Is Stress To Blame For Your Crazy Hormones?
Hormone imbalances such as estrogen dominance, low progesterone, high androgens, and thyroid issues can be some of the most common and frustrating issues to plague women.
I dealt with it myself a few years ago when I quit birth control. I felt like a stranger in my body. My hormones were going crazy trying to regulate after all those years on the Nuva ring and I was left dealing with painful, heavy and irregular periods, weight gain, mood swings, and acne.
While it might be common for young women to deal with hormone imbalances, it’s not normal and shouldn’t be something you have to suffer through.
When I help my clients work through their own hormone driven symptoms, we always come back to one big driver.
IS YOUR STRESS WRECKING YOUR HORMONES?
I think we all know by now that stress is not good. It can increase our risk for heart attack, stroke, and so much more. But did you ever think about how stress might be affecting your hormones?
Our endocrine system includes over 100 different hormones that all transfer information from cell to cell. Basically, our hormones are messengers that help communicate messages to the body.
You could think of the endocrine system as an orchestra. Everything needs to be working together in harmony to create beautiful music. When one musician is off - boy do you know it! All of a sudden the music doesn’t sound so good and now the violinist is thrown off, oh and is that the tuba playing when it’s not supposed to?! Yea, it’s like that for our hormones too.
THE ENDOCRINE CASCADE
Now that you understand how delicate the endocrine system is, let’s talk about the endocrine cascade. Think of this as a waterfall or a domino effect. Once the burden at the top becomes too much it affects everything downstream.
It goes a little something like this:
So if your blood sugar is dysregulated, it’s going to lead to adrenal dysfunction, then pituitary issues, then thyroid issues, then sex hormone issues. Like I said, it’s a domino effect that starts at the top with blood sugar.
You might be wondering why I’m talking so much about blood sugar. “Isn’t this article about stress and hormones? What does that have to do with blood sugar?” Blood sugar has EVERYTHING to do with stress and hormones.
Our blood sugar regulation is actually a very hormonal balance as well, as it’s primarily regulated by the hormones insulin and glucagon. If there is a blood sugar emergency, meaning it’s gotten too low or is too high, cortisol will come in as the back up to get things back in balance.
This is ok if it happens every once in a while, however, when this starts to be a daily occurrence from under eating, skipping meals, eating too many refined carbohydrates, lacking fat and protein, etc., we begin to see a chronic output of cortisol. Once we reach this point, we will start to see that cascade go to the second level, adrenals.
CORTISOL AND YOUR HORMONES
We have two adrenal glands, one that sits on top of each of our kidneys. They secrete the hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and nor-epinephrine, mostly in response to emergencies. In primitive times, this would have happened on occasion, such as when you needed to run from a predator or when you were healing some kind of wound or infection.
However, in modern society, most of us are dealing with a chronic output of cortisol from daily stressers. This chronic output of cortisol presents a series of potential health problems for us, but we’re going to focus on how this directly affects our sex hormones.
Cortisol is produced preferentially over any other hormone, including the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, as well as our thyroid hormones.
So. if your body is in a stressed state all the time, your body will shuttle nutrients to support cortisol, meaning they won’t be available for other hormonal pathways. One way we see this happen is with what’s referred to as the pregnenolone steal.
Pregnenolone is a precursor to our adrenal and sex hormones. So when we need to make more cortisol, this pregnenolone is “stolen” from production of things like estrogen and progesterone and is used to make more cortisol instead. Your body will deprioritize production of these hormones and anything that’s deemed unnecessary for survival.
Having a baby? Not necessary for survival and definitely not a good idea when your body knows you’re stressed. Even if you aren’t trying to get pregnant, your fertility is a huge indicator of your overall health, especially the health of your hormones. Meaning, they’re going to suffer at the expense of making more cortisol.
WHAT DOES OUR BODY CONSIDER STRESS AND HOW DO WE FIX IT?
Stress includes the obvious things, such as stress from your job or stress from a fight with your friend. But it is important to note that it goes beyond the obvious stressers too.
Blood Sugar Dysregulation
Blood sugar is a major contributor to our stress response. If you’re consistently not eating enough, skipping meals or waiting too long to eat, eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates (think pasta, bread, baked goods, candy, soda, crackers, etc.) and low in protein and fat, you’re going to consistently have a blood sugar emergency. This could mean having a cortisol related stress response to the spikes and dips in your blood sugar several times a day, every time you eat (or don’t eat).
The longer this blood sugar roller coaster continues, the bigger the impact it’s going to have on your adrenals, your thyroid, and your hormones. This is the most common stresser I see with my clients, and with people in my daily life.
THE SOLUTION: You can do this by incorporating more protein and fat into your diet. Choose high-quality animal proteins such as grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken and poultry, pork, eggs, grass-fed butter or ghee, and wild caught seafood. Avocado and avocado oil, olive oil, coconuts and coconut oil, sustainably sourced palm oil, nuts, and seeds are all good fats to include too.
It’s also important to make sure you’re eating enough food and not skipping or delaying meals too long. Ladies, restricting your calories to anything less than 1,800 calories a day is doing you no favors for your hormones.
Finally, it’s important to limit your consumption of refined sugars and carbohydrates like breads, pastas, and any other white flour or white sugar based food like crackers, cakes, pies, cookies, desserts, etc. Instead choose whole food sources of carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, plantains, fruits, vegetables, and sprouted organic gluten-free grains such as rice and oats.
Yes, exercise is a stress on the body. For the most part, this is a good stress. Exercise challenges our body and our muscles in order to make them stronger. But it can sometimes be too much of a stress for the body if we’re doing it too frequently, not recovering properly, underfueling for our workouts, or pushing ourselves too far.
THE SOLUTION: Be honest with yourself. How does your exercise routine make you feel? Have you lost interest? Do you feel completely wiped out after workouts and take days to recover? Are you dealing with a lot of other stress in your life right now? If you answered yes to any of these, it’s time to cool it on the intense exercise.
This might look like just going for walks or doing gentle yoga. Or maybe you can handle 2-3 days a week of CrossFit but not the 5-6 you were going. Play with it a little and find that sweet spot, but definitely consider cutting back or choosing a more gentle form. It doesn’t have to be forever! But it is a critical piece to healing your hormones.
This includes chemicals, preservatives, and additives in our food system, unfiltered water, cleaning products, makeup, skincare, building products, paints, heavy metals, lawn chemicals, and more. Chronic, prolonged exposure to the chemicals in these products adds up and can become a burden on the body.
THE SOLUTION: Cutting out processed foods will help both your toxic load and your blood sugar, so it’s a win-win. Choose safer cleaning products, home goods, beauty products, and skin care products. Filter your water and stop using plastic water bottles and food storage containers! They leach chemicals like BPA into your food and water.
Water Filter: The Berkey is really your best bet if you can afford it. Otherwise, a Brita filter is better than nothing.
Food Storage: Use glass or stainless steel
Don’t underestimate the effect of emotional stress on the physical body! This can be a huge one for a lot of people. This can be a lot of different things, but some examples are being in an unhappy relationship with a partner or friend, a bad job, bottling up your feelings, PTSD, trauma from childhood or other experiences, unresolved issues, insecurities, fear, feeling unsafe or stuck in a situation, and so much more.
THE SOLUTION: I’m a firm believer that EVERYONE can benefit from therapy. Seriously, lose the stigma around it and find yourself a good therapist to open up to. If you struggle with PTSD or any history of trauma, you might especially like to find a therapist that performs EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which helps you process through events that are “stuck” in your brain. I’ve done several EMDR sessions for my anxiety and found it really helpful.
Meditation, deep breathing, and EFT tapping can help us deal with emotional stress. I also recommend getting outside and getting fresh air and sunlight on your skin as much as possible. Grounding (walking barefoot in the grass/on the earth) can be really great for mental health too.
Lack of Sleep
Adequate sleep is SO important for our health. It’s where our body is able to rest and recover from all the activities of the day. When we’re stressed or dealing with adrenal/HPA axis dysfunction, it’s critical to get enough rest in order to recover.
THE SOLUTION: Aim for 8-9 hours per night. That might mean getting to bed earlier than usual or passing on the 5AM spin class sometimes. If you struggle with falling asleep, try developing a night time routine that helps you wind down such as reading a book, doing a little meditation, a night time skin care routine, etc. Stop using electronic devices 1 hour before bed. If you must use them, consider blue light blocking glasses.
To summarize, we know that stress has a domino effect on our thyroid and sex hormones. When these are imbalanced, we can experience a series of symptoms, including heavy or irregular periods, PMS, weight gain, acne, mood swings, anxiety, depression, infertility, fatigue, and more.
When we’re addressing hormone imbalances, one of the first places to look is at your stress load. We know this includes all of the things I mentioned above. If you’re dealing with period issues, thyroid issues, or other symptoms of hormone imbalances, I will always recommend you start by looking at what stress you’re under.
If you still need help and are struggling to heal, I would love the opportunity to work with you and get to the bottom of your hormone imbalance. Visit my services page to learn more about how you can become a client and book your first session today.