You’ve probably been told “long term stress is bad for your health.” But that's pretty vague, right? Thousands of other things are “bad for your health”, so how is this different?
Why is stress bad and what symptoms can long term stress cause? To understand this, you need to understand what a normal, healthy stress response is.
This is what’s SUPPOSED to happen in your body when you get stressed:
When humans were stressed thousands of years ago, it was typically because they were in imminent danger (think life or death situations). Maybe a lion was chasing them or they were starving and had to find food.
In stressful situations like these, the brain only wants to focus on survival and GETTING OUT OF DANGER. So the brain signals a normal stress response, which includes telling the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol, which is also known as the "stress hormone".
The increased cortisol output raises heart rate, increases alertness and makes you stronger, faster and smarter so you can escape danger. It also tells the body to stop focusing on things it doesn’t need RIGHT NOW to survive, like digesting food, sleeping, and defending against disease.
So in a stressful situation, you get amped up to escape the lion or find food, and when the danger has passed, you go back into a relaxed state with normal, healthy cortisol levels. And everything is well again.
As a human, this is the kind of stress your ancestors lived with for THOUSANDS of years. And you are designed the same way - to handle SHORT TERM stress.
Today, different stress means VERY different outcomes
You might deal with things like work, taking care of family, bills, school, deciding what clothes to wear, traffic, staying on schedule, etc. Even WORRYING about something in your mind can cause stress and raise cortisol levels.
Do you notice a trend here? These are all everyday things that can keep you stressed ALL DAY LONG. And you were not designed to handle LONG TERM or CHRONIC stress.
When you are stressed for longer periods of time, cortisol levels STAY ELEVATED.
And it’s important to know that your body is designed to be a fine BALANCED MACHINE. When cortisol levels increase above normal, this balance is thrown off and there are some major downsides.
You may have even heard about the dangers of high cortisol in the mainstream media. I hear so many people worrying about HIGH CORTISOL... and with good reason.
High levels of cortisol can cause...
Yikes! Remember, when you are stressed, your body thinks a lion is chasing you. It is only focused on survival and ESCAPING STRESS. So sleep, digesting food, burning fat, and fighting bacteria are all of a sudden not so important and this should not be ignored!
However, despite all this, you may actually still feel pretty good with high cortisol levels! That is because cortisol increases energy, decreases inflammation, and can make you feel awake and alert for very long bouts of time.
You can usually still juggle whatever life throws at you with high cortisol levels, despite some nagging symptoms!
But cortisol levels can't stay high forever - and that's why REAL problems begin
The crazy thing is, most of my clients’ lab tests are showing LOW cortisol levels and the effects of this are even WORSE.
But before I tell you why low cortisol levels usually lead to even worse outcomes, I want you to understand WHY people end up with low cortisol levels.
When you are stressed out for days, weeks, or months, your brain still thinks a lion is chasing you all day, everyday.
Your brain keeps telling them to pump out more and more cortisol without giving time for rest. Think slave labor!
When you fall into this pattern, two things happen:
1. First, your adrenal glands become physically EXHAUSTED and can’t keep up with the demand.
Imagine driving your car over 100 mph for a really long time, or blasting your air conditioning non-stop in 200 degree heat. Eventually, something is gonna give… and the same goes for your body. Eventually, cortisol levels start to go down as the engine burns out.
2. Second, your brain becomes DESENSITIZED to stress.
This means that your brain thinks your body is crying wolf and that you actually AREN’T stressed all day, everyday. “How can a lion be chasing you for twelve hours a day, seven days a week?!” is what your brain asks your body. And so the normal stress response STOPS.
So, at this point you’ve got exhausted adrenal glands, which can’t produce enough cortisol, AND you’ve got a confused brain that no longer knows how much cortisol the body should be producing. Trust me, this is a bad combination.
LOW cortisol levels can make you feel even worse
When this happens, the high cortisol symptoms can STILL remain because your body continues to feel stressed, but the symptoms may have often gotten worse by this time.
And, since we NEED sufficient cortisol levels to be healthy, new problems may emerge when they get depleted, such as...
Low cortisol levels also INCREASE the risk for scary DISEASES
This is so important, but so overlooked! It is known that cortisol is the body’s major anti-inflammatory hormone. And it is also known that almost all diseases are rooted in INFLAMMATION or closely tied to it.
When cortisol levels are low, your body really struggles to regulate inflammation. So if you’ve got low cortisol, plus your immune system is down from all the stress, you can see why this is not a good sign!
That is why prednisone shots (which are like synthetic cortisol) are so effective! But these can have DEVASTATING side effects and can cause your body to STOP producing cortisol on its own.
But there is one BIGGER problem...
Most doctors don’t know how to test for HEALTHY cortisol levels.
And most doctors definitely don’t know how to restore the body’s normal cortisol output. There is no pharmaceutical drug that can do this!
When conventional medicine doctors think about cortisol and the adrenal glands, they are only looking for EXTREME medical conditions, like Addison’s disease or Cushing’s disease. However, these are extremely rare and most people don’t suffer from them.
Most doctors also don’t take into consideration that cortisol levels are supposed to CHANGE throughout the day. You are supposed to wake up with high levels, and they’re supposed to decline throughout the day. That is why it is SO important to get your levels tested for an entire day.
Functional wellness finds the DYSFUNCTION that CAUSES the symptoms
With functional wellness, I am not looking to diagnose any medical disease. I am looking for DYSFUNCTION and imbalances that can CAUSE the symptoms. In many cases, this includes imbalanced cortisol and other hormones.
By addressing ROOT CAUSES and restoring OPTIMAL function, you won’t believe how amazing you can start to feel!
With your health in mind,
Andrew is the Functional Wellness & Nutrition Advisor for SHAW Center for Healing in Austin, TX.
Our Amazing Team