Stress is the “response of the body to any demand for change” (as defined by Hans Selye).This describes how the stress response isn’t always a health threat and in fact, stress can be an important process in growth and development. For example, exercise temporarily activates the stress systems and over time the body responds with increased strength and resilience.
However most modern day stressors are chronic stressors like financial worries during an economic uncertainty and pressure of social obligations. Chronic stress affects not only the way you feel but also significantly impacts hormone levels leading to even more symptoms and greater risk of long term health issues.
To make matters worse, many modern stressors are hard to identify: chronic inflammation from accumulation of environmental toxins, nutrient deficiencies, gut inflammation, chronic “jet lag”, night shifts, sitting at a desk for hours etc. Nonetheless, the same fight or flight systems that help us survive a lion attack are activated to protect us from these long term stressors. One important fight or flight response is the release of cortisol, or “stress hormone.” Cortisol gives us the boost of energy (to fight or flight!) while suppressing all other “not-immediately-essential” systems like reproduction. Because cortisol also acts as an anti-inflammatory, if inflammation continues, your body will keep producing more cortisol. Long term high cortisol levels affect multiple hormone systems. Eventually our bodies can’t keep up with the demand for cortisol anymore and cortisol levels can fall but the hormone imbalances can remain.
How can you tell if stress is causing hormone imbalances for you? Look out for these issues:
- Poor blood sugar control
High blood sugar: Stress can reduce insulin secretion (which is the hormone that “puts the brakes on” when blood sugar is rising) allowing a higher blood glucose rise. Many of my patients with diabetes have seen this connection between stress and higher blood glucose readings.
Low blood sugar: Lightheaded, sweaty, shaky, irritable, “hangry” 2-3 hours after eating? Do you tend to carry a granola bar at all times, just in case? Hypoglycemia often occurs when there’s a combination of chronic stress (low adrenal function) and high insulin levels (for example from excessive intake of sugar or carbohydrates). Blood sugar health is a result of more than just diet.
- Difficulty Losing Weight
Excess cortisol can shift your metabolism to storing more fat, especially in the abdominal area. It can also change appetite and increase sugar cravings while preventing our body’s ability to signal to the brain that we’re full.
- Period & Fertility Problems
Stress can negatively affect important hormones and prevent ovulation, healthy libido and healthy sperm count. High demand for cortisol can also “steal” the ingredients the body needs to make healthy progesterone levels. Over time, this can lead to premenstrual symptoms, heavy periods and difficulty conceiving.
- Hot flashes
Hot flashes are well-known menopause symptoms but they can also occur before menopause as well. In perimenopause and menopause, hormones levels from the ovaries gradually decline, relying more and more on the reproductive hormones from our adrenal glands. If chronic stress has already been taxing your adrenal glands over the years, this can be a harsher transition. Make space for and deepen your self care routine to support a smooth transition.
- Thyroid Issues
As I mentioned earlier, cortisol suppresses inflammation but over time this can be destructive to our tissues (catabolism) and our body will protect itself by slowing down our thyroid. This slows down our metabolism leading to weight gain, cold intolerance, fatigue, hair loss, indigestion, constipation and many other complications.
When you feel like the demands on you exceed your ability and resources, you experience stress. Feelings of overwhelm, worry, a racing mind, a racing heart, heaviness of the shoulders, tension in the chest or abdomen, difficulty concentrating and poor sleep are common. Chronically activating your fight or flight systems, leads to chronically high cortisol. Although cortisol is protective in the short term, over time, it can negatively impact blood sugar, weight, fertility, periods and thyroid function. If chronic stress continues you can carry a greater risk of diabetes, obesity and more severe hormone imbalances.
On the other hand, when you break the cycle of chronic stress, multiple body systems can recover and rebalance. You’ll feel calmer, more grounded and resilient. You may even welcome challenges and transitions!
Where to start? Practice gratitude daily. This can take 2 minutes before bed or as soon as you wake up. Write down 1 to 3 things you’re grateful for. No matter what has happened in your day or what you anticipate will happen next, when you express gratitude, you communicate safety and abundance to your body. This helps to wind down our stress systems and activates the restorative “rest and digest” system that can work to repair and rebalance our hormones. Your body has a huge capacity to heal.