Hormones are essential for reproductive function, as well as energy, mood, sleep, memory, bone health, and more. Chronic stress puts us at increased risk for hormone imbalance. Learn to manage your stress and support your adrenal glands for hormone health.
Stress and hormones are directly related. Our sex hormones are important not only for reproduction, but also for energy, mood, sleep, memory, weight management, and more. Chronic stress affects these hormones, contributing to hormone imbalance. By beginning to deal with the stress in our lives, we can improve our hormone health and begin to feel like ourselves again.
The physiological response to stress
During stressful events, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis controls the secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Cortisol stimulates the breakdown of stored glycogen, protein, and fat to form glucose, which provides the energy we need to handle the stressful situation. However, prolonged or repeated activation of this HPA system, as can occur during chronic stress, can result in increased risk for physical and psychiatric disorders.
According to alive Editorial Advisory Board member Lorna Vanderhaeghe, many of us are chronically stressed. “Women are under horrific pressure to be the best mom, the best cook, the best housecleaner, the best employee, the best lover. The expectation is unrealistic, and the body suffers as a result of the pressure on women to constantly perform,” she says.
We also experience unnecessary stress whenever we worry about a possible future event or relive a past trauma. The nervous system doesn’t decipher between actual and perceived events, so the stress response in the body is similar to the initial event itself.
How does stress affect our hormones?
Stress has also been linked to low fertility, problems during pregnancy, and painful and irregular menstrual periods. Over time, chronic stress and excess cortisol secretion by the adrenal glands can lead to adrenal insufficiency, with the adrenals no longer able to produce enough cortisol to cope with stress.
The adrenals are also unable to produce sufficient DHEA, the hormone that our body uses to make the sex hormones androgen and estrogen, which can cause extreme hormone fluctuations, particularly during the menopausal transition when the ovaries also slow their hormone production.
According to Vanderhaeghe, the adrenal glands are the backup hormone system after menopause, so we need to take care of them in our thirties and forties to avoid perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms.
Overexposure to cortisol and adrenal insufficiency put us at increased risk of anxiety, depression, sleep problems, impaired memory and concentration, headaches, inflammation, fatigue, bone loss, and weight gain around the middle.
In addition, cortisol and our sex hormones share the same metabolic pathway, and under times of stress our body prioritizes cortisol production over our sex hormones, leading to hormone imbalance.
Cortisol has also been found to increase our estrogen levels and impair our progesterone activity, bringing about hormone imbalance in favour of estrogen, with symptoms of belly fat, heavy periods, uterine fibroids, reproductive cysts, and breast lumps.
Knowing the effect that stress has on our hormones, we can improve our hormone health by learning to manage stress and by supporting our adrenals so that we avoid severe hormone fluctuations.
Cultivate a mindfulness practice
This can be any daily practice that allows you to slow down, stimulates the relaxation response in the body, and invites you to reframe stressful situations as challenges or opportunities rather than events that you must power through.
By being in the present moment, we avoid the stress response that occurs when we worry about the future or reflect on a negative past. Evidence shows that meditative practices reduce cognitive stress, improve endocrine balance, increase positive states of mind, and decrease oxidative stress.
Choosing a mindfulness practice
Vanderhaeghe says, “Deep breathing (in through the nose, and out through the mouth) is the fastest way to lower cortisol. And you can do it anytime.” You might also try meditation or meditative exercise such as walking in nature, yoga, tai chi, or qigong.
Diet plays a role
Consume a diet that includes plenty of mineral-rich vegetables and herbs to replenish minerals flushed from the body during stressful times. Leafy greens and sea vegetables, unrefined sea salt, and fish and seafood are excellent sources of a variety of minerals. A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables will provide the potassium necessary for adrenal function.
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, sugar, alcohol, nicotine, and refined carbohydrates, which all tax your adrenals, challenge blood sugar regulation, and increase chemical and oxidative stress.
Symptoms of hormone imbalance
Common symptoms that many of us struggle with may include
- sugar cravings
- hot flashes
- memory loss
- pelvic pain
Natural supplements for stress
Ensure this formula contains B vitamins (particularly B5) and magnesium to support the adrenals. Evidence suggests that supplementation with a high dose B-complex vitamin and mineral supplement can lead to improved ratings of stress, mental health, and mood as well as improved cognitive performance.
Adaptogens are plants that have beneficial effects on adrenal function and are used therapeutically to promote an optimal physiological response to stress.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) has been shown in studies to reduce fatigue and increase the ability to concentrate.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been found to significantly reduce experiential and biochemical indicators of stress.
There is a high turnover of antioxidants during the stress response. An antioxidant formula that includes vitamins A, C, D, and E, as well as the minerals zinc and selenium, can help replace antioxidants. Vitamin C is the brain’s most prevalent antioxidant and is essential to support the adrenals.
Tip: Consult with your natural health care practitioner to identify the most appropriate natural supplements and herbs for you.
Quick stress release tips
- Take a deep breath and tell yourself you have enough time, energy, patience, and resources.
- Rejuvenate by placing ice or heat packs on your neck and shoulders for 10 minutes.
- Focus on something in nature for two to five minutes.
- Remind yourself of what really matters.
- Play loud music and bop around your home or office.
- Express gratitude often.
- Exercise to increase endorphins, release cortisol, boost the immune system, and process your emotions.
- Connect with a friend or loved one.