How does stress affect your hormones?
When it comes to stress, many of us are now aware of how it can physically impact our bodies; from worsening IBS symptoms to interrupting our sleep patterns. When it comes to our hormones, though, we’re not always so tuned in to the effects of stress, so often symptoms such as missing periods, fluctuating blood sugar levels and poor metabolism get blamed on other issues. That’s why today I’m going to try and clear things up by examining how stress affects five well-known hormones: insulin, oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and your thyroid hormones!
Common symptoms: poor metabolism, weight-gain, fatigue, low mood
The thyroid gland plays an extremely important role in manufacturing two primary hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), which are secreted into the bloodstream to help regulate your metabolism. T4 is generally produced in greater amounts and can readily be converted into T3, the more active form. Just about every cell in your body relies on these two hormones and, when your levels of T3 and T4 do eventually drop, your pituitary gland will step in by producing what is known as the ‘thyroid stimulating hormone’, or TSH. This encourages the thyroid gland to increase its production of T3 and T4.
Stress could potentially cause problems here, though, as one of the main stress hormones, cortisol, can actively suppress your pituitary function. This means that your body might not produce enough TSH, thereby lowering your levels of T3 and T4. Unfortunately, this can mean that your metabolism slows down, making you more susceptible to symptoms such as weight-gain or fatigue. Stress may also affect how T4 is converted into T3, again making you more vulnerable to low thyroid symptoms.1
What can you do?
If you’re vulnerable to stress, and concerned about poor metabolism, it might be nice idea to take a few extra steps to support your thyroid glands. One of the key components that your thyroid utilises to produce T3 and T4 is iodine, a mineral that can be sourced from your diet in foods such as potatoes, prunes, strawberries and cranberry juice. However, one of the best sources of iodine are sea vegetables like kelp, which is why we often recommend our Sea Kelp tablets to those looking give their thyroid a bit of extra support.
Common symptoms: fatigue, heart palpitations, increased thirst, nausea, dry mouth
When you experience stress it will trigger your primordial ‘fight or flight’ reflexes, forcing your body to prioritise your short-term survival over your long-term health. In these circumstances, your body will slow down areas of your body like your digestion and reproductive system in favour of your muscles, heart and lungs. Since energy is going to be a priority here, stress hormones like cortisol will encourage your liver to release excess glucose (sugar) into your bloodstream, thus raising your blood glucose levels.
Ordinarily, when your blood glucose levels are raised, insulin will step into the picture and encourage your body to store this excess glucose. Unfortunately, though, in cases of stress, your insulin levels can be affected and, to make matters even worse, your levels of the human growth hormone can rise, which in turn will decrease your sensitivity to insulin.2
What can you do?
If you’re aware that stress can elevate your blood glucose levels and affect your sensitivity to insulin, you really need to be on top of what you’re eating and drinking as you could potentially exacerbate the issue. Try to avoid sugary, carb-heavy foods - as these will only flood your bloodstream with excess glucose - and instead focus on foods that can help to balance your blood glucose levels. Our Nutritionist Emma speaks a little bit more about this in her blog, ‘8 foods that can help to lower your blood sugar levels’. It’s also worth bearing in mind that sugary coffees, fizzy water and flavoured water can contribute towards high blood glucose levels too!
Common symptoms: low mood, low libido, irregular periods, thyroid dysfunction, oestrogen dominance
Earlier, I mentioned that when your ‘fight or flight’ reflexes are triggered, your body is naturally going to prioritise certain areas over others. Your reproductive system is one of the areas that won’t be such a focal point for your body during this time – after all, if you’re in a life or death situation, fertility isn’t going to be a top priority for you in that moment! Unfortunately, this means that stress can influence sex hormones such as progesterone.
Progesterone is pivotal when it comes to conceiving and regulating your menstrual cycle, but it also competes with cortisol, your primary stress hormone. This is because these two hormones utilise similar chemicals in their overall make-up – in fact, cortisol is actually constructed using a metabolite derived from progesterone! When you experience stress, your body will prioritise your production of cortisol over everything else, depleting your stores of progesterone. This, in turn, can easily upset your menstrual cycle and even contribute to oestrogen dominant PMS symptoms!
What can you do?
There’s a reason that, when you’re trying to conceive, the doctors advise that you avoid stress. In the case of your periods, low levels of progesterone can sometimes interfere with the regularity of your cycle and influence your menstrual symptoms. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to support your progesterone levels. Magnesium and zinc are two nutrients that spring to mind here as both can help to maintain healthy pituitary function and encourage your production of progesterone. It might also be worth considering our natural remedy for oestrogen dominant PMS symptoms, Agnus castus, which can help to gently support your progesterone levels.
Common symptoms: anxiety, breast tenderness, bloating, mood swings, sleep problems, water retention
I’ve already mentioned how cortisol can impact progesterone and how this, in turn, can raise your oestrogen levels. This isn’t the only way that stress can elevate your oestrogen levels, though! Cortisol can also take its toll on your liver as well as other areas of your body, which in turn can cause problems when it comes to your levels of oestrogen.
As you may already know, your liver is very important when it comes to processing and filtering any excess oestrogen circulating in your body; however, if your body is reacting to a stress response your liver might not be able to perform this function as efficiently. Instead, this organ will come under quite a bit of pressure – stress, for example, can decrease the flow of blood to the liver and increase inflammation in this area. This means that, in addition to flagging levels of progesterone, excess oestrogen won’t be getting properly filtered and will instead accumulate in your body.
What can you do?
When I spoke about low progesterone levels, I mentioned Agnus castus, our PMS remedy which can be very good at helping to balance oestrogen dominance. I would still bear this in mind here but, if you want to take an extra step, you could consider supporting your liver during this tough time. Milk Thistle is usually our go-to remedy here as it contains a combination of herbs such as milk thistle, artichoke, boldo and dandelion to help support healthy liver function and helps to protect it from further harm.
Common symptoms: low libido, fatigue, low mood, sleep problems
Testosterone is typically perceived as a ‘male hormone’ but women also have low levels of testosterone too, which help to regulate their libido, enhance their cognitive function and support healthy bones. According to recent research, though, the stress hormone cortisol could actively compete with testosterone, or even work against it!3
This makes sense when you think about it logically, though; testosterone can encourage behaviours that could potentially be counterproductive in a survival situation, such as aggression or increased sex drive. In the short term, stress shouldn’t affect your testosterone levels too much but, if your levels of cortisol are persistently elevated, it could impact your testosterone levels, giving rise to low testosterone symptoms such as fatigue or lack of libido.
What can you do?
When it comes to low testosterone symptoms, diet and lifestyle are incredibly important. For example, low levels of zinc can cause a dip in testosterone levels so you really want to make sure that you’re getting enough of this nutrient. Exercise can also help to improve your mood, enhance your muscle strength and combat stress symptoms so this could be a good step to consider too! If you want more information about low testosterone and men’s health, our Men’s Health Expert, Dr Jen Tan, has written a blog, ‘Can lack of testosterone make you tired?’ which might offer further help and advice.
What else can you do to prevent stress from impacting your hormones?
So far, I’ve spoken about how you can go about supporting your hormones during times of stress but, ideally, the best thing you can do would be to tackle your stress levels directly. This is often easier said than done, though, and sometimes there is no easy resolution to the cause of all your stress and anxiety. However, by implementing healthier lifestyle and diet choices, you can improve your ability to cope with stress in general. Here are a few of my top tips below!
- Eat fresh: include as many fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet as possible!
- Don’t dehydrate: make sure you’re drinking between 1.5-2 litres of water every day!
- Get outdoors: get plenty of natural sunshine - this can go a long way to improving your mood and regulating your sleep!
- Stretch your legs: get at least 20-30 minutes of gentle exercise a day!
- Sleep your worries away:S establish a healthy sleep pattern and get plenty of high-quality rest!
- Try mindful meditation: Helps to encourage proper breathing techniques and a mindful approach to worrying thoughts!
- Don’t be afraid to say no: If you’re getting bogged down under a myriad of jobs and tasks, don’t be afraid to refuse extra responsibilities!
- Talk to someone: whether it’s a friend, family member or colleague, don’t keep things bottled up!
These tips are all pretty good guidelines for helping to change your approach to stress and enabling you to cope better with emotional turmoil but, if you still feel you need a helping hand, you could try our gentle stress remedy AvenaCalm, which can help to gradually relax your nervous system, helping you to feel calm under pressure.