Our bodies were created to handle stress in a very specific way. It’s call fight-or-flight response. You’ve probably heard about it, but do you understand it?
When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action.
Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.
This is a natural bodily reaction, but our bodies, especially our hearts, were not created to handle incredible amounts of these stress hormones. Behind the wide range of both physical and mental reactions to stress are a number of hormones that are in charge of adding fuel to the fire.
Adrenaline is Commonly known as the fight or flight hormone, it is produced by the adrenal glands after receiving a message from the brain that a stressful situation has presented itself.
What It Does: Adrenaline, along with norepinephrine (more on that below), is largely responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed. Imagine you’re trying to change lanes in your car, says Amit Sood, M.D., director of research at the Complementary and Integrative Medicine and chair of Mayo Mind Body Initiative at Mayo Clinic. Suddenly, from your blind spot, comes a car racing at 100 miles per hour. You return to your original lane and your heart is pounding. Your muscles are tense, you’re breathing faster, you may start sweating. That’s adrenaline.
Along with the increase in heart rate, adrenaline also gives you a surge of energy — which you might need to run away from a dangerous situation — and also focuses your attention.
Norepinephrine is a hormone similar to adrenaline, released from the adrenal glands and also from the brain, says Sood.
What It Does: The primary role of norepinephrine, like adrenaline, is arousal, says Sood. “When you are stressed, you become more aware, awake, focused,” he says. “You are just generally more responsive.” It also helps to shift blood flow away from areas where it might not be so crucial, like the skin, and toward more essential areas at the time, like the muscles, so you can flee the stressful scene.
Although norepinephrine might seem redundant given adrenaline (which is also sometimes called epinephrine), Sood imagines we have both hormones as a type of backup system. “Say your adrenal glands are not working well,” he says. “I still want something to save me from acute catastrophe.”
Depending on the long-term impact of whatever’s stressing you out — and how you personally handle stress — it could take anywhere from half an hour to a couple of days to return to your normal resting state, says Sood.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone, commonly known as the stress hormone, produced by the adrenal glands.
What It Does: It takes a little more time — minutes, rather than seconds — for you to feel the effects of cortisol in the face of stress, says Sood, because the release of this hormone takes a multi-step process involving two additional minor hormones.
First, the part of the brain called the amygdala has to recognize a threat. It then sends a message to the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which releases corticotropins- (CRH). CRH then tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormones (ACTH), which tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
In survival mode, the optimal amounts of cortisol can be life saving. It helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, while regulating some body functions that aren’t crucial in the moment, like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion and growth.
But when you focus on a problem or are living with chronic stress, the body continuously releases cortisol, and chronic elevated levels can lead to serious issues. Too much cortisol can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure and sugar, decrease libido, produce acne, contribute to obesity and more.
We need to be able to shake things off. To let them go. To relax.
To much of these three hormones affect your heart by:
Norepinephrine increases heart rate and blood pressure, triggers the release of glucose from energy stores, increases blood flow to skeletal muscle, reduces blood flow to the gastrointestinal system, and inhibits voiding of the bladder and gastrointestinal motility.
Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure. For those of us with heart disease, these are two things we do not need.
Knowledge is power so now that you know how your stress hormones can affects your heart, it’s time to learn to let things go. Learn how to manage your stress. Over the next few episodes, I want to focus on stress management. I hope I can help us all keep our fight-or-flight response from getting the best of us.
My Journey from death's door to the miracle of life.
Annie Dragoo is a wife, mother, actor, singer, dancer, educator, and holistic health practitioner who lives in Austin, Texas.