OUR hormones are delicate things, and various factors can cause them to become imbalanced.
These imbalances are more likely to occur in women than men and while diet, birth control and medications can disrupt hormones, stress is also a huge trigger behind hormonal imbalances.
Stress doesn’t need to be work related. It could be continually over exercising, struggling with a relationship that is draining you or packing too much into your days with very little rest time.
The hormonal imbalances caused by stress can then lead to problems such as weight gain and a loss of periods.
Here, Dr Sarah Brewer, author of CBD: The Essential Guide to Health and Wellness, explains how hormones can be disrupted by stress and the simple ways to deal with hormonal imbalances…
How does stress affect our hormones?
“During times of stress, circulating levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol increase to cause a cascade of physiological responses.”
This puts your systems on red alert and, in ancient times, helped cavemen survive by preparing them for vigorous fighting or fleeing from dangerous situations.
Nowadays however, Dr Brewer says we rarely burn off these stress responses by fighting or fleeing, so we remain primed for vigorous exercise which never comes.
“This persistently elevated state of stress can lead to numerous physical and emotional symptoms and hormone disruption.”
1. Stress and burnout
The type of stress you might feel does vary. Short term stress can last for minutes or hours; it might be a work deadline, running for the train or even watching an intense film.
Chronic stress is caused by persistently raised cortisol levels and occurs over a long period of time; it can lead to physical problems such as aches, as well as brain fog, depression, extreme fatigue and a sense of hopelessness.
If you’re suffering from burnout, which Dr Brewer says results from chronic workplace stress specifically, then you might experience feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to work as well as reduced professional efficacy.
She said: “You can become severely depressed and life may seem not worth living.
“If you think you are experiencing burnout it is essential to seek help and advice.”
2. Stress and loss of sex drive
“Stress is one of the most common causes of loss of libido, along with overwork, tiredness and lack of sleep,” says Dr Brewer.
“Normally, your adrenal glands produce around five per cent of circulating sex hormones such as DHEA, oestrogen (in women) and testosterone (in men and to a certain extent in women).
“When you are stressed, however, your adrenal glands ramp up their production of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline/epinephrine) with a corresponding reduction in their output of sex hormones; you lose the important adrenal boost to your sex drive.”
Plus, stress also lowers levels of DHEA, the master sex hormone and it increases the secretion of prolactin hormone. Prolactin is a powerful libido blocker.
Dr Brewer said: “If you can identify and reduce your causes of stress, these adverse hormone changes will reverse and your sex drive will slowly increase.”
3. Stress and your cycle
Noticed your menstrual cycle has gone AWOL? Or perhaps your periods seem lighter or heavier than usual?
Thanks to the fight or flight mode caused by ongoing stress, the female body can stop prioritising periods as it perceives it too ‘unsafe’ to produce and grow a baby.
Losing too much weight can also have the same effect. Studies have also found stress to be a cause of male infertility.
4. Stress and weight gain
Are you clinging on to stubborn belly fat that just won’t go away? Despite eating well and exercising?
Belly fat that won’t shift can often be a sign of a hormonal imbalance for both women and men.
Research has found that stress-induced cortisol secretion has been shown to increase belly fat leading to what’s known as ‘Stress Belly’.
Sorting your stressed hormones
Luckily there are ways to help your hormones. Stress-lowering techniques are vital; devote more time to yourself and more time to relaxation.
This might mean time off screens, or taking more breaks during the day to make a cup of tea or pop out for a walk.
Dr Brewer said: “Aim for a better balance between pressures you can handle and those you can’t.
“Identify what causes you stress through keeping and analysing a stress diary.”
She adds that changing how you view stressful events is also helpful: “If you believe you can deal with a stressful situation, you are likely to succeed.
“If you think you’ll fail before you even start, this usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“View challenges as an opportunity rather than a threat.
“And if you do fail, welcome the opportunity to learn from your mistakes. It’s all about taking control.”
Other ways to lower stress and get your hormones back in check include eating a healthy diet.
Dr Brewer said: “Eat a high-fibre, wholefood diet with an abundance of fruits, vegetables and salads, while decreasing your intake of sugary foods and salt.”
Vitamin C and B group vitamins are rapidly used up in the metabolic reactions associated with the fight-or-flight response, plus stress also depletes the body of calcium and magnesium.
Dr Brewer recommends a multivitamin and mineral supplement as well as a probiotic to replenish immune-boosting bacteria in the gut.
Dr Brewer says it’s wise to limit your alcohol intake and, “as the effects of caffeine mimic the stress response, have only one or two caffeinated drinks per day”.
Drink enough water too – aim for upwards of two litres a day – as dehydration will worsen stress-related symptoms of tiredness, headache and poor concentration.
Plus, take regular exercise. “A brisk walk helps to neutralise the effects of stress hormones. You will feel refreshed, less tense, and work more efficiently as a result,” explains Dr Brewer.
Another useful supplement is Rhodiola, a traditional herbal remedy that helps the body adapt to physical and emotional stress.
Dr Brewer said: “It is believed to act on the hypothalamus in the brain to reduce levels of stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) and also increases serotonin levels to improve a low mood.”
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