What is Stress?
Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response.
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life – giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
The stress response also helps you rise to meet challenges. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.
Cortisol and epinephrine are the main body's alarm-system hormones. They make your heart beat faster and dilate your bronchial tubes so they can feed oxygen to your brain and keep you alert. They also release fat and glucose into your bloodstream to provide emergency energy. None if the stress related hormones are considered predominantly male or female. However, it is clear that men and women tend to deal with stress in very different ways.
While there might be different approaches in finding proper explanations on why there are different reactions on stress among men and women, one of the most important reasons is related to the different hormonal response. Three hormones play a crucial role in this process: cortisol, epinephrine, and oxytocin.
When stress strikes, hormones cortisol and epinephrine together raise a person's blood pressure and circulating blood sugar level, and cortisol alone lowers the effectiveness of the immune system.
"People used to think there was a difference in the amounts of cortisol released during a stressful situation in women," says Robert Sapolsky, PhD, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University. "The thinking was women released more of this hormone, and that produced all sorts of nutty theories about why women are so emotional."
But the fact of the matter, explains Sapolsky, is that there is no consistent difference in cortisol production at all between men and women. It really all comes down to the hormone called oxytocin.
In women, when cortisol and epinephrine rush through the bloodstream in a stressful situation, oxytocin comes into play. It is released from the brain, countering the production of cortisol and epinephrine, and promoting nurturing and relaxing emotions.
While men also secrete the hormone oxytocin when they're stressed, it's in much smaller amounts, leaving them on the short end of the stick when it comes to stress and hormones.
In other studies of the male-female difference, Corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) came into focus. It acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, is likely a key player. In response to a stressor, CRF binds to receptors on cells in an alarm center deep in the brainstem, called the locus ceruleus. This telegraphs heightened emotional arousal throughout the brain via the chemical messenger norepinephrine. Such hyper-arousal can be adaptive for brief periods, but not if it becomes chronic. Runaway CRF is a core feature of depression. This alarm system appeared to be more sensitive to CRF and stress in the female brain.
Too much stress can keep your cortisol levels consistently elevated, which disrupts your metabolic system. This, in turn, signals your cells to store as much fat as possible. Worse, the fat tends to accumulate in your belly as visceral fat, which resides behind your abdominal muscles and has more cortisol receptors than other fat does.
The worst part is men are less inclined to admit when they’re overworked or overburdened by responsibility. Most men tend to ignore their vulnerabilities and let their health fall at the wayside in doing so.
Some common medical conditions associated with high cortisol levels in men include:
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune response
Although cortisol has been linked to a number of medical conditions, the most common is a condition known as adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is a medical condition where the adrenal glands become overworked and don’t produce enough cortisol to keep up with the body’s demand.
Symptoms of cortisol imbalance in men are similar to those typified by other hormonal imbalances such as andropause and often include the following:
- Weight gain
- Bone and muscle loss
- Foggy thinking
Recommendations on Dealing with Hormonal Imbalance
Cortisol imbalance, like any hormonal imbalance can lead to serious health complications and can often accelerate symptoms of premature aging.
Many of our typical methods of dealing with stress include:
- Drugs, both prescription and illegal.
- Pain medication.
These different methods are typically proactive and can cause more harm than good. They tend to increase stress and make you more sensitive to additional stress.
To defend yourself against stress-hormone disruption, follow these simple steps on your road instead to relieve your stress and relax:
- Make sleep a priority. A refreshed body and mind is far more capable of tackling everyday stresses.
- Eat a healthy diet. A strong healthy body is essential for a balanced system. Also try to eat organic foods as much as possible in order to steer clear of the common pesticide atrazine. This chemical has been shown to affect hormonal balances in amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
- Keep well hydrated. Most people don’t drink enough water, and instead get their water through sugary or chemical laden products. Sample different bottled waters until you find one you like. Be sure to carry a bottle with you to sip from every day for the 2 quarts (64 oz.) you need per day.
- Make a habit of exercising for an hour a day, 3 days a week. Doing so helps regulate your cortisol levels. Note that natural environment works better instead of being confined to the gym, and relieves stress in a more efficient way.
- Practice breathing exercises together, this can be a very calming and bonding experience. 5 slow, deep breaths is all it takes to lower cortisol levels back to normal!
- Meditation with help to promote a positive outlook and help to control your emotions when things get on top of you.
- Listen to soothing music.
- Don’t let anger build up, learn to let it go constructively.
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