Updated: Oct 4
When our lifestyles are out of balance our hormones are out of balance. The connection is that straightforward and also, much more complicated all at once.
When we think of stress, we often think of emotional stress. Things that create fear, overwhelm and anxiety. That feeling of urgency and "not enough time". But this is only one type of stress.
Our bodies can be under stress due to nutrient deficiencies, toxic overload (from food, water, medications, alcohol, estrogen disruptors in our beauty products, etc), over exercising, social isolation or being over scheduled. We can also experience stress from things that are considered positive like a job we love that requires a lot of time and mental energy, is physically demanding, or leaves us sitting too much, from travel, from big events like weddings, moving, childbirth.
The reality is that we all experience stress every day. What determines is we are in balance and protecting our hormones as we navigate life's stress isn't so much what happening AROUND US, but how we respond to it, what it feels like WITHIN US. We have little control over the first and much more control over the second.
Let's explore the complex relationship between chronic stress and hormonal balance, shedding light on the science behind these interactions:
The Basics of Hormone Health:
Hormones are chemical messengers that regulate numerous bodily functions, not just our periods and fertility. These include metabolism, growth, immune response, and reproduction, as well as sleep, weight loss and even mood. Maintaining hormonal balance is crucial for optimal health, as even minor imbalances can lead to a range of symptoms including:
Unwanted weight changes
Anxiety / depression
Acne & other skin conditions
Autoimmune and other chronic health conditions
Common hormonal imbalances include disruptions in cortisol, thyroid hormones, and insulin which then lead to imbalances in our sex hormones.
Unveiling the Stress Response:
The body's stress response, which you might know as "fight or flight," is a survival mechanism that dates back to our evolutionary past. When faced with a perceived threat (the word perceived is actually really important here), the adrenal glands release cortisol, a stress hormone, to prepare the body for immediate action. While this response can be life-saving in acute situations, chronic stress can lead to an overactive stress response and sustained elevated cortisol levels. Most "stressful" situations today are not immediate life or death situations. They are a series of choices and responses. ow we perceive, a situation is a big factor in how it impacts our body's stress response. Two people can respond very differently to a situation based on past experiences, unresolved trauma and stress resilience or tolerance. In today's world, many of us have lost the ability to move in and out of the body's stress response. We are stuck in sympathetic nervous system unable to access our parasympathetic system. We should be able to bounce back and forth between the two as needed but years of chronic stress and loss of access to nervous system regulation tools has robbed us of this built in rhythm.
The Complex Interplay: Stress and Hormones:
Chronic stress takes a toll on hormonal balance through a multifaceted interplay. Elevated cortisol levels, a hallmark of chronic stress, can disrupt the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, the body's central stress response system. This disruption can lead to a cascade of effects, including reduced production of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone. This is the root cause of most hormonal imbalances or at the very least, a major contributing factor. You can't regulate your sex hormones for a healthy trip through perimenopause and menopause with a dysregulated stress response.
Chronic stress also impacts thyroid function. The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Thyroid (HPT) axis regulates thyroid hormone production. Prolonged stress can suppress the HPT axis, leading to decreased thyroid hormone levels and potentially causing symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and mood disturbances.
Stress, Hormones, and Specific Health Concerns:
There is so much cross-over because everything in the body is connected. No one system operates completely independently from another. So when women come to me with symptoms like:
Unexplained weight gain
Weight loss resistance
Unwanted hair growth
Pain and inflammation
Stress is usually part of the problem because of how it impacts adrenals, thyroid, and gut microbiome.
Stress-related weight gain is often the result of cortisol's role in promoting abdominal fat storage and disrupting insulin sensitivity, leading to metabolic disturbances.
Quality sleep is vital for hormonal regulation, but chronic stress can disrupt sleep patterns. The disruption of circadian rhythms affects melatonin production, a hormone crucial for sleep.
Chronic stress is also associated with mood disorders like anxiety and depression, which involve imbalances in neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
When it comes to our hormones, we can say there is somewhat of a hormone hierarchy. Our sex hormones get all the attention, but it's really the lesser known hormones like oxytocin, cortisol and insulin that are the start of the problem and trickle down to impact our sex hormones. Restoring balance is a top down job and can't be achieved by sampling adding in more progesterone or estrogen. That might soothe some of your symptoms caused the imbalance of the sex hormones, but the healing won't travel up tot he top and help regulate cortisol, which means it's really only a band aid on a much bigger problem.
Strategies for Managing Stress and Promoting Hormonal Health:
Managing stress is essential for restoring and maintaining hormonal balance. Incorporating mindfulness techniques, deep breathing, and relaxation exercises can help regulate the stress response. These are small activities that can be performed in relatively short amounts of time. But when practiced consistently, they have a powerful impact on our hormonal health. Regular exercise plays a dual role by reducing stress and promoting the release of endorphins, the body's natural mood enhancers. The key is to work with your body's cycles and avoid over-training.
Dietary choices also impact hormonal health under stress. Consuming nutrient-rich foods supports adrenal function, while adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha and rhodiola can aid in stress management. Taking in adequate cruciferous veggies is essential to proper break down of estrogen so it can be flushed out of the body to avoid estrogen dominance. Naturopathic approaches such as herbal supplements and holistic therapies like acupuncture complement lifestyle changes for comprehensive stress reduction. But they can't work in the absence of nutrition and lifestyle shifts.
Case Studies: Real-Life Examples:
Liz, a 44-year-old woman, experienced multiple auto-immune diagnosis , fatigue and unexplained weight gain as well as difficulty sleeping. After a comprehensive health history, including assessing liver and gut health as well as cortisol testing, we identified chronic stress as a contributing factor along with leaky gut. Through a personalized plan involving stress-reduction techniques, dietary changes, and herbal supplements, Liz's hormonal balance gradually improved, leading to a significant reduction in her daily pain and inflammation levels, improved sleep and mood, an increase in her energy and abdominal weight loss. Over the course of six months, she also started sleeping through the night again and reversed the need for 2 medications for her auto-immune conditions.
Case Study: Real Life Example:
Kim, a 28 year old woman, was struggling with weight loss resistance after a 30lb weight gain. Dieting and exercise would not move the needle even a single pound. After a comprehensive health history and symptom evaluation, we discovered that Kim's weight gain began shortly after stopping hormonal birth control. The more she dieted and tried to increase her exercise intensity, the worse the weight loss resistance became. By supporting Kim's detoxification pathways, healing her gut lining, and reintroducing more foods and calories back into her daily routine, Kim saw a weight loss of over 10lbs in 6 weeks.
"I love the food I'm eating and my husband does too. I don't feel deprived or restricted. I have so much more energy an no longer need an afternoon nap or multiple snacks to get through the day. I feel really good about myself and the path I'm on with my health for the first time in 2 years."
The intricate relationship between chronic stress and hormonal health highlights the need for proactive stress management tools and resources to help women navigate the perimenopause and menopause experiences. While this is a lot of science, understanding the key role that our stress response plays in our hormonal health empowers us to make informed choices that promote overall well-being and make the perimenopause journey a much more enjoyable and vibrant time in our lives.
This may seem complicated, but it doesn't have to be. I work with my clients to create simple routines that they can build into their lifestyle to achieve hormonal healing with out adding to the stress or busyness of their day. When we optimize their daily routines, we make consistency possible without the need for deprivation and discipline.
Wondering, how do you manage your stress or regulate your nervous system when life is just crazy right now? Feel like you try to eat healthy, but it's so confusing. Wish you had simple recipes, ideas and inspiration in the kitchen?
This is what the Hormone Garage course is all about. It's 5 Modules of simple to read lessons and videos, nearly a dozen meal plan options and over 50 recipes + a JUST ONE THING tip that summarizes how to apply the lessons from each module if you feel overwhelmed and can't think about adding more than one simple thing to your routine to help your hormones.
PLUS a printable workbook that walks you through setting realistic goals, taking stock of your symptoms and tracking them to identify which of these areas should be your top priority, self-assessment quizzes to figure out how each of these areas is impacting your hormones and which of the tools and resources I teach you would be the best place to start.
It's the closest thing to private coaching, without the private coaching price, so you can craft a healing plan that works for your symptoms and your lifestyle.
For further reading and guidance on stress management and hormonal health, consider exploring the following resources: