The neurotransmitters that regulate the body’s reactions to stress are norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol. Acute (shorter periods) and chronic (longer periods) levels of stress can be caused when there are increased levels of these hormones. With increased levels of stress the heart rate increases, blood vessels dilate and blood pressure increases. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is experienced over a prolonged period of time and can contribute to long-term problems in the heart.
When a person perceives a situation as a threat, the initial sense of fear will result in the “fight” hormone, norepinephrine, being released. If the stress increases and a feeling of loss of control is felt, then a “flight” hormone, epinephrine, is released. This is called the “fight or flight” response also known as “stress response pathways.” (Garves; Kravitz; Schneider 2014)
Norepinephrine’s effects on the body include:
- Increased breathing rate which allows more oxygen to be delivered to the body and brain because of faster breathing
- Increased heart rate which pumps more blood around the body and helps muscles to work faster and more efficiently
- Increased amount of oxygen to the brain, allowing a person to think more clearly
- Increased release of glucose which gives muscles something to ‘feed on’, which in turn helps muscles function better and faster
Noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter and a catecholamine type of hormone, is produced naturally in the brain and is released into the bloodstream from the adrenal medulla and from nerve cells called adrenergic nerves. This neurotransmitter works in the parts of the brain that are responsible for responsiveness, concentration and fear. Noradrenaline is also manufactured as a drug and is used to treat low blood pressure as well as chronic depression. When the body needs to react quickly to a stressor, this neurotransmitter increases blood pressure and heart rate and gets the muscles ready for fight or flight. A person can become lethargic and sleepy with too little of this chemical in the body and, contrastingly, when levels are too high, the body can mirror symptoms of overdose including nervousness, high blood pressure, racing thoughts, and cold hands and feet. (Ensor 2014)
During a time of stress, if a person becomes very upset, fearful or angry, a hormone called epinephrine is secreted by the medulla of the adrenal glands. Epinephrine is adrenaline and when it is released into the bloodstream, a person’s heart rate, muscle strength and sugar metabolism increase. Epinephrine is found all throughout the body and is essential for maintaining cardiovascular homeostasis.
Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands and is involved in the functions of proper glucose metabolism, regulation of blood pressure, insulin release for blood sugar maintenance, immune function and inflammatory response. Cortisol has been labeled the “stress hormone” because it’s secreted at higher levels during the body’s flight or flight response to stress. Cortisol also provides energy, memory functions, increased immunity, lower sensitivity to pain and homeostasis maintenance. Higher levels of cortisol in the bloodstream are associated with symptoms of chronic stress. Higher cortisol levels and chronic stress can result in impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia, decreased bone density and a decrease in muscle tissue and abdominal fat. Furthermore, increases in abdominal fat can result in various health issues, such as heart attacks and stroke.
However, cortisol also regulates the body’s energy and is released in the morning and then again in the afternoon. It mobilizes energy, and under stressful conditions, can provide the body with protein for energy production through gluconeogenesis, which is the process of converting amino acids into useable carbohydrates (glucose) in the liver. (Garves; Kravitz; Schneider 2014)
Regulating stress hormones
Studies show that exercise, yoga, meditation, sex, journaling and guided imagery can all help maintain healthy norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol levels. Specifically, meditation-based exercises like yoga help a person focus on breathing, which can assist in slowing down one’s heart rate and increase cognitive functionality. Similar to basic exercise, yoga can also have profound effects on one’s overall mental health.
If you or your loved one is struggling with high stress levels or mental health issues connected to high stress levels it may be time to seek help. To learn more about dealing with acute and chronic stress you can contact that mental health helpline at 855-653-8178.