Whether you are suffering from anxiety connected with finances, work, or children, or you are startled easily, your body reacts to stress by producing large amounts of a stress hormone known as cortisol.
Cortisol is essential for our bodies to function, but frequent or constant stress can result in too much of it, and that can affect our health negatively.
The fight or flight response is a term used to describe the way the body reacts to stressful situations. As humans evolved, we had to develop standard responses to danger. The physical responses usually boiled down to two options: we could fight, or we could run away. Both responses require vigorous use of the body’s large muscles and a rapid expenditure of energy.
This “fight or flight” response is triggered by a part of the brain called the amygdala as soon as it perceives a threat. The response is automatic and may begin even before you rationally assess the problem. (For example, a sudden, loud noise can set it off before you know if there’s really a problem that requires a response.)
When possible danger is perceived, the amygdala sends a signal to your adrenal glands, located on top of your kidneys, and they immediately start pumping out adrenaline and cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone. These quickly produce the following changes in your body to help it either fight or flee:
At the same time, cortisol makes sure that your body isn’t wasting energy on functions that won’t help the fight or flight mechanism by depressing the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems and growth processes. The body doesn’t need to worry about fighting infection, making more nutrients available, making babies or growing taller when we’re in the midst of fighting a saber-tooth cat or rushing across a street after the signal has changed.
The adrenal glands have other work to do when danger isn’t around. They help your body burn fat, control blood sugar levels, and keep blood pressure steady. But if they get overworked by too much stress, they may have a hard time handling these other essential tasks. This is known as adrenal dysfunction or adrenal fatigue, and it can cause symptoms such as increased food cravings, weight gain, low blood pressure, frequent urination and fatigue.
Another condition, adrenal insufficiency, occurs when the body does not produce enough stress hormones. The symptoms associated with adrenal insufficiency include severe fatigue, overall weakness, lack of appetite and weight loss.
Both conditions can make it difficult to get through the day and can cause serious chronic health problems. But like several other conditions related to hormone imbalance, treatment is possible in the form of hormone therapy.