“I can’t believe how close that was!” Your heart is pounding, your breathing is rapid, sweat beads up on your skin, your blood pressure is through the roof, your alertness is sky high, and you feel like you could lift a bus.

Stress triggers a cascade of events in your body so you can respond to a threat almost faster than you can realize there’s a threat. Stress can come from anywhere at any time. It can occur in a brief episode, like before taking a test, or it can occur over the long-term, like worrying about paying the bills month after month.

Regardless of its cause, when stress does occur the body considers it to be an emergency. Like in other emergency situations, mundane tasks are set aside and only critical and relevant activities are given importance – you don’t worry about the laundry when the house catches fire.

In the body, this response, often called the fight-or-flight response, stimulates the brain and muscles to respond to the emergency, and it ramps up glucose processing and availability to fuel these activities. To conserve energy for these critical response systems, stress also suppresses the body’s systems that are non-essential in a crisis – digestion, immune function, and reproductive function, for example.

The stress response

The stress response is complex; it involves several parts of the brain, as well as hormones from the adrenal glands. Together, these coordinate a response that impacts the entire body.

Cortisol is one of the major stress-response hormones produced by the adrenal glands. Extra cortisol is produced during a stressful situation. This extra cortisol mobilizes energy resources, causing blood sugar levels to increase, and it increases the appetite to help replenish those spent resources.

Cortisol contributes to the regulation of blood pressure and sleep, and it suppresses inflammation.

Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate during the day; they are generally the highest in the morning. But when cortisol levels are continuously high, such as occurs with chronic stress, the increased appetite can lead to over-eating and unnecessary weight gain, as well as unhealthy blood glucose levels.

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is another hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It is most well recognized as a precursor to the production of sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone), but DHEA is also produced in larger quantities in response to stress.1

Evidence suggests that DHEA acts to moderate the stress response.2

Specifically, the DHEA-to-cortisol ratio has been correlated with tolerance for stress. An individual who has a higher ratio (more DHEA than cortisol) seems to experience less negative effects from the same stressors than a person who has a lower ratio (less DHEA than cortisol).

How well do you manage stress? 

Stress is unavoidable. In the short-term, like when you aren’t sure if an oncoming car is going to hit you, stress is beneficial in concentrating body resources where they are needed to make you more alert, focused, and able to respond quickly. In general, acute stress like this is self-limiting – the response lasts only as long as the danger persists and then the body quickly returns to normal.

During long-term, chronic stress, however, such as occurs when dealing with daily stress at work or school, the stress response is triggered but it does not end. The body can’t return to normal. Over time, this pattern of activation and deactivation of body systems that accompanies the stress response throws off the body’s natural balance.

This is why chronic stress is devastating to your health.

Body systems that are perpetually hyper-activated, like the cardiovascular system, can begin to collapse, while body systems that are perpetually suppressed, like the immune system, leave you vulnerable to disease because they can’t function fully.

Therefore, managing stress is critical to good health. Avoiding stress when you can, eating nutritional foods, drinking lots of water, and getting regular exercise and restful sleep are valuable strategies to reduce and cope with stress.

But how do you know if your stress-management strategies are working?

Thorne’s At-Home Stress Test gives you the knowledge to find out from the comfort of your own home. Our Stress Test measures the two primary markers of stress – cortisol and DHEA – which will enable you to know if you are managing your stress effectively or if you need to do more.

Knowing your levels of these two stress hormones will help you and your health-care practitioner determine what your best stress-management strategies should be, and to confirm whether the changes you implement are having the desired effects.


References

  1. Lennartsson A, Kushnir M, Bergquist J, Jonsdottir I. DHEA and DHEA-S response to acute psychosocial stress in healthy men and women. Biol Psychol 2012;90(2):143-149.
  2. Morgan C III, Southwick S, Hazlett G, et al. Relationships among plasma dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate and cortisol levels, symptoms of dissociation, and objective performance in humans exposed to acute stress. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2004;61(8):819-825.