Stress and stress hormones at a glance

Family, work and everyday duties - More than two thirds of Germans feel stressed in everyday life and suffer from the negative consequences for their health, well-being and sleep. But when do we actually feel stress? And what exactly happens in our body when we feel stressed?

Table of Contents

  1. What is stress?
    1. This is what happens when the body is under stress
    2. Triggers for stress
    3. Consequences of chronic stress
  2. The most important stress hormones at a glance
    1. The stress hormone cortisol
    2. The stress hormone norepinephrine
    3. The stress hormone adrenaline
  3. Stress & Sleep

1. What is stress?

This is what happens when the body is stressed

Stress is actually a completely natural and initially positive reaction of our body to a negative stimulus in order to be able to cope with situations of extraordinary stress. Our brain then signals to the body that it should prepare for acute stress and releases increased quantities of the messenger substances cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline, known as stress hormones. They ensure that more energy reserves are made available and our entire organism is prepared to achieve peak performance. Among other things, blood sugar levels and blood pressure rise, breathing quickens and our senses are put on alert so that performance, alertness and attention are increased.

The effects of stress at a glance

  • Accelerated breathing
  • Rising heart rate and blood pressure
  • Increased blood sugar production
  • Increased oxygen transport to the muscles
  • Increased blood flow and muscle tension
  • Increased release of messenger substances to strengthen the immune defense
  • Reduction in digestive and sexual function

Triggers for stress

Stress can arise in a wide variety of situations and can arise from both physical and psychological stimuli. When and how strongly our body reacts to a stressful situation also depends on our personal resistance to stress and varies from person to person. Stress doesn't just arise in unpleasant or negative situations. Possible triggers include, for example, severe physical or mental stress, accidents and injuries, but also illnesses and infections or low blood sugar levels.

Consequences & damage caused by chronic stress

smartsleep Schlafmagazin Stress und Stresshormone Gestresster und müder Mann mit Kopfschmerzen

Stress also arises in everyday situations, for example when doing sports, and helps us to withstand severe stress in an acute “dangerous situation”. A consistently high level of stress, on the other hand, damages mental and physical health. Stress hormones are then constantly released and the body is kept in a state of alert, which puts constant strain on the cardiovascular system and also influences many other body processes. According to experts, this quickly leads to sleep disorders and depression and other health problems. And this despite the fact that sleep is crucial, especially after a pronounced stress reaction, so that the body and mind can recover sufficiently from the stress, replenish energy stores and normalize bodily functions.

Overview of the consequences of chronic stress

  • High blood pressure
  • Indigestion
  • Increased risk of diseases of the cardiovascular system
  • Migraines & tension headaches
  • Sleep disorders
  • Weakened immune system
  • Depression

2. The most important stress hormones

If we register threatening stimuli, also known as “stressors”, the nervous system is stimulated and the release of stress hormones is triggered in a kind of chain reaction.

#1 The stress hormone cortisol

The best-known and most important stress hormone is cortisol/cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal cortex. Among other things, it has an influence on blood sugar, fat metabolism and has an anti-inflammatory effect. During stress, the hormone's main task is to activate metabolism to mobilize energy reserves and provide energy in the form of glucose. Cortisol therefore acts as a kind of stimulant that makes us alert and productive in the short term and also has a certain control function in the interaction of stress hormones, because it regulates the release of norepinephrine and adrenaline.

The effect of cortisol on stress

  • Increases energy supply, blood sugar levels, blood pressure and breathing rate as well as alertness and body temperature
  • Reduces the sensation of pain, inhibits inflammatory processes
smartsleep Schlafmagazin Stress und Stresshormone Cortisol im Tagesverlauf bei chronischem Stress und im Normalszustand

The cortisol level in the blood actually follows a natural daily rhythm, falling to a minimum at night and rising again in the early morning hours to initiate the waking process and wake us up. Acute and especially chronic stress disrupts this natural process and leads to unnaturally high cortisol levels in the blood. This also influences the synthesis of the sleep hormone melatonin, which disrupts a regulated sleep rhythm and promotes sleep problems.

#2 Norepinephrine

Norepinephrine activates the part of the nervous system that regulates the stress response and is an important basis for the formation of adrenaline. Among other things, it leads to an increase in blood pressure and heart rate and, in conjunction with the other stress hormones, supports an increase in blood sugar and oxygen supply in the body and brain. As a result of a stress reaction, noradrenlin plays a crucial role in a rapid increase in attention, alertness and motivation, increases the willingness to perform and has a positive influence on our motor skills.

The effect of norepinephrine during stress

  • Increasing blood sugar levels, heart rate and blood pressure as well as increasing oxygen supply, attention, alertness and concentration
  • Improves motivation and influences motor skills
smartsleep Schlafmagazin Stress und Stresshormone Synthese von Dopamin zu Noradrenalin und Adrenalin

#3 Adrenaline

Adrenaline is formed from the precursor norepinephrine and has an activating effect on numerous body functions. For example, adrenaline increases breathing volume, blood pressure and the performance of the heart in order to quickly provide more oxygen to the muscles in particular and to increase mental and physical activity. It supports the provision of energy through increased blood sugar levels and helps to quickly reduce less important body functions such as gastrointestinal activity or libido.

The effect of adrenaline on stress

  • Expansion of the airways and bronchi, increase in blood pressure and blood sugar levels
  • Inhibition of digestion and sexual function

3. Stress and sleep

smartsleep Schlafmagazin Stress und Stresshormone Müde Frau schlaflos im Bett

Stress and psychological stress are among the most common causes of problems falling asleep. Because as long as our body is under stress and on alert, the entire organism runs at full speed to provide energy for the extraordinary stress. This also affects other areas of the metabolism and hormonal balance and in this way also influences our sleep behavior.

The hormone cortisol, which is particularly active in chronic stress, also plays an important role in regulating our sleep-wake rhythm and functions as a kind of antagonist of the well-known sleep hormone melatonin. Melatonin makes us tired in the evening and prepares the body for the resting phase of sleep. The melatonin level drops overnight and our body produces more cortisol, which is then responsible for us becoming active again and waking up in the morning after sleep.

A permanently elevated cortisol level due to stress, or rising just before going to bed, activates our body exactly when it actually needs to rest. This often leads to problems falling asleep and promotes sleep and concentration disorders, which in turn has a negative impact on sleep and its important function for health, well-being and performance. In this way, a vicious circle quickly arises because the body is constantly under tension due to constant stress and the much-needed recovery is not provided.

In order to sleep well and stay healthy, we should reduce stress, especially in the evening, and at the same time, especially in stressful phases of life, make sure not to neglect sleep and to give our bodies enough time to recover.

4. Conclusion

  • Stress is the natural reaction to extreme physical or mental stress and activates the stress hormones cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline via the nervous system in order to make the body more productive in the short term.
  • Stress leads to an increase in blood sugar levels and blood pressure, activation of the cardiovascular system; breathing quickens and all senses are put on alert so that performance, alertness and attention are increased.
  • Chronic stress puts the body under constant strain, damages health and well-being and can lead to sleep disorders and depression.
  • The stress hormones cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline work together and primarily serve to release energy reserves in the body and brain.

Greetings and see you soon!

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