What Happens to Your Body When You’re Stressed
Up to 70% of people who are stressed out have some form of adrenal imbalance (referring to those walnut shaped adrenal glands that produce the hormones underlying your response to stress.)
Under chronic stress, our bodies go through three stages that form a deteriorating spectrum of adrenal imbalance and, then, depletion.
In the first stage, we muster up the extra energy to deal with stressors through an adrenaline release.
After an initial shot of adrenaline, the adrenals pump out cortisol, which at first—and in short bursts —provides strength and stamina. But cortisol is like Goldilocks’ bowls of soup. Too little or too much of it causes us to become ill or catch infections and to suffer from a lack of attention or a feeling of being overwhelmed.
Do you often feel like you don’t have the same intensity of focus that you used to have? Your body is likely pumping out disproportionate levels of cortisol.
In this state, we reach for external remedies, such as caffeine or salty or sugary foods. We push ourselves even harder at exercise or, do the reverse, we stop exercising. This sets us up to feel chronically wired and tired.
To describe the most advanced stage of adrenal imbalance, I turned to Marcelle Pick, RNC, MSN, OB/GYN Nurse Practitioner and Cofounder of the Women to Women’s healthcare clinic: “In the final Exhaustion phase,” she explained, “our adrenals are so compromised that they can’t produce enough of their stress hormones. Every little problem starts to seem like a major disaster, when your son spilling his milk or your boss giving you a disapproving look feels like the end of the world.”
We’ve all been there—from time to time. But if this is your normal state, your system may be in danger of adrenal burnout.
There are things all of us do to exacerbate this adrenal imbalance and cause anxiety at work without necessarily knowing it. “A high-sugar, low-protein diet can trigger stress reactions without our even realizing it,” according to best-selling author and nutritionist Julia Ross.
Ironically, over 70% of us eat the very worst junk foods in order to relieve our emotional stress.
Make Your Health a Priority
Everyone should get their stress hormone levels tested so they know where they fit on the adrenal depletion continuum (because you can’t necessarily tell from your “symptoms.”)
For example, if you’re fatigued, it may be due to either high or low cortisol (though with low cortisol you’ll feel weak and tired, while with high cortisol you’ll feel tired but irritable). According to Gottfried, “We tend to know our 401(k) numbers but not our cortisol levels” and urges us to “manage our neurohormonal dashboard as aggressively as a retirement plan.”
The bottom line is that you don’t have to feel worn down, anxious, or sick from stress. Instead of pushing through your signs of stress or low-grade feelings of anxiety, start with the strategies in this article to have more balance and less emotional stress while learning about your physiology.
Adapted with permission from Success Under Stress by Sharon Melnick, copyright Sharon Melnick.