The Endocrine system is all about hormones: a complex of systems with cooperative and antagonistic relationships that orchestrate to achieve balance in the body. Several endocrine glands, along with cells within organs, secrete more than 100 hormones that transfer information and instructions from one cell to another, to achieve harmony within the body. Changes to our nutrition and lifestyle in recent decades has caused a cascade of issues for our hormones as they work overtime to achieve balance. Probably the biggest offender of this is Cortisol, known as our “stress hormone”.
Cortisol acts to release or “free up” energy for the body’s use: In times of stress and emergency, the adrenal glands fire to produce cortisol (along with epinephrine or adrenaline) to restore glucose levels. For our primitive ancestors, cortisol was secreted only when survival was threatened (think: war, hunting, danger, etc.). Today, those stressors look like:
- Excess sugar (added, processed)
- Emotional stress
- Compromised digestion
- Nutritional weaknesses
See the dilemma here? Our bodies have begun adapting to our more modern lifestyle by calling on our adrenals to keep the body in balance.
Chronic cortisol output has an overwhelming list of negative implications to our body’s systems: “Prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol and other hormones involved in the resistance reaction causes wasting of muscles, suppression of the immune system, ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract, and failure of pancreatic beta cells” (Derrickson, 2015).
Some of the major effects/symptoms of chronic cortisol levels (weight gain, acne/flushed face, slow healing, chronic fatigue, headaches, difficulty sleeping, memory/concentration impairment, and digestive disturbance) are a reflection of endocrine system (hormone) imbalance. Below are some of the key players:
The adrenals are a powerful way to restore glucose levels, but they should only be used on occasion and not in response to food. Our adrenal gland function, not meant for consistent output, can become severely compromised. Prioritizing survival above all else, the depleted adrenal glands “steal” from nutrient stores. Symptoms of HPA axis dysfunction include: low energy/fatigue, trouble sleeping, brain fog, poor memory/concentration, anxiety/depression, etc.
Our liver is responsible for processing hormones: deactivating excess hormones, breaking them down/conjugating them for removal from the body. Elevated cortisol levels decrease the liver’s ability to detoxify and breakdown or conjugate hormones. For females, when the liver is overwhelmed, it has a profound effect on estrogen.
In the presence of excess cortisol, insulin resistance can take hold. This happens when insulin receptors no longer respond adequately to insulin. This resistance causes pancreas to secrete even more insulin to shuttle excess glucose into cells. The excess insulin can feed into thyroid metabolism dysfunction, inflammation, pituitary imbalance, decreased metabolic rate, and even more adverse impacts.
How do we manage cortisol output and meet the demands of our modern environment? A foundational approach (food first) to lifestyle change is key. The body is resilient and excels at handling external stress. More often, it is internal stress (think: maldigestion, poor blood sugar handling) that creates more significant distress and imbalance.
Tortora, G. J., & Derrickson, B. (2015). Introduction to the human body: The essentials of anatomy and physiology. Hoboken (Nueva Jersey): Wiley. References: