Medically reviewed on January 7, 2022. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
Hormones are amazing. They can do wonderful things for the human body—like help give us children, help us grow, and even save us from dangerous situations. That said, hormones can also cause problems when left unchecked if hormone imbalances occur. Having an improper balance of certain hormones can lead to mental and physical health issues, and stress hormones are a common culprit of both.
In this article, we’ll be discussing what stress hormones are and how they can be reduced for a happier, healthier, and more relaxed life. Understanding stress hormones and getting a cortisol test to measure the cortisol level in the blood can help you with steadying cortisol levels, lowering cortisol levels when needed, and helping to implement stress management.
When stressed, you might feel tense, nervous, jittery, and irritable. You may breathe a little heavier and sweat more, and you may generally feel on edge. All of those things are a result of your body’s stress hormones. These chemicals are designed to put your body into a state of fight or flight, which essentially prepares your body to stand your ground and fight or to run away from danger as quickly as possible .
The stress response all starts in the brain, specifically the amygdala. When you confront any form of danger or a potential threat, your eyes and ears send signals to your amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotional processing. The amygdala processes all of the visual and sensory information to determine any potential danger, raising stress hormone levels .
If the amygdala senses danger, it sends a distress signal to your hypothalamus. Your hypothalamus acts as a command center in the brain, communicating with the rest of the body. When it receives the signal from the amygdala, the hypothalamus sends signals through autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands, the organ’s central communicator for producing and dispensing your stress hormones .
All of this happens quickly, often within a few minutes of experiencing a potential stressor, fast enough that you won’t even realize it’s happening until you feel it .
Your adrenal glands produce three hormones at times of stress.
Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is produced in the medulla of the adrenal glands. This hormone creates the initial effects of the fight-or-flight response. Your body’s blood vessels contract, redirecting more blood toward the heart, lungs, and other major muscle groups. Air passages dilate to provide more oxygen to your muscles, ostensibly to give them more fuel for running away or fighting .
Adrenaline also dampens your body’s pain receptors, reducing your ability to feel pain and allowing you to continue running or fighting even when injured. This stress hormone also increases your strength, physical performance, and general sensory awareness .
Adrenaline gets released into the blood within a few minutes of experiencing a stressful situation, and its effects can last for up to an hour .
Norepinephrine is another stress hormone produced in the medulla of the adrenal glands, though most of the body’s norepinephrine comes from nerve endings. Part of this comes from norepinephrine’s other role as a neurotransmitter, a type of chemical messenger that sends signals through nerve pathways .
Along with adrenaline, norepinephrine triggers many of the physical effects associated with stress. It increases your heart rate and blood pressure, and it helps to provide you with more energy by increasing your blood sugar levels and breaking down fat cells. Its neurotransmitter effects also play a role in the stress response. When you are stressed or in danger, norepinephrine helps send signals to the brain to mobilize the body and respond accordingly .
Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone, and there are differences and similarities in cortisol vs. adrenaline and norepinephrine hormones. Where adrenaline and norepinephrine get your engine going, cortisol is the hormone that keeps that engine revved up. As your brain continues to perceive a potential threat, it signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol into your bloodstream, keeping your body on high alert and inducing high cortisol levels .
Cortisol is a steroidal hormone, and nearly every cell in the human body has receptors for it. That means that cortisol can have an extensive effect on your body’s processes under duress and times of stress. In terms of supporting your fight-or-flight response, cortisol is designed to shut down systems and functions that might not be necessary to your immediate survival. This leads to cortisol suppressing your immune response, digestive system, reproductive system, and growth processes. It also increases your blood glucose to give your muscles more fuel as well as increase blood pressure and heart rate, so optimizing cortisol levels is essential in controlling stress .
Normally, your stress hormones go down and return to baseline levels as soon as your brain and body acknowledge that a threat has passed. The problem is when your body can’t stop producing an excess flow of stress hormones, causing a constant state of stress.
Chronic stress is becoming more common, and it can lead to some severe health effects when stress reduction practices aren’t implemented. Remember, the fight-or-flight response is meant for your immediate survival, which means it reduces the functions of things considered unnecessary at the moment and reroutes energy to other parts of the body. When that becomes a constant state, certain processes and functions can deteriorate .
Symptoms of consistently high stress hormones may include:
Stress is a normal part of life. Some studies even suggest that some acute stress (meaning short-lived and not chronic) may actually be beneficial for your health. When stress is chronic and your stress hormones are constantly high, you may experience problems. Thankfully, you may be able to reduce the stress in your life with some changes in your lifestyle.
It’s not uncommon for chronic stress to go hand-in-hand with underlying mental health issues. Seeking help from a cognitive behavioral therapist can give you more insight into your stress triggers and address other mood disorders that may be exacerbating your stress. A therapist can also equip you with the right tools and knowledge to reduce stressors and give you tools for better stress management of related symptoms, whether that’s organizational skills or breathing exercises.
Regular physical activity is one of the best things for just about every aspect of your health, including stress. While exercise imitates some of the effects of stress, it’s much more akin to that acute stress. This can help your body practice working with the effects of stress, thereby reducing their severity, and even protecting your body from stress later on .
Exercise also increases the feel-good neurotransmitters known as endorphins, chemicals that increase satisfaction and imbue you with a sense of peace, which can help to improve your mood overall .
Physical activity is also its own form of meditation, even if you don’t immediately recognize it. After a few laps around the park or a game of basketball, it’s easy to forget about what stressed you out in the first place and instead focus on your body’s movements and the motions involved with your exercise .
Outside of exercise, it doesn’t hurt to practice some meditation, breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques. Meditation is a way to be mindful of your body, concentrating on one specific thing and moment in time. It can help to ground you and shed all the tension of the day. Some studies also show that meditation can physically reduce serum cortisol levels.
You probably already know the long laundry list of problems associated with smoking and nicotine usage, so it’s no surprise that smoking is also known to make stress worse. Studies show that smoking may increase cortisol levels. Nicotine also increases the heart rate, which may trigger a stress response.
Sleep is your body’s time to rest, rejuvenate, and repair its muscles, organs, and brain matter. It’s essential to your health, and poor sleep can potentially increase stress. At the same time, stress can cause sleep disruptions and otherwise contribute to poor sleep, which can become an endless cycle. So, whether it’s learning how to create and maintain a sleep routine to improve your sleep hygiene, going to bed earlier, or learning how to sleep with anxiety, do your best to prioritize your sleep.
It’s important to understand that there is no magic pill or button that you can press to alleviate your stress instantly. If you are constantly dealing with stress in a way that is interfering with your life, change needs to be made.
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5. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed January 7, 2022.
6. Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed January 7, 2022.