Overwork can kill. Or at least, cause changes in the normal functioning of the body as it reaches the point of exhaustion. This syndrome is increasingly becoming common in modern times. It has affected more than 10% of professionals in the developed world, according to estimates. Symptoms vary widely, from slight signs of anxiety at work, to even extreme exhaustion and immobility. The disorders described are the result of significant changes in the functioning of metabolism associated with hormonal imbalance. One of the hormones most linked to stress is cortisol, the natural "cortisone" of the human body.
This hormone is produced by glands located on top of the kidneys, one on each side. When we have a scare, or feel threatened or stressed, these glands secrete into the bloodstream high doses of cortisol. Among other functions, it prepares the body for fight and provides high concentrations of the immediate source of energy for muscles, glucose. It also helps regulate our metabolism and our basic daily rhythm.
Scientists have shown years ago that the concentration of cortisol in the blood increases dramatically in situations of acute stress. Moreover, in people with ongoing stress, chronic high concentrations of cortisol levels fall alarmingly low. It is the exhaustion of the stress hormone system.
Researchers at the Center for Stress Studies, University of Montreal, Canada, evaluated the possibility of using simple tests to detect the state of chronic stress and exhaustion. Thirty volunteers were valuated in the initial study, for the concentrations of several hormones, including insulin and cortisol. They correlated the measured concentration in blood and saliva, with the level of chronic stress and intensive labor.
The researchers were able to demonstrate a parallel between low cortisol levels and exhaustion. When they were observing how people with similar symptoms were routinely treated by doctors, they found that most received antidepressant medications. Paradoxically, this class of drugs typically reduces the levels of cortisol.
Scientists suggest that new studies attempt to establish clear criteria which separate laboratory depressed patients, from those with chronic stress and professional exhaustion. An accurate diagnosis can be very difficult. After all, despite the fact that the symptoms are very similar, the treatments are quite different and sometimes antagonistic.
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