Understanding the Consequences of Chronic Stress


Stress weakens the immune function

A recent poll reports that 45% of Americans feel that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the novel coronavirus. Cortisol is one of the body’s main stress hormones. During stressful times, the adrenal glands release it as part of the “fight-or-flight” response. Necessary for life-or-death situations, cortisol directs a complex series of hormonal and physiological changes that support either fleeing to safety or fighting off the threat. Cortisol boosts muscle tension, blood sugar, heartbeat, tissue-repair substances, and mental focus. At the same time, cortisol turns down non-urgent processes such as immune functions, along with the digestive and reproductive systems. When the stressful threat has passed, cortisol is supposed to return to normal “balanced” levels. When stressors are almost always present, as they have been since the coronavirus outbreak, cortisol remains “turned on.” Its continuing high presence in the blood adversely affects critical functions of the body and brain.


Dangers of elevated cortisol

Stress results in a decrease in levels of lymphocytes. These immune cells are used to kill viruses and other invaders. Lymphocyte counts are often reduced when one is fighting a viral infection. Even if it’s just for a few days, social isolation and loneliness, both common during the current pandemic, also weaken immunity. Older individuals are more susceptible to stress and to stress-induced immune damage. Long-term overexposure to excess cortisol disrupts almost all body processes, increasing risk for health problems that include:

  • Immune impairment
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Obesity
  • Neurodegeneration, including Alzheimer’s disease
  • Anxiety, depression, and insomnia

Most worrisome, chronically elevated cortisol is linked to increased mortality risk. A large study of people over age 65 found that men with high cortisol levels were 63% more likely to die than those with lower levels. Women with elevated cortisol were 82% more likely to die than those with low levels. And those with high urinary cortisol had a five-fold increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Higher cortisol is also associated with shortening of telomeres, the stretches of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes. As telomeres shorten, the cells that bear them get closer to the ends of their lives, aging the tissues and organs in which they dwell. It’s impossible to avoid all stress, especially during a pandemic. But scientists have demonstrated that natural compounds can lower excess cortisol levels.

Life Extension



Above is a Genova saliva cortisol test that I run with patients at the office on a regular basis. Bottom line, stress will kill your health. And as you can see above, this patient has elevated cortisol levels most of the day. Weight problems are very common because cortisol will raise insulin and glucose levels in the body as well. The hard to lose belly fat. It’s been challenging times for many patients that I’ve seen in the office in recent months with chronic stress. The good news though, if you take care of your body, your body will take care of you. Stress, depression, anxiety, and unfortunately substance abuse have risen as a direct result Covid-19. Start focusing on yourself and your health from a different approach with a quality supplement protocol. The above test only runs $65 with insurance. (contact the office and ask for a saliva cortisol test from Dr. Jeff) More on this topic will be addressed in my fall time lecture, “Battling Adrenal Fatigue.”

Dr. J



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