What is stress?

Stress is the body’s way of responding to a situation that threatens our well-being. The stress response helps us deal with difficult challenges or prompts us to get out of danger.  Prolonged exposure to stress is a problem and can leave us feeling unable to deal with everyday tasks.  Factors such as lack of sleep, excessive work, physical illness, an increase in alcohol and stimulants (tea, coffee, smoking and social drugs), fear, anger, anxiety, death, new job, divorce, new house, a baby can all be contributing factors. When stressed a ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered. 

The 'fight or flights' response involves the hormone adrenaline being released, increasing heart rate and breathing. DHEA and cortisol are also released from the adrenal glands, which lie on top of the kidneys. It is the state of constant stress that exhausts the adrenal glands and results in an imbalance of DHEA to cortisol. The symptoms of prolonged stress include less energy, blood sugar problems, weight gain and compromised immunity.  A healthy diet is important to assist with beating stress. Nutrients that can become depleted during times of stress include vitamin C, magnesium and zinc. It is also important to keep blood sugar levels balanced and stimulants should be avoided.



  • Fatigue and exhaustion

  • Weakness in muscles

  • Insomnia

  • Poor Concentration

  • Alcohol intolerance

  • Mood swings

  • Depression

  • Frequent infections

  • Headaches

  • Poor digestion

  • Irritable

  • Poor memory

Contributory factors

  • Smoking

  • Increase in caffeine

  • Increase workload

  • Increase in alcohol

  • Excessive physical exercise

  • Divorce

  • New baby

  • Death

  • Relationship distress

  • Fear

  • Anger

  • Lack of sleep

Phases of stress

There are four basic phases of stress, each having a different physiological affect. Understanding these phases can help you to identify and cope with the stress in your life.


Effect on the body

  • Blood sugar rises – sugar stores released from the liver

  • Increase in energy to muscles

  • Increased heart rate

  • Constriction of most blood vessels

  • Dilation of blood vessels to the heart, lungs, brain and skeletal muscles

  • Dilation of airways

  • Dilation of pupils

  • Non-essential functions shut down e.g. digestion

  • Stimulates body to produce other hormones – insulin and glucagon – to help balance the blood sugar levels

Individual shows normal response to short-term stress. Hormone levels then return to normal.

Adrenal Hormone Status
High Adrenaline
Increase in Cortisol and DHEA

In the alarm stage, an event is interpreted as a stressor and bodily reactions are triggered. Alarm involves two phases, shock and counter shock.

During the first phase of alarm, the shock phase, signals from the brain (the cortex and hypothalamus) initiate the activity of the adrenal glands. The adrenal medulla secretes adrenaline directly into the bloodstream. The effect of adrenaline is heightened heart rate and respiration, as well as other consequences of sympathetic nervous activity.

A ‘backup’ response is initiated by hypothalamic stimulation of the pituitary gland, which begins a sequence of hormonal messages to the adrenal cortex. The adrenal cortex produces corticosteroids, hormones which energize skeletal muscle strength and endurance. Steroid effects are visible in one’s ability to continue running from danger even after the initial adrenaline rush, as well as in the shakiness and weak-kneed sensation that can follow a stressful or frightening experience.

The second phase, counter shock, restores and conserves physical energy through rapid response of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. For example, on first seeing a threatening situation, a person in shock will gasp, experience a rapid heart rate, and react reflexively (shock). Soon thereafter she may feel faint as her body reacts to the sudden expenditure of energy (counter shock).


Effect on the body

  • Adrenals increasingly overworked

  • Body less responsive to cortisol. More is needed

  • Produced at the expense of DHEA

  • If stress continues, cortisol continues to rise and DHEA starts to fall

  • Imbalance in adrenal hormones

  • HGH and TSH rise to stimulate catabolism of triglycerides and glucose to produce ATP

  • Sodium and water retained under influence aldosterone

  • Adrenals start to tire/thyroid activity falls

  • Sodium, Potassium, Magnesium falls as aldosterone falls

  • Body slows down e.g digestion

  • Start to experience symptoms of longer term stress e.g. constipation, dry hair, low energy, poor memory and concentration, depression, low blood sugar, cravings, poor sleep, allergies, poor immunity, menstrual irregularities, sexual dysfunction or reduced digestive secretions (may lead to ulcers, IBS, high blood pressure).

Over time, cortisol initially rises, then begins to fall. DHEA falls. Individual shows poor adaptation to any stress. May suffer chronic fatigue and be increasingly prone to infections.

Adrenal Hormone Status
High to falling cortisol
Falling to low DHEA

 During the second stage, resistance, physical defences are employed in response to the threat identified in the alarm stage. The activity of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system takes the form of ‘fight or flight’.

If the threat can be attacked (‘fight’), resources will be directed to the upper body, and the individual will strike and dodge.

If the threat can be escaped (‘flight’), energy and strength (in the form of increase blood supply and muscle tension) will be channeled to the lower-body muscles, and the threatened individual will run.

If the threat is more subtle, like feeling incresaed cold, one’s resistance will be as subtle as piloerection (body hairs rising to create some insulation) and shivering (which keeps the body moving and circulation active).

Resistance then can take the form of both physical reflexes and behavioural reactions.


Effect on the body

  • Adrenals exhausted.

  • Cortisol and DHEA very low.

  • If stress continues, will lead to serious ill-health and ‘burn-out’

  • Adrenal hormone production very low

  • Sodium, potassium, magnesium very low

  • Body slows down (‘tonic immobility’)

  • Rate of repair slows down

  • Start to experience symptoms of ‘burn-out’: inability to deal with stress, depression, weight gain, headaches, always tired, high blood sugar, poor concentration, low alcohol tolerance, infertility, chronic fatigue, prone to inflammatory and degenerative diseases

  • A weakened immune system increases thelikelihood of bacterial overgrowths such as candida and either dysbiosis or inflammation may cause the gut to become leaky. This in turn increases the likelihood of developing food intolerances and allergies

Individual cannot respond at all to stress, becomes ill and must ‘withdraw’ to recover.

Adrenal Hormone Status
Low cortisol


  • With rest and support, adrenals recover.

  • Adrenaline, DHEA and cortisol production return to normal.

In most experiences of stress, resistance strategies will succeed in solving the problem. The cold person will stay alive and awake long enough to find shelter. The person who is attacked, will escape or defend themselves.

However, if resistance fails to reduce the stressor (if one continues to interpret events as requiring adaptation), one enters the third stage, exhaustion.

In exhaustion, the physical activity begun in the alarm stage begins again. The danger in exhaustion stage is that the body has fewer resources to expend in its weakened state. Continued, unrelieved sympathetic arousal results in the breakdown of the body’s stress response systems. Consequences will take the form of endocrine, vascular, muscular, and gastric illness and symptoms.

Dietary recommendations

  • Eliminate caffeine

  • Eliminate alcohol

  • Eliminate refined carbohydrates (white rice, white bread, white pasta)

  • Eat regular meals in a relaxed environment

  • Eat vitamin C rich foods (peppers, watercress, cabbage, broccoli, strawberries, kiwi fruit, oranges, tomatoes)

  • Eat magnesium rich foods (fish, lentils, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables)

  • Eat zinc rich foods (oysters, ginger, pecan nuts, haddock, egg yolk, whole grains, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms)

Lifestyle considerations

  • Identify stressors and reduce sources of stress

  • Relaxation and breathing exercises, such as yoga or meditation

  • Regular exercise including brisk walking, swimming, cycling, jogging or going to the gym

Additional effects of stress hormones


  • High levels cortisol and DHEA block production of secretary antibody A (sig A)

  • Exposes body to invasion by bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, allergens and toxins via the GI tract

  • Increases risk of leaky gut

  • May result in allergic immune reactions, gut dysbiosis

  • High cortisol also reduces production WBC and antibodies

  • BUT cortisol is key anti- inflammatory hormone


  • Blood sugar imbalance most obvious result of stress

  • Low cortisol and low DHEA take longer to raise BSL to normal

  • Insulin increased to try to meet demand for energy of cells

  • Strain of maintaining levels leads to insulin resistance (IR)

  • Further complications lead to Syndrome X

  • Long term this may lead to Diabetes type 2


  • Adrenals influence production of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone as they share same precursor

  • During stressful times, excess cortisol produced by accelerated conversion of progesterone leads to deficiency in progesterone and oestradiol

  • Reduced levels of sex hormones results in menstrual and menopausal irregularities and infertility


  • Cortisol required for conversion of T4 to T3

  • A low DHEA to cortisol ratio causes levelsof thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) to fall and the conversion is blocked

  • Thyroxine output falls, as adrenals attempt to slow down metabolism and conserve energy

  • Results in typical hypothyroid symptoms


  • Short term stress: Increases heart rate, contracts arteries, increases BP, stickier blood

  • Long term stress: Effects become long-lasting

  • Chronic high BP, damage to arteries, encourages deposition of fatty acids, narrows arteries, aggravated by agglutination atherosclerosis.

  • Salt cravings due to increased secretion of sodium.


  • Stress reduces amount of serotonin produced.

  • High cortisol encourages tryptophan to be converted to kynurenine (a muscle stimulant) rather than 5HTP.

  • Production of 5HTP also inhibited by low B vitamins and low magnesium.


  • Depression, anxiety, low energy, poor concentration, insomnia, food cravings Nutrient Deficiencies

  • Increased adrenaline production causes body to increase metabolism of fats, proteins and carbs to quickly produce energy this will then result in deficiencies of B vitamins, Vitamin C and Magnesium.

  • Also causes the body to produce less HCL and digestive enzymes and to excrete amino acids

  • Levels of Sodium and Potassium are reduced

  • Affects blood sugar balance, immune system, digestion, adrenal function, liver and kidney function.

  • Body reduces absorption of digested nutrients under stress

This article has
been written by
Terry Fairclough