Stressed out? How stress may be affecting your hormone balance and what to do about it!
Stress can be difficult to deal with, but how does it affect your hormones? Managing chronic stress is extremely important for our nervous system, hormonal balance, and long term health.
How stress impacts our hormonal health
Stress is part of life, and the body is equipped to deal with stressful events. But long term, chronic stress is very hard on the body, and can negatively affect our hormones. The hormonal system, also known as the endocrine system, is all very interconnected. Your hormones are like a symphony, playing a beautiful piece of music when all is well. But when one instrument is out of tune, it can affect the entire sound of the song. All of our different hormones are so interconnected that they can start to overcompensate for a different one that’s having a hard time. Managing stress is not just important for our mental health - it’s imperative for our hormonal health as well!
How stress works in the body
When our we process a stressful event, this signal is sent to the hypothalamus, which communicates to the rest of the body via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our autonomic nervous system controls and regulates involuntary and visceral functions and processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, electrolyte and water balance, and body temperature. Depending on our environment, the ANS activates one of its two main divisions: our parasympathetic nervous system, or our sympathetic nervous system.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is activated in times of relaxation and ordinary situations and helps the body "rest and digest". It slows the heart rate and decreases blood pressure, stimulates the digestive tract, and encourages energy from food to be used to build tissue. This is the state that we want to be in for the majority of our life.
The sympathetic nervous system is what prepares the body for "fight or flight", to fight an external stressor or to run away from it. During stress, the body contacts the adrenal glands. The adrenals are little glands that sit on top of your kidneys and are in charge of secretion of our stress hormones. During fight or flight state, it releases norepinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline) into the blood, causing a ton of physiological changes such as increase in heart rate and blood pressure, digestion is suppressed and blood is sent to the extremities to prepare for flight, pupils dilate, airways in the lungs open up and allow for more oxygen to reach the brain for increased alertness.
Usually, our body gets over this state of stress in about 30 minutes. But if the brain continues to perceive a threat, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is signaled to release cortisol, our long-term stress hormone. When we are under chronic, low level stress for long periods of time, this keeps the HPA axis activated, tiring out our adrenals glands as they are constantly secreting stress hormones.
This exhaustion of our HPA axis can manifest in different ways: inability to cope with stress, extreme fatigue, salt cravings, anxiety, mood swings, and a myriad of other non-ideal symptoms.
How it affects the rest of the system
So, how does this relate to other hormones that we commonly think of as imbalanced, such as estrogen and progesterone?
We have a “mother” hormone, pregnenolone, which is a precursor in the creation of cortisol as well as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. When the body is enduring prolonged or chronic stress, something called the "pregnenolone steal" can happen. The pathway used to produce cortisol steals pregnenolone away from the pathways synthesizing our other hormones. The increased need for cortisol leaves less pregnenolone to create other hormones that are needed to balance off estrogen. This can result in an estrogen hormone imbalance in the body, and lead to commonly known hormonal imbalance symptoms such as extreme PMS, painful periods, heavy periods, difficulty losing weight, uterine fibroids, cervical dysplasia, PCOS, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, uterine and breast cancers, and cystic breast disease. Symptoms of estrogen dominance in males appear as increased belly fat, breast development, depression, loss of muscle mass, and prostate cancer.
This is one example of the whole symphony being thrown off. Chronic stress affects the adrenals, which can affect the thyroid as well as the sex hormones being made, and our menstrual cycle as well. Have you ever experienced a missed or late period when you're particularly busy or strung out? Making babies is perceived as a low priority in comparison to basic metabolic balance and blood pressure. The body is focusing on nourishing and repair the adrenals. This can in turn encourage another vicious cycle, as when we miss a period (meaning we don't ovulate), we also miss out on creating the normal amounts of progesterone, further contributing to an estrogen excess.
Below are some of my favourite techniques to add into your daily routine to support low stress levels.
1. Exercise in the morning
When it comes to stress, the body interprets physical, emotional, and mental stress very similarly. Exercising is great for you, but when you are dealing with chronic stress and HPA axis dysfunction, you want to be sure that we aren't adding to it via high intensity exercise (speaking to my spin class, cross fit and high intensity interval people). We want to be regulating your body's natural hormone production. Ideally, your cortisol is highest in the morning (that is what wakes us up), and lowest at night. When we do high intensity exercise later on the in the day, we are messing up this natural rhythm. Stick to more intense exercise earlier on in the day, and light stretching, walks, and yoga later on into the night.
2. Eat foods high in Vitamin C and B5
These are the nutrients that feed the adrenal glands. We need to have them in our diet to create a proper stress response, and they are used up in times of stress. For B5, increase your intake of avocado, chicken, sweet potato, mushrooms, and eggs. Best sources of vitamin C are oranges, sweet red peppers, kiwis, strawberries, and broccoli.
3. Incorporate meditation into your routine
Implementing meditation is an incredible stress reliever. It also helps increase self-awareness, improves mood, increases ability to focus, and helps gain new perspective. Start with just 2 minutes per day and work your way up. Download “Calm” or “Headspace” app for guided mediations.
4. Add adaptogens into your diet
Adaptogens are herbs that help the body cope and deal with stress. They are amphoteric and bi-directional, meaning that they either stimulate or inhibit functions in the body depending on what is needed. I like “Adrenal Pro” by CanPrev for a good blend with different adaptogens and B vitamins or Orange Naturals “Stress” tincture.
5. Create a relaxing nighttime routine
Shutting off electronics, and snuggling up with some chamomile, oatflower, lemon balm, or valerian tea can make all the difference for a good nights sleep. Use essential oils on your pulse points of in a diffuser, light some candles, journal or read, and really relax before bed.
6. Take magnesium
Magnesium is one of the most common deficiencies, and its on of the most important minerals. It is used by the body when we are stressed, and supplementing with it can make a huge difference for stress and anxiety. My favourite is CanPrev’s “Magnesium Bisglycinate”. I love to take it before bed.
It is so important that we prioritize downtime for our health. Relaxing the mind is what relaxes the body. Getting outside and connecting with nature, spending time with loved ones, and learning how to prioritize managing our stress level is imperative for hormonal health.
Written by Maddie Battle
Maddie Battle is a Holistic Nutritionist based in Vancouver, BC. Maddie is the owner of Natural Balance Wellness, her private practice where she specializes in women’s health and hormone balance. She can be found on Instagram @anaturalbalance
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