Hormone Havoc: From Hunter-Gatherer to Desk Jockey

Times have changed. Over the past hundred years tasks and job functions have changed dramatically and our personal environments and daily stressors are world's away from what they used to be. While comfort and convenience are certainly improved, they've come with a price - poor nutrient-deficient foods, sedentary lifestyles, and chronic external/internal stress. While it may seem as though we are constantly bombarded with stress and on the verge of overload, there are physiological mechanisms that allow us as human beings to call on reserves of energy during times of stress or danger - reserves that result in either a "fight or flight" response. These mechanisms were built into our biology from our ancestors who at the drop of a dime had to quickly respond to an acute stress in their environment.

The challenge is that our world today is a lot different from the world of our ancestors, and we have far fewer of those acute stress situations; however, we have far more daily, constant chronic stressors in our environment. The problem is, our physiology hasn't changed. Today, we still respond to external stressors by those same physiological mechanisms that our ancestors once did. Unfortunately that's not how our bodies are designed to work. Constantly calling on these mechanisms over time begins to fatigue our bodies, throw our hormones out of balance and eventually results in dysfunction and disease.

Cranking Out The Cortisol

The primary mechanism that responds to external (and internal) stress is the release of Epinephrine/Norepinephrine (adrenalin) from the adrenal medulla which puts us in fight/flight mode and prepares our bodies for action. The cascade then results in the adrenal cortex releasing cortisol to mobilize energy. Cortisol is essential to our survival and acts as a natural painkiller and anti-inflammatory agent; the problem is that it is designed for periodic and acute situations. Chronic stress results in too much cortisol being release and over time, these elevated cortisol levels results in:

  • Increased glucose formation and protein breakdown
  • Increased glucose utilization by the CNS
  • Suppressed gastric emptying, slows digestion
  • Inhibition of sex hormone effects and altered reproduction
  • Increased sodium retention = High Blood Pressure
  • Suppressed immune function
  • Altered thyroid function, production and effectiveness
  • Depletion the body of precious minerals

Under normal circumstances the hormone Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) acts as a counter-regulatroy agent to cortisol, helping to negate the harmful effects of excess cortisol and to assist in the repair of muscle tissue; however, over time, as our bodies continually "crank out " cortisol, the ideal ratio of cortisol/DHEA becomes unbalanced, leading to potential health implications.

The physiological effects of an unbalanced cortisol/DHEA are extensive and far-reaching, affecting everything from memory to immunity to carbohydrate metabolism. The chart below illustrates the various body systems and functions that are directly impacted by elevated cortisol :












As you can see, a proper cortisol to DHEA ratio is crucial in ensuring optimal health along a number of essential bodily functions. Try this simple exercise:

  1. Write out your top 2-3 health & wellness challenges along with a rating of how influential they are on your daily activities and sense of well-being (scale of 1-10; 1 being low or no impact, 10 being significant impact daily). These can range from difficulty losing weight, frequent illness, low energy/fatigue, digestive disorders, etc.
  2. Print out the chart and circle over all the areas in the spokes that correlate with your health challenge. For example, if your challenge is difficulty losing weight, circle Cell Energetics,  Glucose Homeostasis, Weight & Fat Distribution, Thyroid Function, Protein Turnover, Pancreas - Insulin.
  3. Place the number that you assigned next to the circles and count up how many different areas rated high (+6) on your chart. The more areas that you identified, as well as the higher overall ratings, can help illustrate the potential that your cortisol/DHEA ratio is out of balance.

The key to re-balancing your cortisol/DHEA ratio is multi-faceted, and lies first in identifying stressors in your life. Then through lifestyle change you can work to enhance proper hormone balance and eliminate blocking factors that will inhibit your progress.


For more info and assistance in identifying your stressors (especially internal ones such as nutritional deficiencies and pathogenic infestation, consider Functional Diagnostic Nutrition coaching sessions. Find out more about FDN here)

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