How Stress Affects Your Hormones


    Hormonal imbalances are increasingly common, especially amongst women. They affect us in ways both known and unknown, and are directly impacted by our diet and lifestyle choices.

    When we think of stress, we often think of anxiety, irritability, insomnia and other symptoms  easily related to feeling over-stressed. What we often don’t think of are weight gain or weight loss resistance (the inability to lose weight), depression, cardiovascular disease, infertility and female hormone imbalances, thyroid dysfunction, PMS and osteoporosis.

    The Science Behind Stress and Hormones

     In order to understand the intricate connection between stress and hormones, it helps to understand a bit about the science behind it. The HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) is “a complex set of direct influences and feedback interactions among the endocrine glands: the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland (a pea-shaped structure below the hypothalamus), and the adrenal…glands (small…organs on top of the kidneys).[1] The HPA axis is responsible for our fight or flight response, which can also be thought of as our natural stress response.

     The axis that works in conjunction with the HPA axis to control reproduction hormones is called the HPG axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis), which “refers to the effects of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and gonads as if these individual endocrine glands were a single entity as a whole”[2] The HPG axis is responsible for reproduction and development (puberty and aging).

     These two axis work largely together. For purposes of understanding how stress affects our hormones, we must look closely at the hormone cortisol which has a huge amount of effects on the body, including blood sugar levels, metabolism, immune health.

    Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, bestselling author of the The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body, explains that “cortisol inhibits the HPG Axis at every point…it suppresses ovary function, reducing estrogen and progesterone secretion. This is because, if you are running away from a lion, reproduction is just not a priority. The body takes those resources and uses them for immediate survival.”[3]

    So, when are chronically stressed, sex hormones are likely decreased. Fascinatingly, a phenomenon occurs when the body actually converts progesterone to cortisol in order to meet the bodies higher needs for this stress hormone.

    What Role Do Hormones Have?

     Hormones play key roles in many bodily functions, but here are a few of the most important:

    • Metabolism of minerals
    • Reproduction
    • Sexual function and libido
    • Stress reaction and response
    • Fluid regulation
    • Sleep quality and duration

    One scientific study in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism concluded that living in chronically stressful conditions (much like our modern-day society), can lead to changes in serum levels of many hormones and lead to endocrine disorders such as Graves’ disease (autoimmune hyperthyroid), gonadal dysfunction and obesity.[4] Another 20011 study found that stress is an indicator in chronic pain.[5]

    What Can I Do To Manage Stress?

     There’s no one easy answer to this question, and it will look different for every individual. First of all, I recommend considering the many factors that are involved in stress (some commonly understood, others not), and then deciding which we have the power to change.

     3 Types Of Stress:

     1.Mental and Emotional Stressors

    These are the types we most often think of, and could be a wide range of factors such as a birth or death, wedding, a dysfunctional relationship, work-stress that causes insomnia or anxiety, etc.

    2.Physical Stressors

    These factors could include a recent or past surgery or injury, or over-exercise. Read more here about common physical stressors than inhibit weight loss.

    3.Toxic Stressors

    This category involves the toxins our bodies are exposed to on a daily basis, including those found in foods, beverages, the environment (air and water), and personal hygiene and home care products. A safe and effective detox plan can be a great way to support detoxification pathways and clear toxins.

    The key to managing stress is taking a realistic look at what you can and cannot change. Perhaps this is saying no to more social events, asking your partner or other friends or family for more help, seeing if you can cut down on work hours or responsibilities (if you can afford a pay-cut, your health is worth it), or carving out 30 minutes several times per week for exercise and/or deep breathing and meditation.

    Another major factor that is often easier to control is our diet. The act of cutting out inflammatory, processed foods and replacing them with organic, whole foods in the form of vegetables, fruit, high quality meat, fish and eggs, and whole grains can seriously decrease stress in and of itself.

     Remember: inflammation=stress.

     Here Are Ten Foods You Can Start With For Decreasing Dietary Stress:

    •  Swiss Chard: Loaded with magnesium, which is an “anti-stress” nutrient that allows our muscles and nerves to relax.
    •  Wild Caught Salmon: chalked full of omega 3 fatty acids which can combat mood swings, depression, and improve cognitive performance.
    • Avocado: High in potassium, which helps, protect the normal function of muscle and nerve activity.
    • Dark Green Vegetables: High in magnesium and molybdenum, a mineral that helps regulate breathing and heartbeat.
    • Nutritional Yeast: Sprinkle on salads or any other dish, high in B Vitamins which are essential for nervousness, heart palpitations, and depression.
    • Crimini and Shitake Mushrooms: Rich in pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5) which improves your ability to respond to stress by supporting your adrenal glands.
    • Papaya: High in Vitamin C which helps protect cells from free radical damage and helps prevent colds and infections.
    • Grass-Fed Beef: High in B-Vitamins and mood-stabilizing nutrients zinc and iron.
    • Berries: High in anti-oxidants, which protect against free radicals and high in Vitamin C.
    • Chicken Breast: High in tryptophan, an amino acid that can help with sleep and elevating mood.

     AVOID: sugar, caffeine, refined carbohydrates (think bread and pasta), which can further stress your adrenal glands, which produce our stress hormones!

    1. [1]–pituitary–adrenal_axis. Retrieved February 18, 2016.
    2. [2]–pituitary–gonadal_axis. Retrieved February 18, 2016.
    3. [3] Retrieved February 18, 2016.
    4. [4] Retrieved February 18, 2016.
    5. [5] Retrieved February 19, 2016.
    • Rachel Fiske started Madrona Wellness Holistic Nutrition in 2010, after discovering her passion for healing and preventing illness through a real, whole foods diet and lifestyle. This passion now encompasses working with her clients to find the underlying cause of symptoms, and achieving optimal health in the short and long term.Rachel specializes in the following conditions: digestive issues, food allergies/sensitivities, blood sugar regulation, detox, fatigue, insomnia, hormonal imbalances, depression, stress, weight loss, and more. She wants her clients to understand the importance of starting with whole foods, and then proceeding to herbs and supplementation when necessary.


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