What’s the link between stress and hormone imbalance? When in a stressful situation, the body releases cortisol and other stress hormones as part of its ‘fight or flight’ mode (also known as the ‘adrenal response’ or ‘stress response’).
In this ‘fight or flight’ state, we may experience increased blood flow, a faster heart beat, dilated pupils and increased sweating. Under intense or prolonged stress, the body can also shut down the gastrointestinal and reproductive systems, as it does not need these in survival mode – this may explain why some people tend to eat very little when they are stressed, as metabolism slows down for energy conservation. Stress management is often recommended for couples who are trying to conceive as from an evolutionary point of view, the body senses pregnancy would take up too much resource if survival is a priority.
Dr Ghazala Aziz-Scott, hormone specialist at The Marion Gluck Clinic, explains, “Each hormone in the body has an optimal level in order to maintain hormonal balance. When there is a rise in cortisol as a result of high amounts of stress, other hormones such as thyroid stimulating hormone, insulin, and sex hormones may deplete. This can trigger a range of physical and mental health issues. While raised cortisol does no harm to the body in the short term, prolonged or high levels of stress can lead to hormone imbalance which can in turn lead to other conditions. The good news is that this can be addressed with a combination of BHRT and positive lifestyle changes to re-establish balance and create harmony within the body.”
How Does Stress Disrupt Our Hormones?
Hormones are important for every bodily function. They are the chemical messengers that coordinate the many different metabolic processes that take place in the body throughout the day, and they exist within a delicate balance.
When you get stressed, the hormone that increases as a result is cortisol. Cortisol is our survival hormone and it takes precedence over all the other hormones in stressful situations. When cortisol undergoes an abnormal increase through extreme stress, all other bodily processes are compromised. The body goes into fight or flight mode, which means that all of its energy goes into supporting cortisol, while all other hormones are put on the backburner.
We sometimes recommend a Dried Urine Test for Comprehensive Hormones (DUTCH) test for patients. This measures hormones and hormone metabolites, and gives us a detailed insight into hormone balance and metabolism within the body. The DUTCH test can reveal patterns of cortisol levels in the body. Too much cortisol can cause the body to produce much less progesterone in the second half of the menstrual cycle, and as a result can cause estrogen dominance. The combination of less progesterone and more estrogen can impact mood, as progesterone acts as a natural antidepressant. This can also impact fertility as progesterone stabilises the uterine lining for implantation of an embyro if fertilisation has occurred. Imbalances in cortisol metabolism also lead to adrenal fatigue or burnout.
5 Steps To Reduce Stress For Hormone Balance
1. Follow An Anti-inflammatory Diet
An anti-inflammatory diet consists of unprocessed fresh food, good lean protein, good fats such as avocados, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil and oily fish. Whole grains and legumes are important for gut health and fiber and a wide variety of rainbow-coloured fruit and vegetables provide antioxidants and phytonutrients. Eat organic as much as possible to reduce consumption of pesticides and toxins which act as endocrine disruptors and affect hormone balance.
A mediterranean style diet is a good example of this and focuses on the nutrients required to support hormone balance: for the health of the thyroid gland, consume foods that are rich in iron, vitamin D, zinc, selenium and iodine; to manage insulin, reduce levels of refined carbohydrates and sugars, and increase protein; to promote balanced sex hormones, increase intake of vitamin D, zinc, B complex vitamins and magnesium.
Foods that can support general hormone balance include flaxseed and phytoestrogenic foods like soya. It is also important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, as well as herbal teas, such as tulsi tea, which soothes the nervous system.
2. Spend Time In Nature
It is important to get outdoors every day to spend time in the sunshine and engage in gentle exercise. This can help to boost your mood and regulate your sleep. According to a recent study, just 20 minutes spent in nature each day will lower stress hormone levels. This 20 minutes could be spent taking a walk, a light jog, or other non-strenuous activity.
Intense cardiovascular exercise can actually increase cortisol levels. Therefore, if you feel very stressed, replace strenuous exercise with lighter workouts that engage your parasympathetic nervous system or ‘rest and digest mode’, such as gentle stretching, tai chi and yoga.
3. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Try to achieve seven to eight hours of undisturbed sleep per night. This is because sleep is very important for detoxification via the glymphatic system, so a full night’s sleep will provide your body with the best chance to complete this hoovering process for optimal health. A study found that cortisol levels significantly increase as soon as the next evening following partially or totally deprived sleep, and suggested that ‘sleep loss could thus affect the resiliency of the stress response’.
In addition to achieving an adequate amount of sleep each night, you can avoid blue light by removing phones and laptops from the bedroom in order to reduce disruption to your circadian rhythm (your body clock), and expose yourself to direct natural light first thing in the morning to increase melatonin production, encouraging a better night’s sleep the following night.
Here are 10 tips for better sleep.
4. Set Boundaries
It’s important to achieve a good work/life balance and practice self care. You cannot give from an empty cup. Inspite of our culture of long working hours, set boundaries to say ‘no’ to extra work that is outside of your capacity, or responsibilities outside of work that might drain your energy. Remember that you cannot be everything to everyone!
5. Improve Your Social Contact And Find Your Purpose
Sharing thoughts and emotions with friends, family, colleagues and even neighbours is important for building strong relationships and networks, which in turn contributes to better mental health and possibly lower stress levels (as the well-known saying goes, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’). According to a 2014 study, ‘People in neighbourhoods with higher levels of social cohesion experience lower rates of mental health problems than those in neighbourhoods with lower cohesion, independent of how deprived or affluent a neighbourhood is’.
Secondly, finding one’s purpose and having defined goals provides joy and contributes to better mental health. When we are engaging in something that we enjoy, whether it is a hobby or a career, this helps to reduce stress by increasing the ‘happy hormones’ dopamine and serotonin.
Book An Appointment With A Hormone Specialist
If high stress levels are wreaking havoc with your hormones, you may wish to speak with a knowledgeable and experienced hormone specialist to help you feel yourself again. Our team of friendly consultants are on hand to provide you with the best hormone advice and treatment plans available. Book a consultation online today to begin your hormone balancing journey.