Stress Hormones - Cortisol and Adrenaline in Hypothalamic Amenorrhea
In this post I explain the biochemistry behind stress and how these stress hormones in the long run induce Hypothalamic Amenorrhea.
If you narrowly avoid a car collision, are nervous for giving a speech or run from a tiger, the physical reaction of your body will be the same - stress. This fight-or-flight reaction is initiated by your sympathetic nervous system. You cannot by power will control or influence the response, it is set on automatically and has been important for our escaping dangerous or stressful situations throughout evolution. The main hormones involved in the stress response are adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands after our brain sends the message that we’re facing a stressful situation. It is known as the 'fight-or-flight response'. In this type of situation, your brain sends messages to your adrenal glands to start releasing the hormone into the blood. You will feel the effects of the adrenaline within 2 or 3 minutes. It will:
raise your heart rate
raise your blood pressure
increase energy supply
The purpose of these reactions is to help you run away from the dangerous situation. The fight-or-flight process takes about 20 minutes, meaning, after the situation is over, you will need about 20 minutes to completely calm down physiologically.
Cortisol is also a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, but it takes more time than adrenaline for you to feel the effects. Your body releases cortisol after the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, in order to stay on high alert. This means approximately 15 minutes after the onset of stress, cortisol levels rise systemically. It will
increase sugar in the bloodstream
Cortisol remain elevated for several hours.
Stress hormones and Hypothalamic Amenorrhea
Although there are not much tigers running around nowadays, the stress-induced response by the body has not changed since hunter-gatherer days. Stress is not a bad thing itself, on the contrary it can be life saving in certain situations. However your body cannot differentiate between a real danger (tiger) and a stressful situation at work. And when the stress becomes chronically it can negatively impact your health.
In the case of Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and stress hormones, the chronic stress leads to that your body is shutting down reproduction because it feels it is currently not safe to have a baby (you can read more about that in THIS post). The main stressors in Hypothalamic Amenorrhea are under-eating and over-exercising. This stress causes prolonged and elevated levels of for all cortisol. And as you know by now, cortisol acts by suppressing non-life essential processes such as the digestive system and the reproductive system.
So when working towards recovery, it is important to reduce all kinds of stressors. This will decrease the cortisol-levels, and thereby we can convince our bodies that is is safe again to become pregnant. The way to do this is simple, eating and resting more. However in reality this is far from easy. Especially since you have been praised for your "healthy" life style. You have come to believe that excessive exercise is reducing stress level (when in reality the exercise is driving the stress levels through the roof). I know how overwhelming the thought of eating more and moving less can be. I am here to support you on your recovery journey. Because recovery is worth it in the end.