We all know what it feels like to be stressed out. Around 25% of Canadians report feeling ‘quite a bit’ to ‘extremely stressed’ most days (Source). People living with chronic illness are even more likely to experience higher levels of stress on a regular basis.
When we understand how stress relates to our hormones, we can learn how to manage our physical and mental well-being. Hormones are chemicals produced by glands and carried through our bloodstream. They allow our organs to function properly. When we experience stress overload, our hormones respond accordingly.
Interestingly, our bodies cannot recognize the difference between actual danger and imagined danger. Similarly, our bodies don’t distinguish between doing uplifting things and simply imagining them. Knowing this can help us find ways to adapt to our environment to best optimize our hormonal health.
Let’s explore our hormones and their purpose:
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. It influences blood pressure, blood sugar, digestion, sleep, and other bodily functions.
For example, cortisol increases blood flow, making our heart beat faster and stronger. This is very useful when fleeing a dangerous situation. However, when cortisol levels are high continuously, serotonin levels can be reduced. Low serotonin is linked to depression, anxiety, and other conditions. Increased cortisol can also interfere with menstrual cycles, appetite, weight, and immune functioning.
Activities that reduce cortisol production: deep breathing, practicing yoga, meditating, walking in nature, decreasing caffeine intake, proper hydration, decreasing alcohol intake, sleeping 7-8 hours a night, changing the amount and intensity of exercise, and having an orgasm.
Adrenaline and Noradrenaline
When we need to prepare for a threat, the fight or flight hormones, known as adrenaline and noradrenaline, are released. Adrenaline increases our heart rate and blood pressure so blood can flow to the organs that need it the most, like our heart and lungs. It also helps lower feelings of pain and releases glucose for energy. However, most of the time, we don’t need high levels of adrenaline circulating. A consistent elevation in adrenaline can result in blood vessel damage and increase heart disease risk. It can also result in nervousness and trouble sleeping.
Our heart rate, blood pressure and mood are influenced by noradrenaline. During a typical day, noradrenaline stays consistent before decreasing at the end of the day. This is when serotonin kicks into high gear. However, after a day of high stress, norepinephrine is continually produced through the night. This restricts the production of serotonin which can result in trouble sleeping.
Ways to manage adrenaline and noradrenaline: moving our bodies regularly, avoiding stimulation before bed (news, blue light from electronics), practicing deep breathing, and meditating.
When we cross a task off our to-do list or purchase a pair of shoes we’ve been eyeing, we often feel exhilarated! This is partially due to dopamine being released. Dopamine provides us with drive, motivation, and concentration in our day-to-day life. Conversely, high dopamine levels may also be responsible for the need for instant gratification, addictive behaviours, and impulsiveness. Therefore, finding balance when it comes to dopamine is vital.
Activities that increase dopamine: completing a task, reaching a goal, celebrating wins, eating, exercising, meditating, visualizing, sleeping well, listening to music, and singing.
The chemical messenger serotonin stabilizes our mood. Also known as the happy hormone, serotonin regulates sleep and mental well-being. When serotonin levels are low, we may experience depression, anxiety, and insomnia. However, high levels of serotonin can be problematic, too, and may result in serotonin syndrome which should be treated by a physician.
Activities that increase serotonin: moving our bodies, eating nutrient-dense foods, hydrating with water, sleeping 7-8 hours a night, exposure to the sun, being in nature, meditating, and visualizing.
If you’ve experienced the euphoric feeling of being in love, that is oxytocin in action. Oxytocin is associated with connection, trust, and empathy. It also helps build the bond between a parent and a child and is necessary for giving birth and lactation.
Activities that increase oxytocin: socializing, building meaningful connections, physical touch (cuddling, massage, hugging), playing with pets, having an orgasm, dancing, and helping others.
You’ve probably heard how exercising releases endorphins. The term “runner’s high” may even come to mind. But endorphins are also released when we injure ourselves. Endorphins are the body’s way of alleviating pain and reducing stress. They are released when we are enjoying ourselves, too. Evidence shows that endorphins can help improve our confidence and self-esteem, which are critical for our mental well-being.
Activities that release endorphins: aerobic activities, eating dark chocolate (70% or higher cocoa), laughing, crying, meditating, listening to music, visualizing pleasurable scenarios, and having an orgasm.
Understanding our hormones gives us a greater appreciation of how our bodies work and the insight that we were intentionally built with happiness in mind. The foundation of happiness is not a black and white choice that we make in our minds; it’s about small everyday choices that we make consistently over a long period of time.
One key to managing stress while maintaining health and happiness is self-care. By sleeping well, moving our bodies regularly, fueling ourselves with nutritious foods, maintaining supportive relationships, and prioritizing pleasurable activities, we can help ourselves manage stress and increase overall wellness.
Dr. Dylan Cutler, Research Assistant
Erica Matechuk, Mindfulness Educator