How Stress Destroys Your Hormones

How Stress Is Wrecking Your Hormones

Hey folks! last week we had an in depth look at what stress is and how it can cause you to gain excess body fat.

In that article we covered aspects of stress physiology that are important to understand for today’s blog, if you haven’t already read last week’s blog do so HERE before continuing.

Hans Seyle  who is responsible for much of our understanding of stress physiology and originated the term stress defined it as “ the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made on  it”

Homeostasis is our bodies ability to manage our inner environment and maintain an equilibrium, and stress can be thought of as any disturbance to that equilibrium.

Acute Vs Chronic Stressors

The same fight or flight response that has kept us alive since the beginning of time is the very same software our body still uses today in times of stress.

Many of the feelings that come from being in a stressful situation are the hormones and neurotransmitters working in your body to handle the perceived stressor.

These include increased heart rate, blood pressure, increased body temperature and breathing and sweating, heartburn and headaches

Mentally you can experience feelings of anxiety, anger, irritability and nervousness, these physical and mental feeling are entirely normal in a stressful situation.

The benefits that take place with acute (infrequent and short) stress is that your body has mobilized energy stores and put you in this heightened physical and mental state.

In the absence of physical danger you can put these resources to good use and in a way fool the body by going for a run or hitting the weights.

When you can’t use physical exertion to trick your body into thinking you just escaped a fight or flight situation this is where acute (short term) stressors can turn into chronic (long term) stressors.

Before we move on I want to emphasize a point by asking you to take a second look at the physical and mental responses to stress starting four paragraphs above this one.

Theses responses is small doses are fine, however if your body is in a constant/chronic state of these physical and mental responses to stress you can clearly see how they reflect health problems that we as a society struggle with.

Hormones and Stress

Your metabolism is divided into two different sections: catabolism and anabolism. Catabolism is responsible for the process of breaking larger molecules into smaller ones. Catabolism is how we turn food into energy for all of our cells to use.

Anabolism is the building up of cells and tissues in the body such as increasing muscle mass or denser bones.

The balance between catabolism and anabolism is controlled by hormones, but when someone encounters chronic stress the balance between catabolism and anabolism gets disrupted.

Testosterone, Estrogen and DHEA

As someone becomes chronically stressed they will require far more of the catabolic hormones because stressors signal that we need to break down and mobilize as much fuel as possible.

Your body views each one of these stressful events as a potential fight or flight situation which means it prioritizes the production of stress hormones over over all other hormones.  

The body is far more concerned with keeping you alive moment to moment than it is about your production of other hormones. For this reason the adrenal glands are allowed to steal the master hormonal precursor named pregnenolone.

Pregnenolone is typically converted into hormones such as DHEA, testosterone and estrogen, but in times of chronic stress the body preferentially converts pregnenolone into cortisol instead.

While this mechanism is valuable in a life or death situation it is not conducive to leading a happy healthy life.

Without these vital hormones energy, cognition, libido, menstrual cycles , body composition will all suffer. Not to mention sleep problems and a slower metabolism are right around the corner.

Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes

We did cover this subject last week in the How Stress is Making You Gain Fat article, and while we will be discussing the same mechanism we are looking at it through a different lens today.

Insulin is a hormone that helps with anabolism  by delivering glucose to muscle cells and the liver. It also shuttles amino acids around the body for protein synthesis and everyone’s least favorite function delivering fat to body fat storage sites.

Stressors shift your body to a catabolic state where the main concern is breaking tissues and molecules down to mobilize fuel sources and support a potential fight or flight situation.

As a result the body makes your cells unresponsive to insulin’s signal to stop any storage,which is designed as an acute strategy. However in chronic stress situations this resistance to insulin leads to big problems.

The receptors for insulin on the cells eventually decrease, and become less efficient at accepting sugar from insulin even when stress is low.

Insulin is now much less effective at clearing sugar from the bloodstream. Blood sugar stays high for extended periods of time creating excess inflammation in the body.

Our muscles become insulin resistant. With elevated insulin you can’t burn fat. More carbohydrates are stored as fat and weight gain continues

Your body thinks there is not enough stored sugar in cells, in response the body breaks down muscle to create glucose.

Your liver now stops responding to insulin’s signal and becomes insulin resistant, meaning you can’t convert the inactive thyroid hormone T4 into the active usable T3. The metabolism slows down and thyroid problems develop.

The pancreas becomes entirely worn out, and can’t produce enough insulin or glucagon to keep up with your body’s need. As a result you will need to inject insulin into the body and are a Type 2 Diabetic.

Thyroid Hormones

With thyroid health and the metabolism being hot topics in nutrition today most people gloss over the fact that healthy thyroid function is dependent on proper adrenal function.  

As you know by now the adrenal glands are the commander and chief of your stress response, and in that position when times get tough and stress gets high the adrenal glands are the first organ to take a hit.

However the adrenals are part of a much bigger system named the HPA axis which stands for the Hypothalamus, pituitary adrenal axis.

The thyroid is also part of a similar network named the HPT axis which stands for Hypothalamus,pituitary thyroid axis.

However the HPA axis monitors the HPT axis, and when there is a potential problem with thyroid hormones or function looking at stress and the adrenals is a safe bet because of the connection between the HPA and HPT axis.

T4 (inactive) Conversion to T3 (active)

Over 90% of the hormones made in the thyroid gland are inactive in the form T4, which needs to be converted into the active T3 before it can be used in the cells. In the presence of chronic stress the conversion of T4 to T3 is diminished greatly.  

There is a specific enzyme that helps to convert the inactive T4 into the usable T3 hormone, but this enzyme is suppressed by cortisol.

There are also inflammatory proteins released during chronic stress that reduces the amount T4 that is converted to T3 as well. 


TSH also known as thyroid stimulating hormone is responsible for signaling to the thyroid to produce the necessary hormones.

When someone is in state of constant stress the hormone cortisol will be present most of the time and cortisol inhibits the production of TSH.

On top of that the amino acid tyrosine which is required to make thyroid hormones is diverted to making adrenaline during stress. In times of stress not only is the production of hormones inhibited, but the raw materials are unavailable.

Under chronic stress the liver has a much more difficult time metabolizing and removing excess estrogen from the body.

As a result of the excess estrogen the hormone thyroid binding globulin is increased (TBG). We need TBG to transport thyroid hormones around the body, but these thyroid hormones need to be freed from TBG to activate receptor sites on cells and cause physiological changes in the body.

With any significant increase in TBG levels you can guarantee that there is far less free and active thyroid hormones available to cause the necessary reactions in the body.

In Conclusion

  • Acute stressors are a part of life and what we have evolved to handle, but when those stressors become constant and chronic the body malfunctions in an attempt to adapt

  • The body is in a constant state of building (anabolism) and breaking down (catabolism) and these are both controlled by hormones.

  • A chronic stress state causes the body to steal the precursors to the sex steroids testosterone, DHEA and Estrogen which impact energy, libido, mood , cognitive function and confidence.

  • Constant stress makes the body less responsive to the hormone insulin. Over time the more resistant someone becomes to insulin it creates a host of health problems and can lead to type 2 diabetes.

  • The overproduction of the stress hormones interferes with necessary hormones conversions, steals thyroid hormones precursors and causes excess thyroid hormones to be bound and unusable. 

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