Someone unexpectedly steps out in front of your car as you’re driving along.
Your baby screams every time you put him down.
You have to give a presentation to your boss and your boss’s boss, and she isn’t easy to please.
These are situations that anyone would recognise as stressful. They trigger our internal evolutionary early-warning system: the fight or flight stress response, part of our sympathetic nervous system. We sense a threat or danger and our brain sets in motion a chain of reactions that results in our bodies being flooded with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These help prepare our body to run away from (flight) or face (fight) the problem by triggering a raise in blood sugar levels and increasing our heart rate, which brings more oxygen and energy to muscles.
The fight or flight stress response also down-regulates non-essential systems like digestion and our immune system, because let’s face it, we don’t need to worry about digesting our last meal when we’re trying to outrun a sabre-toothed tiger!
Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, reversing the effect of fight or flight. Our heart rate and blood pressure drop, and digestion returns to normal. Secretion of adrenaline drops quickly, while cortisol takes much longer to fall back to normal levels. But what happens if the threat never ends? What if the ‘threat’ is normal, everyday life in the 21st century?
For many of us, just getting through the day is a challenge. It can start early in the morning if you can’t sleep, or you get woken up by a young child. Breakfast, getting the family out of the door and negotiating your way to work can leave you feeling anxious and irritable, and it’s still only the start of the day.
For lots of people, life is super-busy, with lots of challenges and demands on our time. Young children to raise? Check. Elderly relative to care for? Check. Busy job with too much to do and never enough time? Check. Then add in money-worries, getting to the gym, work deadlines, managing personal relationships, bad news on the TV 24/7, maintaining a social life, trying to find time to cook from scratch, kids’ extra-curricular activities, holidays, birthdays, Christmas…
With all this busy-ness, we are constantly faced with a ‘threat’ and our bodies respond with chronic cortisol secretion. We have high levels of cortisol circulating in the blood for long periods of time. But what does that mean for our health and well-being?
Chronic stress and cortisol secretion leads to an increase in production of inflammatory molecules called cytokines, which are linked to inflammatory and immune conditions such as arthritis, lupus and diabetes. These inflammatory cytokines have a direct impact on our hormones and can disrupt hormonal balance. Let’s look at how the thyroid gland is affected.
The impact of stress on the thyroid
The thyroid controls our metabolism: how we burn food for energy. Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) controls how much of the thyroid hormone thyroxine (T4) is secreted. T4 is then converted to its active form, T3. Inflammatory cytokines directly affect metabolism in two ways:
- TSH is decreased, lowering T4 production
- Conversion of T4 to T3 is inhibited.
In addition, raised cortisol leads to an increase in Thyroid Binding Globulin (TBG), the molecule that transports thyroid hormone around the body. When thyroid stimulating hormone is bound to TBG, this last becomes inactive.
So stress means less thyroid hormone is produced, less of it is being converted to its active form, and more of is bound, meaning it can’t act on cells and perform its proper functions. What does all this lead to? Hypothyroidism. The symptoms of Hypothyroidism include:
- weight gain
- low confidence
- poor memory and concentration
- low sex drive
- fatigue and exhaustion
It can mean you always feel cold, as our thyroid controls our body temperature, and can be prone to constipation as digestion slows down along with the rest of the body.
What can you do?
We can’t always escape the things that create stress but we can take steps to counter them: deep breathing, mindfulness and mediation are all popular ways to reduce cortisol production, but they aren’t the only ones. Reading, laughing with friends, walking in the woods, taking a bath, gentle yoga, tai chi, drawing, listening to calming music and massage are just a few other suggestions.
Taking a few minutes of Me-Time every day to do something restorative and relaxing can reduce cortisol production in the body and help us improve our mood, energy levels and weight management.
What will you do for your Me-Time today?
For further advice, you can contact Denise at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her on 0044 (0)7811 954739.