How Do Stress Hormones Work Inside the Body?

Published 06/21/2022

How often do you feel so stressed that you don’t know how to handle it or move past it? When’s the last time you had to put your life on pause due to the stress you were encountering? If you answered ‘often’  to either of those questions, then you join millions of people all around the world.

Stress is something we all experience daily. It’s something we can’t escape from. It often comes without warning and generally takes a lot out of us. When talking about stress, however, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that our bodies are designed to regulate, adapt to, and move past the stress we experience every day. The bad news is our bodies can only handle so much of this stress before it starts to negatively affect our health and wellness.

While most of us understand what stress is and how damaging it can be to our bodies when not managed properly, most of us aren’t aware of where this stress comes from, how it works inside the body and the effects of too much stress on the body. Don’t worry; we’re going to break it all down for you below.

What Does Cortisol Do?

When we encounter a stressful situation, our bodies naturally release stress hormones that act as an alarm system for the body. When these hormones are released, it triggers various changes to the body to make us more alert and more aware of what’s happening around us.

While there are several stress hormones released in the body, the main stress hormone is cortisol. It’s a hormone produced by the adrenal glands (located above your kidneys) and released into the blood, where it travels throughout your body. In the brain, it helps control mood, fear, and motivation.

Among the many ways, cortisol impacts the body helps trigger your ‘fight or flight’ response, which is necessary for survival. Without this response in the body, we would often be flat-footed and frozen in desperate times.

The brain -- more specifically, the pituitary glands and hypothalamus, is responsible for sensing how much cortisol is in the body at any given time and how much cortisol is needed in the body at any given time.

When cortisol levels are too low or too high for the current situation, the brain will send signals to the adrenal glands, which produce more or less of the hormone. Once released into the blood, the cortisol is used by most of the cells in your body.

In high-pressure situations, cortisol levels are supposed to rise, but they’re also supposed to lower to pre-pressure levels when the threat (or stress) is gone. Unfortunately, these hormones can continue to be produced by the body and cause an excess of stress, damaging the body.

Are There Other Stress Hormones?

Cortisol is the stress hormone that gets all the attention -- and for a good reason -- but there is a wide range of hormones in the body that can be considered stress hormones or at least affect how the body adapts and responds to stress.

To ensure you’re given the full picture when learning about stress hormones, we’re going to discuss them all with you below -- including Gonadotropins, catecholamines, thyroid hormones, growth hormone, vasopressin, prolactin, and insulin.

1.    Gonadotropins

Gonadotropins are hormones that stimulate the gonads, which refers to the testes in males or the ovaries in females. Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) is produced and released in the hypothalamus.

There are two main gonadotropins -- luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating (FSH) hormones. LH is responsible for producing testosterone in males and controls the menstrual cycle in females (and triggering the release of the egg from the ovary). FSH is essential to puberty, development, and the function of testes or ovaries.

When stressed, GnRH levels decrease and can have adverse effects on the reproductive system.

2.    Catecholamines

Catecholamines are just a fancy word for the various neurotransmitters that also act as hormones and are important to a proper stress response. Some of the most popular and common catecholamines are dopamine, epinephrine (also called adrenaline), and norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline).

Catecholamines are made in the adrenal glands, just like cortisol is. When catecholamines are released into the blood, it causes various changes to the body -- such as increased cardiac output, increased blood pressure, faster and deeper breath, and increased blood flow to the organs.

3.    Thyroid Hormones

Thyroid hormones are produced in the thyroid glands and use uridine from the food we eat to produce two specific hormones -- triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These two hormones play a large role in metabolism and the digestive system.

Unfortunately, T3 and T4 are decreased during stress, and less thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is produced. This, of course, leads to a wide range of issues with your metabolism and your body’s ability to break down the food you eat.

4.    Vasopressin

Vasopressin, also known as antidiuretic hormone (ADH), is a hormone that acts as a peptide prohormone and is known to cause a rise in blood pressure. Vasopressin levels, which are synthesized in the hypothalamus, generally increase during moments of acute stress.

In addition to the release of vasopressin, the hypothalamus also releases the Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). Both of these hormones help stimulate the synthesis of Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), a hormone that regulates cortisol levels in the blood.

5.    Prolactin

Prolactin is another hormone made in the pituitary gland and released into the blood, making contact with the rest of the body. It plays a large role in the production of breast milk in both males and females. It also plays a role in the reproductive system.

During stressful situations, prolactin levels can either increase or decrease, which causes changes to the immune system and affects the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. Some studies suggest this rise in prolactin could be caused by a rise in vasopressin.

6.    Insulin

Insulin is another peptide hormone, but it’s the only one we’ve discussed that’s produced in the pancreas. It’s one of the major anabolic hormones in the body and helps regulate the breakdown of carbs, fats, and protein by absorbing glucose (sugar).

When stressed, insulin levels are known to decrease, and muscles and fast become more sensitive to insulin. Eventually, the risk of stress-induced hyperglycemia strikes and further health concerns might arise due to excessive gluconeogenesis.

7.    Growth Hormone

The final hormone we’re going to discuss is growth hormone. This hormone is known to increase during chronic stress and stress-induced hyperglycemia. However, it should be noted that this hormone is only increased during acute physical stress -- not psychological stress.

When you combine the effects of growth hormone increases with all the other stress hormones in the body, you can see just how damaging stress can be to the body. It affects nearly every system of the body, and you’ll notice the effects in a variety of ways.

How Do Stress Hormones Affect The Body?

Now that you understand a lot of the science behind stress hormones, you’re probably wondering how these stress hormones affect the body physically. After all, you’re bound to see a variety of changes to the way your body operates when stressed.

Let’s take a look at some of those changes you can expect when undergoing excessive or chronic stress:

  1. Frequent, intense, and prolonged headaches throughout the day.
  2. Chronic stress experienced often can lead to depression and lack of fulfillment.
  3. Stress is known to increase stomach acid, which can lead to heartburn.
  4. When you’re stressed, you’ll have difficulty falling and staying asleep.
  5. Shortness of breath is common when stressed, especially since the muscles that help you breathe tense up.
  6. Stress damages your immune system’s ability to defend against disease, virus, infections, and bacteria.
  7. Increased blood pressure and blood sugar due to excessive glucose and tightened blood vessels
  8. Stress increases your risk of heart attack and can cause a rapid heart rate.
  9. Stress can also cause stomach aches in some cases. When stressed, changes to the reproductive system can cause low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, fertility issues, and missed periods.

As you can see, stress affects your whole body and might cause you to start having health concerns and difficulties in multiple areas -- if not all. The more stress you encounter, the more it breaks your body down and continues to wreak havoc on your quality of life.

It doesn’t matter why you’re stressed or what’s fueling it, it’s always necessary to understand when you’re encountering excessive stress and when you’re just dealing with the everyday stressors of life. Keep in mind that some stress is normal, but chronic and excessive stress isn’t.

If you need assistance determining when stress is too much in your life and when you should seek additional help, Mind Diagnostics has an online stress test that can help you measure this. We also have the connections to help match you with a therapist prepared to help you regain happiness and excitement in life.