How The Body Responds To Stress

Posted On: November 10, 2016

I’m starting a new series on the blog to keep you apprised of what I’m learning in my studies.  As many of you know, I’m going to back to school through FDN (Functional Diagnostic Nutrition) online.  FDN is all about figuring out what is at the root of your health issues.  If you suffer from symptoms (eczema, insomnia, GI distress, etc..) there is a reason you are dealing with that.  Instead of taking the allopathic route of treating the symptoms, we will dig deeper to find out why you have them to begin with.  

My first lesson centered around understanding how the body deals with stress.  As many of you may already know, stress is at the route of many of our disease states:  hypertension, insomnia, IBS, anxiety, etc..  In fact, 70-80% of all doctor visits are for stress-related illnesses, and 50% of all illnesses are caused by stress. (1) But it’s important to get an understanding of HOW stress impacts your health, both in the long and short-term.

Obviously, stress is a natural part of life.  We can’t avoid it, nor should we.  Our bodies are designed, quite exquisitely, to manage stress.  Cortisol (the main hormone released in response to stress) is actually quite beneficial.  Cortisol is anti-inflammatory, a natural painkiller, and releases blood sugar for energy use.  However, in our current lifestyles, most of us are bombarded with huge amounts of stress and never seem to get a break.  When stress becomes chronic, cortisol output gets disrupted, and our ability to manage stress diminishes.  That’s when dis-ease starts.  FDN refers to this as the “Stress Cascade.” 

Before we get into how we test for issues with your stress response, let me give you a little primer on what happens in the body in response to stress.  I’ll try to keep this simple, but you’ll want to understand some of the hormones at play here.


  1. Adrenal Glands: Located just above the kidneys, the adrenal glands have two parts- the inner Medulla and the outer Cortex.  In an initial stress response, the medulla stimulates the Hypothalamus via adrenalin
  2. Hypothalamus (H):  Located at the base in the brain, the hypothalamus recognizes the stressor/adrenalin and secretes corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) to stimulate the Pituitary Gland.
  3. Pituitary (P) Gland:  An organ located under the hypothalamus at the base of the brain, that in response to the release of CRH, secretes adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) to modulate the stress response system.  You get your basic “flight or fight” responses:  increase in blood sugar, blood circulation, respiration rate and decrease in digestive function.
  4. Adrenal Cortex: This senses the ACTH and responds by raising cortisol and aldosterone.
  5. Chronic Stress:  The unending onslaught will upset this system, and push it beyond it’s limits.  DHEA (the counter-balance hormone for cortisol) will be diminished.
  6. Pregnenalone: This master hormone then steals building blocks used to make DHEA away from being used to build things like estrogen and testosterone and instead sends them into the stress hormone loop (namely cortisol).  You run out of reserves to handle things like digestion, and reproduction.  Once the body has this “Pregnenalone Steal” going on, you have a disrupted hormone balance.


The way the Hypothalamus, Pituitary, and Adrenals communicate in a circular-like loop is referred to as the H-P-A Axis.  Now, I know that all sounds complicated, but it’s not.  Basically, a short burst of stress is easily managed.  When that burst happens over and over all day long and never goes away, you run out of reserves.  The body can no longer take on building projects (babies, energy for workouts, mental acuity for work) and instead is using everything to just “hang on.”

In order to discover if stress is at the root of a patient’s symptoms, we can run an Adrenal Stress-hormone Index.  This is a simple salivary sample test done 4x throughout the day.  The results will show the pattern that cortisol (your main stress-response hormone) is following throughout the day.   Below is an example of what these test results might look like.


The middle line shows what a “normal” cortisol curve should resemble: elevated in the morning, slowly tapering through the day, a slight bump in the afternoon, then minimal at night so you can get to sleep.  The top and bottom lines are the high and low reference ranges.

ACUTE PHASE:  When stress first hits you, cortisol will run high.  That curve will likely be elevated all day long and you’ll have a hard time getting to sleep (or staying) asleep at night, as your adrenals never turn down the volume.  At the beginning of Acute Stress, you might feel “high” even.  But after a while, you start having a hard time:  reaching for more caffeine and/or sugar, feeling lower energy, getting upset easily, etc..

COMPENSATORY PHASE:  When stress won’t relent, you start trying your best to make it through.  The curve above will be lower in the first half of the day, but not taper much later.  Your ability to output enough cortisol starts to diminish, you start getting sick more regularly, and maybe think about talking to your doctor.  At this point, you’ll hear, “everything looks normal.”  This is when patients begin trying supplements, and other ideas to self-medicate.

EXHAUSTION PHASE:  When stress has completely overcome you, there’s not much left to give.  Pretty much every point on your ASI results are low.  You can’t “amp” up for much of anything anymore.  At this point, the patient is likely on multiple medications/supplements to manage symptoms.  Those symptoms might include:  hypoglycemia (shakiness/lightheadedness), sugar cravings, decreased immunity, low blood pressure, depression, allergic reactions, cold body temperature, low/no libido, and many more.

Okay, so you are reading this, and are starting to freak out a bit.  Don’t, that will only make the stress worse!!  J/K. Don’t start searching all over Dr. Google for what to do with “exhausted adrenals.”  Always test before you treat. While I’m still in the process of getting certified, I’d recommend you look online to find an FDN Practitioner near you. Try this link.  They can discuss with you what is going on lifestyle and symptom-wise.  You can test your stress using the Adrenal Stress Index, and go from there.  As FDN practitioners, the goal for them will be to find natural ways to restore your vitality.  These include the DRESS principles:  




Stress Reduction


Notice that “supplementation” is the last option here.  There’s no reason to go down a rabbit hole of drugs and testing if making a few small changes to your diet, sleep, exercise and stress management can get you most of the way to feeling better.

So, do you identify with any of the above phases of adrenal dysfunction?  Would you like to discuss with me various ways to help you feel better?  Have you already done an ASI?  I’d love to hear more from your below!!

Yours in Health, 


1.  “Get a Grip On Stress.” Healthy and Natural Journal, Feb. 2001

2.  Graph:


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