Stress & your hormones

When discussing hormones it’s difficult to know where to begin.  We could start by looking at different disorders related to hormonal problems: for example premenstrual syndrome, menopausal problems, infertility, thyroid disorders, weight problems, depression, chronic fatigue….the list is endless. 

Or we could start by looking at different treatment options and how they work.  For example, medication or supplements. 

Yet personally, I think the best place to start is by looking at your day-to-day life and working out why your hormones aren’t behaving as best they should.  Often it is because you are simply ignoring (or avoiding) at least one of the basic rules of good health:

  • manage your stress
  • eat well
  • sleep well
  • exercise well. 

So simple to say yet actually so difficult to follow!  

Over the next few blogs I’m going to cover what really damages your hormonal cycles. Today we start with something that most of us struggle with on a day-to-day basis – stress.

Manage your stress.

I know it is easier said than done, but chronic stress wreaks havoc on your hormones and if you have a hormonal problem you really need to assess your stress levels and ability to cope with stress. 

Eating well, exercising regularly, giving yourself “time-out” and also facing what is causing stress in your life are absolutely vital to the health of your hormones. 

Stress, cortisol and the “pregnenolone steal”

The primary hormone your body releases in times of chronic stress is cortisol.  The building block for cortisol is pregnenolone, which happens to be the same building block for your sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone). 

If you have chronically high cortisol levels from stress you will not produce sufficient quantities of sex hormones and so can suffer from imbalances such as infertility, menstrual disorders, mood swings and low libido. 

Stress, cortisol and your blood sugar levels

One of the functions of cortisol is to raise your blood glucose levels. However, constantly high levels of glucose in your blood stream lead to insulin resistance and the effects of insulin resistance include fatigue, increased appetite, abdominal weight gain, and eventually Type II Diabetes Mellitus. 

Stress, cortisol and insomnia

In addition, chronically high levels of cortisol will upset your sleeping patterns.  Cortisol is released in a cyclical rhythm, peaking in the mornings at approximately 8am and then waning in the afternoons, between 3-4pm.  

This rhythm enables you to get up and function in the mornings and then relax and ‘switch off’ at the end of the day. If, however, cortisol is constantly being released into your bloodstream due to ongoing stress, then this natural rhythm and hence your sleeping rhythms become displaced.  

High levels of cortisol circulating in your blood stream in the middle of the night means you will be wide awake in the middle of the night.  And when these levels crash early in the morning you will too. 

So dealing with stress is of paramount importance to the general functioning of your hormones. 

What is important to be aware of is that chronic stress comes in many forms, not just the obvious emotional, financial, relationship, work stress that we are all so aware of – long term illness, injury, pain or inflammation are also stressors to the body, raising cortisol levels and disrupting our hormonal balance. 

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