What Stress is Really Doing to Your Hormones
Stress is without a doubt a major contributor to our modern day rates of infertility and menstrual disorders. It has become such a normal part of our lives we almost don’t notice it anymore and a lot of women don’t realise the extent to which it is affecting them.
Stress can impact on our gut health and nutritional status, our weight, sugar cravings, energy, sleep and immune system (just to name a few!). But it is the direct and significant affect on our hormones and therefore cycle health and fertility that is so often underestimated.
And the irony is that experiencing things such as endometriosis, irregular/painful cycles and infertility are all very stressful, in fact studies now show that 70% of women with infertility experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) regardless of whether they have a baby at the end of the experience or not.
So whether a woman is trying to conceive or not, it becomes vital that we understand stress, not only for the sake of our hormones, but for our overall health and the wholistic health of every future mother so that she can step into that role as strong and empowered as possible.
But first we need to understand what stress actually is and bust some myths about it, so we can see clearly what it is doing to our bodies and look at realistic ways to deal with it.
The 3 Types of Stress
For years I have recognised these three different types of stress in the women I see in the clinic.
1. The first type of stress is the big event. Whether it be an emergency, redundancy, a relationship breakdown etc., we recognise this easily and our bodies are designed to deal with it. The event happens and our bodies secrete the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to allow us to step up and deal with it.
Once the initial shock has passed, if we allow ourselves time to deal with it, our body mops up, our hormones get a chance to come back into balance and life goes back to a new type of normal.
2. The second type of stress is long-term low grade stress which I believe is the most damaging type because it is not as easy to recognise. This type of stress is a constant busyness and it manifests as someone who is always rushing, and thinking about all the things they need to get done.
It gets really tricky because this type of stress is addictive, it feels good (at least for a while). You are getting things done, ticking off your ‘to do’ list. You might even find that people recognise it and you are praised for it, you are the person that gets trusted with the important jobs, because everyone knows you get them done.
And if there is nothing to do, you will find something, such as googling how to Marie Kondo your life. Your brain never stops and once you are in this state it is difficult to slow down and ground. Sound familiar?
3. The third type of stress is the physical stress we place our bodies under. It happens when we burn the candle at both ends, when we don’t feed our body good nutrient rich food and still expect to perform, when we do excessive exercise, or even put things into our bodies that it has to work hard to deal with such as alcohol, allergens and inflammatory foods etc.
It is us basically putting an internal stress on our bodies because we are asking a lot of it. Our body has to use extra energy to make up for what we are asking it to deal with. And it may seem that you can get away with it for a while, when you are younger your body has an abundance of energy it can use to help counteract what you are doing to it.
But as you get older (for some as early as their 30’s) you find that you can’t keep doing this and not experience the consequences. People often say “I don’t understand why this is happening all of a sudden”. But it is not all of a sudden, you have been working on this for years, it is just that your body was covering up for you. Now it is refusing to work like this any longer and you need to listen to it and take action.
What Stress Does to Our Bodies
1. Our Hormones
Stress affects hormones that are needed for a healthy cycle, particularly progesterone which is essential for the end of your cycle time and for pregnancy. Basically the body has to choose between creating stress hormones and progesterone, but the problem is, the stress hormones always win at the expense of progesterone production.
Progesterone is essential for implantation and development of a pregnancy, for preventing PMS, stopping spotting before the period, helping mood and ensuring the cycle is not too short. Progesterone is also super important to help us navigate the peri-menopausal and menopausal years.
2. Stress and Ovulation
High amounts of stress can prevent ovulation. For some women this can manifest as a one off long cycle, a random heavy bleed or even unusual mid-cycle pain. But for others it can happen every month, in fact, it is this mechanism that can drive some forms of PCOS.
The funny thing is that when your body doesn’t ovulate due to stress, your body is essentially doing what it was designed to do. Ovulation is supposed to shut down and prevent pregnancy in times of stress so that a baby is less likely to be born into dangerous or stressful situations. Lots of women can remember a time when they were very stressed and also had a strange cycle.
But the problem isn’t just a lack of ovulation. Hormones in their normal ebb and flow will affect your cycle and well-being for the whole month so if your hormones are out of balance you can feel it’s affects, regardless of whether you are trying to get pregnant or not.
Although endometriosis is a genetic condition, it is primarily a condition of inflammation, and stress can exacerbate this inflammation and is one of a handful of conditions that affect the extent to which endometriosis and it’s effects are expressed.
Inflammation induces a response from part of the immune system called cytokines including pro-inflammatory cytokines which not only cause pain but make the body more sensitive to pain to pain as well, so it’s negative effect is two-fold.
But for women experiencing endometriosis, managing the condition and the impact it has on their lives can be stressful in itself, so it becomes vital that these women feel understood and supported, which thankfully is happening more and more with an increase in public awareness.
4. Gut Health
As we have just seen, stress can increase inflammation in the body but this can also have an affect on the gut and the good bacteria that live there. These bacteria do a massive amount of your digestive work for you, so if they are under attack, you simply won’t be absorbing all the nutrients from you food that you need for production of healthy hormones (as well as many other body functions), no matter how good your diet is. Good nutrition makes good hormones.
5. Insulin Resistance and PCOS
We talked about one form of PCOS above, but another form is an insulin resistant type. Research is showing that there is a strong link between long term low grade stress and insulin resistance.
Over time, high insulin levels in our blood stream can have a big impact on our hormones. In fact insulin resistance is a key factor in contributing to PCOS, affecting our cycles, our fertility and producing symptoms such as low mood, low libido, fatigue, brain fog and weight gain.
Ok, so we have mentioned a few times that stress can cause inflammation in the gut but what we haven’t mentioned is that this can affect the immune system in a few different ways.
Gut inflammation can affect the physical structure of your gut mucosa creating spaces for larger than normal particles of your food to be absorbed into your body. Your body doesn’t recognise these larger particles and an immune response is triggered. If it is not repaired, it can weaken the immune system as it is constantly fighting.
It is also becoming more and more apparent that this mechanism may have links to auto-immune diseases including thyroid conditions such as Hashimoto’s disease. The thyroid is a hormone secreting gland which both affects and is effected by the hormones of our cycles and pregnancy. There is also a suspected link between auto-immune conditions and conditions such as endometriosis and PCOS.
Stress also decreases the production of immune system soldiers called lymphocytes leaving you more vulnerable to getting colds and flus which is why I am always asking about the frequency of colds and flus for all my make and female fertility patients.
Stress can block our happiness because it gets in the way of us being able to slow down and connect to the quiet voice in all of us that is guiding us to a more loving and happy life. We now know that conditions that affect peoples happiness are about quality of life and being happy with what we have, not constantly chasing the shiny object.
It doesn’t mean you have to give up your career spend the rest of your life sitting on the side of a mountain in deep contemplation, but when your first priority is to find your centre and re-establish your connection to your higher-self, you realise many of your actions are just a busyness that are not moving you towards what you ultimately want. Through alignment to the Universe (your spirit/higher self), you are suddenly flowing with life, not swimming against the current, and your actions become more effective. You can get more done with less effort.
Dealing With Stress
Simply put, acupuncture can help with stress. I love that it has thousands of years of experience behind it’s use and that Chinese Medicine is in itself a complete system of diagnosis and treatment. Because stress is present in so many of our modern days lives, it means that stress reduction is often included in the treatments I provide for women, even if they are seeking help for women’s health issues.
2. Focus on what you can control
As we mentioned earlier, dealing with infertility, endometriosis, PCOS or many of the handful of symptoms that can occur when your hormones are out of balance can in itself be stressful, particularly when it can feel like there is such a lack of control.
So focus on what you can control, such as the food you eat, the products you use in your home and on your skin, moving your body, good quality targeted supplementation etc. It is the small and daily decisions you make about your body and health that count, because they add up to big things.
It can help to find a knowledgable practitioner who can help guide you through these changes and understand what is right for you.
2. Prioritise down time
Relaxation and down-time needs to be a priority. Carve out space for it in your busy schedule. Relaxation is not something that will just happen if you are busy, and it is not something that you should plan on doing after you have finished all the other things, because the truth is there will always be something else to do.
Relaxation needs to be valued as much as, if not more than all the other things in your routine. So schedule it in, make it happen, especially when you have a lot to do, knowing that when you take time to get yourself right, you will be more effective and productive anyway.
3. Recognise what is driving your Stress
I am not referring to an over-demanding boss or the constant presence of a mortgage, I am talking about recognising the internal things that are driving your stress. It is so vital to recognise if there is anxiety, fear or a need for control that is feeding your stress.
By understanding where these things come from and how you can learn to deal with them can be a huge help. You may even find it helpful to talk to a someone professionally about it, whether that be a healer such as a kinesiologist, a councillor or a psychologist but the most important thing is finding the right person for you!
4. Meditation and mindfulness
Having prompts in your day that remind you to stop and take ten deep conscious belly breaths is a practise I have seen transform people’s lives many times. I have been asking patients to do this for years because I believe it is one of the most powerful ways to condition people into being more present in their lives. You can use alarms on your phone, post-it-notes or have reoccurring triggers that remind you such as before you eat, in the shower or every time you are at a red light in traffic.
Learning to meditate is invaluable too. I know that I am significantly less stressed when I am doing regular meditation. Even a couple of minutes a day of meditation can be useful and build up as you are ready. If you are new to meditation, use a guided meditation and take the pressure off whatever you think it has to look like or achieve. Just start.
5. Keep regular
There will always be times when your routine differs, but where you can, keep things as regular as you can. I am talking having a regular bedtime, regular and moderated exercise routines, regular eating patterns. Routine doesn’t mean BORING, that’s up to you but there is not doubt that the body loves routine.
6. Get your feet on mother nature
The energy of Mother Nature is amazing for our stress levels because when we are in it, our vibration starts to raise to match hers. Physically getting your bare feet on dirt, sand or grass is very grounding and the excess energy starts to move out of your heads into our bodies where we can release it.
Take the time to eating your lunch in the park or anywhere close to greenery. Mother Nature is without a doubt powerful medicine.
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