COVID19 stress and endocrine health

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BY: Rayees Nabi

Chronic stress is a time global pandemic and can lead to increased cortisol hormone levels. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, at present most of us are experiencing heightened level of worry and anxiety. The need for quarantine financial worries, collective grief, and fear of the unknown can all lead us to nail biting and sleepless nights.

Feeling stress right now is inevitable, but we can also mitigate its effects on our minds and bodies. Hormones regulate and control the human body. One of the most important hormone is CORTISOL. It is also nicknamed the ‘stress hormone’.

Cortisol regulates blood sugar, blood pressure, water balance, inflammation, metabolism and memory creation. Today, our cortisol levels go up and down, usually lowering at night before we sleep. When we are stressed, cortisol is released as a way of adapting and responding to that stress, but too much cortisol in the blood, on the other hand is a huge problem.

There is no doubt that we all are experiencing some level of stress as we watch COVID19 having forced some major changes in our everyday lives. This stress response is especially strong for people who have been through trauma or are genetically susceptible to overactive stress responses. Long-term chronic stress can flood your body with cortisol, leading to anxiety, heart problems, gut health issues, weight gain, depression, lowered immunity.

As many of us already live with endocrine disorders and are working at home or trying to take care of a family during quarantine, it is extra important to care for yourself during this worst time. Be aware of your stress level even though you know you’re stressed out, you may not even realize that you are experiencing cortisol overload or that it is affecting your body. This can be especially problematic when you are already living with endocrine issues that can be made worse by an increase in stress hormones.

According to WHO, it is important to be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. If you’re worried or anxious, it is totally genuine to admit it. Psychologists suggest some stress-reduction techniques that have an immediate effect on growing stress and its long-term effect — such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga and journaling. Stress management meditation is about self-meditation, but it actually supports the endocrine system according to a recent study. Another recent study found that mindful meditation can help manage hormones and boost well-being.

Deep diaphragmatic breathing is another helpful cortisol reducing technique. According to a recent study, breathing deep into your abdomen as against shallow, normal breathing induces a reduction in cortisol level. Breathe out through your mouth or your nose. Be mindful of your feelings as you breathe deeply. You should feel relaxed as you do this for several minutes. Imagine as you breathe that you are in peace and calm, and breathing out stress. This will signal to your body that you are nurturing and relaxing, this will reduce your cortisol level.

During your time in quarantine, it may be wise to start implementing some lifestyle changes. The good news is that these sort of changes will probably stick if you are diligent with them, offering benefits for the reduction of stress levels. Nowadays, recommendable tips are like using bedroom only for sleeping, not a working space, stop scrolling social media on bed, go into bed early, go for some exercise during the day and the most important thing is to spent your time with your parents and other family members.

Covid19 stress has also lasting impacts on sperm and future offsprings. Prolonged fear and anxiety brought on by major stressors like the coronavirus pandemic, can not only take a toll on person’s mental health but may also have a lasting impact on a men’s sperm composition that could affect his future offsprings. The effects of paternal stress can be transferred to offspring through changes in the extracellular vesicles that then interact with maturing sperm.

Extracellular vesicles are small membrane bound particles that transport proteins, lipids and nucleic acids between cells. They are produced in large amounts in the reproductive tract and play an integral role in sperm maturation.

Reducing the stress is beneficial, especially now when our stress levels are chronically elevated and will remain so for the next few months. Anxiety about the risk of Covid19 can also hyperactivate the fear centre in the brain called Amygdala. In terms of evolution this is the one of the oldest part in the brain and its operations are quite primitive. It acts like a trigger happy alarm that interfaces with the stress system to keep our body and mind on high alert for as long as we are feeling anxious. Research shows that the mere suggestions of danger, even if it never is experienced is enough to trigger the amygdala and activate the stress response.  This is what keeps people awake at night, lying in bed worrying about Covid19 . The problem is that choronic activation during stress could damage our cells and upset our body’s functions.

Our immune system bears the burnt. Although psychological stress is not pathogenic per se, the damage it causes to the body’s cells triggers an immune response that makes us more susceptible to a foreign pathogen. This may increase our risk for infection with SARS-Cov-2, the corona virus that causes Covid19.

The body’s cells have a motif (a self motif) that’s different from the “non-self” motif of foreign cells and pathogens like SARS-Cov-2 . This non-self motif is known as pathogen associated molecular pattern (PAMP). Another type of motif is the damaged self-motif known as damage associated molecular pattern or (DAMP). This motif is expressed by damaged or dying cells that no longer serve the body. Stress damages the body cells, transfiguring self-motif into damaged self-motifs.

Since this increasing threat of life caused by pandemic Covid19 is real, the need of the time is to take no stress but instead follow the proper guidelines of WHO and other precautionary measures issued by other health organisations. It will help us to combat this deadly virus. Doing physical exercise on regular basis will increase our immunity level and will help us to survive this pandemic. Since vaccine is not available at present, but we shall still survive by keeping our stress levels reduced on daily basis by doing regular physical exertion. I think the best way to fight this pandemic is to live free from stress, anxiety and depression.

  • Author is M.Sc Zoology and writes on current issues. He can be reached at [email protected])

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