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How Does Stress Affect Our Health?

Stress is unavoidable. It can be emotional, physical, psychological, environmental or chemical sources. Short-term stress can motivate and inspire us, focus our energy, help us avoid danger, and complete tasks.

However, stress can also be mentally and physically unhealthy, making us feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with the pressure. Long-term, unmanaged stress causes harmful imbalances in our body which can lead to both mental and physical problems.


Our body continually works to maintain balance, often through hormone signals that regulate our body’s temperature, fluids, mood, fertility, energy, glucose, nutrients, and other aspects of our health.

When we experience stress, cortisol and other hormones are produced by our adrenal glands. The cortisol response is the same for all types of stress – in other words, the body cannot differentiate between actual stress vs. anticipated or imagined stress.

Cortisol, DHEA, and epinephrine are processed by signals from our brain to our adrenal glands through the HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) Axis in response to stress.

Cortisol – the main stress hormone – is anti-inflammatory, improves focus, releases glucose (for energy) into our blood, and increases blood pressure and heart rate (to increase blood flow to our muscles). This is meant to increase our ability to overcome a stressful event. At the same time, cortisol decreases digestion, sex hormone response, and reduces immune response – allowing our body to manage an immediate threat.

Long-term stress, without recovery, can lead to imbalances of insulin and glucose (leading to appetite changes or belly fat), decreased immunity, chronic fatigue (and sleep disturbance), GI issues (heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, pain), cardiovascular disease (hypertension, heart attack, stroke) and sex hormone imbalance (infertility, irregular or heavy menstrual bleeding, decreased libido).


Cortisol levels can be measured by collecting saliva and/or urine samples during 4-6 specific times throughout the day to calculate the stress response and HPA Axis Function using convenient at-home collection kits.

By recognizing HPA Axis Dysfunction, recommendations can be made for lifestyle, stress management, and supportive nutrients or supplements. The DUTCH test (Dried Urine Test of Comprehensive Hormones) evaluates cortisol and sex hormones, hormone metabolites, and organic acids for a broader view of hormone health, stress response, neurotransmitters, metabolism, and nutrient levels.


An abnormal response to stress is referred to as ‘HPA Axis Dysfunction,” which appropriately describes the harmful interaction that occurs between the brain and adrenal gland in response to persistent stress which can lead to unhealthy changes throughout our body.

Being aware of HPA Axis Dysfunction improves the way we evaluate and treat chronic stress, which often presents with multiple and wide-ranging symptoms. Stress management, nutrition, lifestyle modification, health optimization, and supplements are used by Functional Medicine providers to focus on the root cause of many symptoms and diseases. Medications should be reserved as last-resort treatment options.

Being aware of your own level of stress, resiliency, nutritional status, activity level, and lifestyle is critical when facing all health challenges. Often, making adjustments in lifestyle/diet/activity and managing stress can be all that’s needed to make a meaningful improvement in HPA Axis Dysfunction symptoms and risk factors.


Untreated chronic stress increases your risk of experiencing all kinds of negative conditions, from heart problems to weight gain. If you feel “off” but are told that “everything is normal,” using a functional medicine approach to hormone balance may be able to direct you to optimal health and well-being. For more information, or to have a DUTCH test, call for an appointment at Wisconsin Vein Center and Medispa today.

Owner / On-Site Medical Director at Wisconsin Vein Center & MediSpa | Website

Dr. Deborah Manjoney is a board-certified surgeon and physician with extensive training, including cardiothoracic surgery. She founded the Wisconsin Vein Center & MediSpa in 2002, where she specializes in vein treatments and minimally invasive aesthetic procedures. Dr. Manjoney is nationally recognized, having spoken at conferences, received awards, and contributed to medical publications.