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How Chronic Stress Creates Hormonal Havoc

How Chronic Stress Creates Hormonal Havoc

“If you really knew what was happening to you when you are stressed, you would freak out. It’s not pretty,” I said during the 2013 Third Metric women’s conference. I wasn’t kidding. I could write several books about stress’s massive, chronic havoc on your body.

If you want to avoid stress, you’ve been born in the wrong era. Chronic stress has become epidemic in our society where faster is better and we attempt to pack more obligations into our ever-expanding schedules.

Among its havoc, one meta-analysis involving 300 studies1 found chronic stress could damage your immunity. If that wasn’t enough, stress also makes you fat and contributes to diabesity. A study in the journal Appetite found stressed-out women had significantly higher waist circumference2 compared to non-stressed women.

Experts have long known a relationship exists between stress, blood sugar and belly fat. In the face of chronic stress, insulin increases. This drives the relentless metabolic dysfunction that leads to weight gain, insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes.

When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that flood your system, raising your heart rate, increasing your blood pressure, making your blood more likely to clot, damaging your brain’s memory center, increasing belly fat storage and generally wreaking havoc on your body.

That hormonal havoc creates very practical adverse consequences. For example – you stop by your favorite coffee shop on your way to work. Frazzled by a million demands and work-hour traffic, you realize you haven’t had breakfast and order a muffin along with your gigantic coffee.

Looking at that seemingly innocuous breakfast scenario, the caffeine in coffee increases catecholamines, your stress hormones.  The stress response elicits cortisol that, coupled with the sugar in that muffin, increases insulin.  Insulin increases inflammation and this makes you feel lousy. And the sugar in the muffin increases cortisol and adrenalin, the stress hormones. Yes, sugar literally jacks up your stress hormones, even if you are not stressed!

Chances are, you’ll continue that pattern throughout the day.Regardless, and you’ve created the perfect storm for hormonal hell that leaves you tired, miserable and storing fat.

Managing Stress Starts with Your Diet

The right diet can do wonders to reduce stress’s impact on your life. When you eat whole, real foods, you restore balance to insulin, cortisol, and other hormones.

When you clean up your diet from mind-robbing molecules like caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugars and eat regularly to avoid the short-term stress of starvation on your body, you maintain an even-keeled mindset throughout the day even when things get hectic.

You’ll replace those foods with clean protein, healthy fats, leafy and cruciferous vegetables, berries, and non-gluten grains. Food is information that controls your gene expression, hormones, and metabolism. When you eat the right foods, you balance blood sugar, restore hormonal balance, and reduce stress’s damaging impact.

Reduce Stress with these Simple, Powerful Techniques

Stress is a thought, a perception of a threat, even if it is not real. That’s it. No more, no less. If that’s true, then we have complete control over stress, because it’s not something that happens to us but something that happens in us.

The dictionary defines stress as the “bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.” Your thoughts become unbalanced.

Here’s where it become interesting. Stressors can be real or perceived. You might imagine your spouse is angry at you. Whether or not they are, you raise stress levels. Real or imagined, when you perceive something as stressful, it creates the same response in the body.

Most people, when they look at my life, think I’m crazy and wonder why I’m not more stressed—running a medical practice; opening a new Center for Functional Medicine at Cleveland Clinic; doing research; writing books and blogs; teaching all over the world; working on health policy; volunteering in Haiti, churches and orphanages; being a father, son, brother, partner, friend, boss, and more. But it’s actually quite simple. I don’t worry about things much. I simply wake up and do the next thing as best I can.

I manage these duties with a wide variety of techniques and tools that help effectively manage stress. Among them, these 13 are some of my favorites:

  1. Tap. Tapping combines ancient Chinese acupressure and modern psychology. Pick up a copy of Nick Ortner’s new book The Tapping Solution to learn more.
  2. Address the underlying causes of stress. Find the biological causes of problems with the mind by working on the 7 Keys to UltraWellness. Mercury toxicity, magnesium and vitamin B12 deficiencies, and gluten allergies could be changing your brain. Changing your body can change your mind.
  3. Actively Relax. Humans remain primed to always do something. Even when we’re not working, our mind is on work. Learn how to actively relax. To engage the powerful forces of the mind on the body, you must do something relaxing. You can’t just sit there watching television or drinking beer. Whether that means deep breathing or a simple leisurely walk, find active relaxation that works for you and do it.
  4. Learn New Skills. Try learning new skills such as yoga, biofeedback, and progressive muscle relaxation or take a hot bath, make love, get a massage, watch a sunset, or walk in the woods or on the beach.
  5. Move Your Body. Exercise is a powerful, well-studied way to burn off stress chemicals and heal the mind. Studies show exercise works better than or equal to Prozac for treating depression. Try interval training if you’re short on time but want a powerful, intense workout.
  6. Supplement. Take a multivitamin and nutrients to help balance the stress response, such as vitamin C; the B-complex vitamins, including B6 and B5 or pantothenic acid; zinc; and most important, magnesium, the relaxation mineral.
  7. Try Herbs. Use adaptogenic herbs (herbs that help you adapt and balance your response to stress) such as ginseng, Rhodiolarosea, Siberian ginseng, cordyceps, and ashwagandha.
  8. Use Heat Therapy. Take a hot bath or a sauna to help your body deeply relax and turn on the relaxation response.
  9. Change Your Beliefs. Examine your beliefs, attitudes, and responses to common situations and consider re-framing your point of view to reduce stress.
  10. Find a Community. Consciously build your network of friends, family, and community. They are your most powerful allies in achieving long-term health.
  11. Breathe. Most of us hold our breath often or breathe swallow, anxious breaths. Deep, slow, full breaths have a profound affect on resetting the stress response, because the relaxation nerve (or vagus nerve) goes through your diaphragm and is activated with every deep breath. Take five deep breaths now, and observe how differently you feel after.
  12. Meditate. Find a practice that works for you. You can also try my UltraCalm CD, featuring guided meditations and relaxation techniques.
  13.  Sleep. Lack of sleep increases stress hormones. Get your eight hours no matter what.  Take a nap if you missed your sleep. Prioritize sleep.

What one technique or strategy would you add to this list to manage stress levels? Share yours below or on my Facebook fan page.

Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD.

1Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller, Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry, Psychol Bull. Author manuscript; available in PMC Feb 7, 2006.
2Macedo DM1, Diez-Garcia RW2., Sweet craving and ghrelin and leptin levels in women during stress., Appetite. 2014 Sep;80:264-70. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.05.031. Epub 2014 May 28.

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (12)

  • you mention that stress does bad things to your body…..are there other symptoms that high stress can cause besides the ones you mentioned? my daughters cortisol levels are high and she has alot of weird symptoms that nobody has answers for. thanks, elaine

    • Elaine-I had Hyperthyroidism and am now on thyroid replacement. My cortisol levels were very high last year and my dose was too high (I way hyperthyroid again). This may be something to look into. My thyroid disease caused a lot of problems that were bizarre such as anxiety, diarrhea and so on. Just thought this could be helpful info to pass along. Well wishes to you and your daughter.

    • Yes stress and high cortisol can cause a lot of weird symptoms such as body twitching, brain fog and their are so many other. If you interested in working with someone who can help look at Brio Integrative Health Dr.Neetu Dhiman that’s who I worked with and sorted out all my weird and crazy symptoms all due to high cortisol levels. Stress is the #1 cause of 90% of health problems. Hope this helps.

  • Absolutely fantastic article! Thank you! I cant wait to implement some of these ideas and begin to let the stress of everyday life go (or at least minimize the affect they have)!

  • Great article! I’m going to forward to many I know. Perfect timing this time of year, too.

    I might add to the list something relating to reducing/stopping negative self talk and/or negative talk about others. And then increasing/changing completely to positive self talk as well as positive comments of those in your life. Might be a challenge initially, but it’s good for you and contributes to healing oneself and not stressing 🙂

  • My favourite way of combating stress is to either knit or spin yarn. Wonderfully calming and grounding, plus you are creating something unique and beautiful. There is now plenty of scientific evidence to back this up – see Betsan Corkill’s book, Knit for Health & Wellness: How to knit a flexible mind and more.

  • Great article! Over the years I have tried everything to manage distress . Meditation, yoga, reiki etc. they all work great except after a few days I felt bad again. So I went in search for an answer. I have read ALOT of personal development books. Only one program has shown me the how to get to the root of my problems and eliminate them for good. Visit to experience this profound information for yourself!

  • This article hits home. I know what to do, advise others to do the same, but fail to follow this advice myself on a daily basis. Self discipline is all I need !

  • I have been on your diet (as close as I can get anyway) for a year and a half now. I believe it has saved my life. About four months ago I got Shingles. Physical stress plus! I am 63 and now I have been experiencing extreme fatigue. It seems to be attached to hot flashes, which I was rarely having since on your diet. I read that Shingles can wreak havoc with your hormones. Is that what this is about? Do you have any suggestions on improving this condition? Thank you so much for your work, I am eternally grateful.

  • Great list! Here’s a couple of suggestions to add:

    Have fun – smile – laugh – dance – listen to music you enjoy – make love – focus on the good that you have in your life & be grateful for it. Gosh, I should listen to myself 🙂

  • Dr. Hyman,

    I am so grateful to you.

    I participated in your Ultra Simple Diet last year and reversed my diabetes.

    I also took the training to be a Certified Psychology of Eating coach and am working to start my practice. I found out about this opportunity from an email you sent.

    You have truly changed my life!


  • The article is very well written. I have taken up a twenty minute practice that I enjoy in the comfort of my home, a few years back. I have noticed clear changes in terms of how I experience life on a day to day basis. I am much more relaxed and calmer through the day and how I respond to life situations has drastically changed. I would highly recommend this program to anyone 14 and above…Enjoy! http ://