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The Stress Hormone Cascade

January 04, 2018

You’re stuck in traffic and you’re late for an important appointment.

Your palms are sweating…your heart is racing… your muscles tighten… you may become angry or start to shake.

You’re definitely feeling the effects of stress and it doesn’t feel good.

Here’s what is happening to your body during high stress: Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear.

This reaction starts in the brain, sparking a chain of events through the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) in the endocrine system.

Your brain sends the message to the pituitary gland to produce ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic hormone).

ACTH then triggers the adrenal glands to take action. Your adrenal medulla secretes stress hormones like adrenaline, epinephrine, and norepinephrine to prepare for a fight.

The adrenal cortex releases cortisol to try to maintain balance. This chain reaction is the “fight or flight” stress hormone cascade we always hear about.

The Stress Hormone Cascade In Motion

  • Adrenaline, epinephrine and norepinephrine tighten the muscles, and accelerate metabolism, heart rate, respiration and perspiration.
  • Cortisol increases blood pressure, channels available fats and sugar to the cells, and suppresses parts of the immune system.
  • All available resources are delegated to survival. Rest, reproduction, and digestion all move to the back burner.

The “fight or flight” response evolved out of necessity.

It was a vital response for our prehistoric ancestors deal with life threatening dangers like predators, lack of food, or shelter.

The way it was intended to work, the stress hormone cascade actually strengthens the body.

Fight or flight gives you a burst of energy so your body can rise to the challenge, stand up and fight.

After the threat is gone, your hormones levels gradually shift back to normal.

When High Stress is Chronic

Stress is a part of modern life. We all deal with it: trouble at work or home, health issues, financial stress, bad traffic, and an endless to do list with little time for a break.

Although perhaps just as dangerous, these modern stresses aren’t usually the life threatening situations that our predecessors dealt with.

Yet, some people are more susceptible to stress reactions and become habituated to feeling stressed.

Their body stays in fight or flight mode without ever neutralizing the “threat” and coming back into balance.

The body feels constantly under attack, and stress hormones and chemicals continue to flood their systems.

How Stress Affects the Body

The entire endocrine system takes a dive from high stress. The adrenals become exhausted, and can no longer handle the influx of information.

It releases too few or too many hormones at the wrong times. We can see this effect with the hormone, cortisol.

In a balanced body, cortisol is the highest in the morning and gradually falls through the day.

It rises again in the late afternoon, and falls again in the evening to prepare for sleep.

In contrast, a person under chronic stress has low cortisol in the morning and through the day. They feel exhausted all day.

Yet, their cortisol surges at night, leading to insomnia. I see this time and time again in clients and consider it a classic part of burnout.

An excess of stress hormones damages the brain. Chronic stress causes an increase in free radicals that damage the fatty tissues on the brain.

Research shows animals and humans under severe stress experience atrophy in the hippocampus of the brain.

Your nervous system takes a major hit from high stress. Imbalances between the autonomic, parasympathetic, and sympathetic nervous system can develop.

Digestive problems like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or high or low blood pressure are usually linked to high stress.

Furthermore, the stress hormone cascade is a primary culprit in mood disorders.

Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and post-traumatic stress syndrome are directly tied into an imbalance in the functioning of the HPA axis.

In fact, many antidepressants work by sedating or altering the HPA axis.

This article isn’t intended to scare you, but I hope it’s wake up call to address the stress in your life and how you react to it.

Is the stress in your life “good stress,” motivating you to meet a goal?

Or, are you dealing with “toxic stress” that just seems to build and build with no release?

I believe we can become addicted to the rush of stress. Pay attention to your body’s stress reactions.

Are you stuck in “fight or flight”? Meditation is one of the best ways to bring your body back into balance.

Try to shift your natural state to be more neutral in stressful situations.

Become more in tune with the ebbs and flows of your natural environment.

Consider gentle, natural approaches and herbal stress tonics to ease high stress and reduce its harmful effects.



Alban, D. (2012-2016). 12 effects of chronic stress on your brain. Retrieved from Be Brain Fit,
Klein, S. (2013, April 19). Adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine: The three major stress hormones explained. Retrieved from Huffpost Healthy Living,
Klim, K. (2013, September 9). The effects of imbalance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic system. Retrieved from
Mayo Clinic Staff (2016). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic,
Ross, J. (2015). The Mood Cure. The Nutritional Therapy Institute
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