Stress Hormones 101

 In General Health, Guelph Naturopathic Doctor

Are you constantly battling sugar and salt cravings?  Do you feel tired, moody, overwhelmed and unable to focus?  Do you feel like you’re constantly  snapping at your family. You’re not alone! 

A lot of the time I hear from women and my moms, it must be a problem of willpower and motivation why I can’t stop eating the cookies and the sugar.  Or  I feel really bad that I’m snapping at my family but I  just react.  Or something must be wrong with my brain, I can’t seem to focus.   So here’s a secret,  it’s likely not a problem with your motivation, will power or that you’re just bitchy.  It’s more likely a hormonal imbalance. 

That’s why today we’re going to do another mini-training and we’re going to go a little deeper on your stress response in a segment I like to call Stress Hormones 101. 

So let’s get into it!  What is stress? 

Stress is the bodies way of responding to any kind of demand.  Each time the body is under stress, a specific chain of physiological and hormonal reactions takes place.   So who’s in charge of this? 

The hypothalamus is the control centre for most hormones located in the brain.  It acts as the director of communication for the body in response to the body’s physiological need.  So when you’re under stress it secrets CRH or Corticotropin-releasing hormone.  That stimulates the release of Adrenocorticotropic hormone from the anterior pituitary which targets two little glands, called your adrenal glands, that sit on top of your kidneys and produce our main stress hormone called cortisol.   During bouts of stress, a physiological mechanism called the “fight or flight” response takes over.  Think of the example of you running away from a bear.

In short bursts of stress your body will appropriately respond with:

  • an increased heart rate, increased blood flow to pump oxygen and nutrients to muscle and brain 
  • surge of sugar into the blood and muscle tension so we can run faster, longer and stronger
  • dilated pupils so we can see where we’re running
  • all non- essential systems are shut down to shut energy where it’s needed. Our digestion and metabolism slow to a halt  because there’s no bathroom breaks when we’re running from a bear.  Tissue repair and immune function totally slows as well, and say bye bye to libido…there’s no sexy time either.    

Each of the above physiological responses are essential to make us stronger, faster and more equip to escape that bear.  That’s why stress and our primary stress hormone cortisol are essential for life. In short bursts, stress can be protective!

HOWEVER, the problem with today’s landscape is that people are under CHRONIC, LONG TERM bouts of stress.   Our stressors are no longer, running from bears, scavenging for food or searching for shelter.  Now we experience long days of sitting at our desks in our  home offices, worrying about family and friends, home schooling, grocery shopping, cooking, book keeping..I mean the list just goes on!  And ladies,  we lead busy home lives and I think we can all raise our hands when I say we’re trying to do them perfectly.  

Does this sound familiar to anyone? 

Unfortunately the body does not respond well to long term stress.  There are 3 phases that the body can go through: 

  1. Alarm Phase– During this high alert phase, they body experiences quick short bursts of stress that our body is accustom too.  Examples of this are exercise, staying up all night with a sick child or a short term work project deadline.  Your body will respond with ramped up energy to help you power through, yet you’ll likely feel more worn out the next day.  However, after 1-2 days of recovery, you’ll feel right back to normal.  
  2. Tired But Wired- The tired but wired phase occurs after the body has been dealing with a chronic long term alarm phase.  During this phase, the body is constantly being bombarded with high cortisol levels.   You’ll start to feel like it’s hard to wake up in the morning, you’ll feel tired and exhausted but  when you go to sleep you just “can’t turn it off.” You’ll likely have a greater dependency on caffeine to get through the day  and more often than not, will have an energy crash around 2-3pm in the afternoon.  Your sleep also will start to suffer as elevated cortisol interferes with your sleepy hormone melatonin.  You may also notice that you’re waking up multiples times in the night and feel totally unrested the next day. 
  3. Burnout  Phase– the adrenal gland doesn’t respond as well, it resists the signals from the brain and your ability to deal with any type of stress is severely diminished  and you’ll have feelings of overwhelm or anxiety, exhaustion, intense cravings and weight gain.  

 What’s happening is called Adrenal Fatigue. In a nutshell, after maintaining elevated cortisol for so long, the adrenal glands (your cortisol producing glands)  can no longer cope with any additional stress. They resist the signals from the brain and fail to release more cortisol. Adrenal fatigue, or resistance, results in impairment of the ability to deal with any type of stress and creates mood swings and feelings of overwhelm.  

Shi*t Your Adrenals Say

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue vary from person to person and the presentation depends on the phase you’re currently experiencing.  However, there are common statements that you might say or think that would suggest you could be suffering from adrenal issues.  

“I can’t fall asleep at night ” or “I constantly wake up between 2-4am”

    • Under chronic stress, the natural rise and fall of cortisol is lost.  In a balanced body, cortisol will rise in the morning when we’re waking up and cycle down when we’re heading to bed.  If we’re constantly on the go all day, your cortisol levels are elevated at the wrong times and can be too high in the evening.  Your body enters protection mode and there’s no way  your body is going to let you get a good nights sleep.  You’re on high alert.  It also means you will wake up to the slightest sound and will often wake between 2-4am alert. 

“I wake up exhausted in the morning no matter how much sleep I get”

    • Similar to the reasons you can’t fall asleep, you can’t wake up because of the problems with the normal cycling cortisol.  Your body is super smart and it registers the fact that your cortisol has been high over time.   So the body tries to reduce the amount which is produced during the day in an attempt to conserve.   Instead of waking energetic and ready for the day, you feel exhausted.  

“When’s my next coffee?” 

      • Now you’re waking exhausted and feel like you have no energy!  Your cortisol is inappropriately low in the morning but you need to feel awake and alert.  Hello coffee.  Coffee and caffeine will elevate cortisol levels and adrenaline hormones to keep energy high so you can keep up with your pace of life.  However, this leads you down the vicious cycle of constantly searching out the next hit of caffeine to make you feel better.  

“I eat really well but the weight keeps creeping up “

    • During times of stress, your body releases large amounts of sugar into the blood so that it can be used for energy in cases of an emergency.  Majority of the time, we’re just stressed at work or at home and the body doesn’t utilize the sugar/energy available.  So the body packs it away for a rainy day as fat which tends to accumulate around the belly.  

“I just need sugar” 

      • It may not be all about willpower when you’re experiencing cravings for sugar and carbohydrates such as muffins, cookies and sweets.  Elevated cortisol over time increases cravings for these foods.   

“I’m constantly sick, one cold rolls into the next”

      • I’m sure all of us have experienced that time when we had a huge work project that was due before our vacation.   We finish the project and now it’s time to relax on the beach, but not you, you get sick on the second day of vacation.   That’s because cortisol suppresses the action of the immune system.  If cortisol is elevated over long periods of time, your immune system can’t function properly and you end of being sick consistently with one cold after another. 

“I feel snappy towards my partner and my kids and feel overly emotional”

    • Once stress has been high enough over time, the adrenals experience burnout and resist signals from the brain.  Your ability to respond to stressors is diminished and even small (what use to be manageable) stressors feel overwhelming and daunting.  You feel more emotional and can start to have feelings of anxiety and/or depression.  

“My stomach feels off” 

    • Once stress has been high enough over time, cortisol can negatively impact our digestive system.  Cortisol and stress can cause damage to our tight junctions in our digestive tract causing them to become leaky.  This leads to symptoms of gas, bloating, low energy and issues with focus that are synonymous with Leaky Gut. 

Now you can start to see that stress and it’s hormone cortisol can wreak havoc in the body if not kept in check.  It can cause issues with energy, mood, sleep, digestion and cravings. So let’s get your hormones back in balance.  Don’t know where to start?  Try the Epic Energy Meal Plan.   It’s full of high protein foods to help support your adrenals and your hormones.  

Want more support?  Book Your Free Discovery Call and see how we can work together get you feeling Healthy AF*. 


Want to feel energetic, motivated and ready to kick any days ass. Join our Healthy AF* Facebook group!  I’ll be sharing health and nutrition advice to boost energy, beat belly bloat and tame those unruly hormones. It’s full of awesome women looking to optimize their health.


Are you ready to feel awesome again? Book your Free Discovery appointment to discover what factors may be holding you back from experiencing optimal health.  Let’s work together to transform your health so you can start living a life you love!


Feeling exhausted?  Craving sugar? Feel like you’re just tired all day? Let’s get your energy back on track.  Download my FREE Epic Energy Meal Plan.   It’s packed with healthy and nutritious recipes that will jump start your energy!

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