is often labeled the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. The parasympathetic nervous system, is activated when the body is in a relaxed state and therefore, it is called as the ‘rest and digest’ system.

The first-ever historical analysis of stress over time has found that people’s self-reported stress levels have increased 10-30% in the last three decades. The American Psychological Association conducted a survey  called “Stress in America” for over 10 years starting from the year 2007.  They found that the stress was caused by mainly by factors such as money, work, and the economy.

Dealing with stressful circumstances trigger the ‘fight and flight’ response. The stress control center, which is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, activates the sympathetic nervous system releasing the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which further stimulates the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).  ACTH then triggers the adrenal cortex to release the stress hormone cortisol.

Cortisol is a actually a ‘do good’ hormone. In an attempt to save the system during stressful periods, it works to elevate the blood sugar level to meet the glucose demands of the body. In an attempt to maintain blood pressure, it then balances the sodium levels. This provides a person with that extra surge of power to deal with the stress or threat he is facing.

Part Two: The Top 5 Ways Stress Affects Digestive Health (And What To Do About It)

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