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In a post last week I covered how men and women handle stress differently. Stress could easily be argued as having the most impact on a person’s health and well being, yet being the most dismissed or ignored.

The first thing that you need to understand about stress is that it is not just something that happens when you are under a deadline or committed to too many activities in one day. Stress is what you feel when life’s demands exceeds your ability to meet those demands – seriously, check the dictionary.

Again, Stress is what you feel when life’s demands exceeds your ability to meet those demands.

Yes this includes deadlines at work and an overly committed calendar, but it also includes sitting in traffic, being rushed in the morning because you hit snooze 5 times, eating something your body doesn’t handle well, getting less than 7-9 hours of sleep each night, financial struggle, worrisome struggle. Really the list could go on and on. And let’s be honest, we live in a world of go, go, go and bigger is better.

“So great, I’m under stress Ashley, not anything I didn’t know before. And plus, I can handle it”, says just about everyone. And I’m sure that you can. For now. But to fully understand what stress, or better yet constant stress, does to your body, you need to understand one little (or rather big) hormone, cortisol.

Cortisol, known as the Master Stress Hormone, is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It will be your body’s focal point during times of situational stress, but can fluctuate from high to low points if a person is under chronic stress.

Ideally cortisol should follow a normal pattern, where it rises and sets with the sun. It should have its highest peak in the day 30 minutes after waking, its largest decline from morning to lunch time, a gradual decline into the evening, and its lowest point at night to promote falling asleep.

Normal Cortisol Lelvel Rythm

But when our bodies are under a constant state of stress – which I’m not pointing fingers, the majority of us are – we tend to become either chronically high in cortisol, or chronically low.

High cortisol will cause a person to be tired but wired. You are exhausted, yet when your head hits the pillow at night you can’t shut off and fall asleep. High cortisol is one of the number one offenders of increased body fat, specifically that lovely area we like to refer to as our ‘love handles’ or ‘spare tire’. Love, I’m not too sure about, but spare, well that makes more sense. It is your body’s way of storing fuel for its fight or flight, chase down the bear for dinner mode that we have taught it to constantly be in.

On the other hand, low cortisol, which usually follows a bout of chronically high cortisol, so sorry, there is no escaping the love handles or spare tire, will cause a person to feel dog-tire all day, every day. You are too tired to do anything but the bare minimum to get through the day so you can be right back in that bed as fast as possible.

When cortisol becomes imbalanced a host of things can happen. Yes the weight or body fat gain, but also an increase in the aging process, a decreased sex drive, uncontrolled hunger, fluctuating blood sugar levels, poor sleeping patterns, poor focus and/or attention span, loss of interest in hobbies, increased or decreased blood pressure, forgetfulness, irritability, anxiety, etc….really, the list is endless.

But just to put the cherry on the top, cortisol also holds the job of regulating other important hormones; specifically estrogen, thyroid, and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone – sorry for the mouthful). So really, if and when cortisol is imbalanced, it is likely that these hormones are imbalanced as well. Not always, but likely. And if you can balance your cortisol levels, these other soldiers are more likely to fall into their respectful places.

Like usual, I am just chipping away at a very large iceberg known as hormones. It is my hope that together, we can start to learn the various hormones of our body, the very important roles they play, and how we can impact them through our daily lifestyle choices.

a.wise approach: A car never runs well on an empty tank; either does your body.