Stress is part of life and the human experience, and stress and hormonal imbalance often go hand in hand. No one can live a completely stress-free life, no matter how hard they try.
When we think of stress, we usually only think of how being stressed feels in the moment. But did you know that feeling stressed can affect far more than just how you feel when experiencing it?
Stress can affect your hormones, your weight, your sleep quality, your digestive system, your appetite, your cardiovascular system, and even your sex drive. In this article, we’re focusing on how stress can contribute to hormonal imbalances and will explore different types of stress, how they affect your hormones, and what you can do to reduce stress and improve hormonal imbalances.
When most people hear the term “stress”, they usually think of emotional stress. They associate stress with their studies, work, social situations, life events, problems in their relationships, and other frustrating life events like filing their taxes, being stuck in traffic and being late to meetings.
But physical stress also plays a big role in your overall wellbeing and your hormone levels. Some of the most common causes of physical stress are
- Intense exercise
- Being exposed to really cold or hot temperatures (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
A lack of sleep and poor sleep quality—Did you know that if you don't get enough sleep, your body will generally produce more cortisol the next day, making you stressed? (7, 8, 9, 10, 11).
Certain foods and dietary patterns can also strain your body and contribute to hormonal imbalances. They include:
- Foods and beverages that are high in caffeine. If you drink a cup of coffee or consume other sources of caffeine like energy drinks, your cortisol levels can spike (especially when coffee is consumed on an empty stomach). That’s because of the stress the caffeine puts on your body. (12) Anyone who has felt jittery after drinking coffee knows this first-hand! For some people, all it takes is one cup of coffee, while others will only experience it after really going overboard. In fact, there’s even a lethal dose of caffeine (blood concentrations of 80 to 100 micrograms/ml). Some people have died from consuming too much caffeine and putting the body under a severe level of stress, although this is quite rare (13, 14).
- A high-sugar diet. This type of diet causes blood sugar fluctuations that contribute to stress and anxiety. Eating too much sugar can also affect how your body deals with stress. (15, 16, 17)
- Low blood sugar. If your blood sugar levels crash, it results in a spike in adrenaline levels. A rise in adrenaline levels triggers the fight-or-flight response, making you feel stressed and anxious. People who often feel anxious in the mornings should be especially suspicious of their blood sugar levels. Eating a high-protein breakfast could be all they need to get rid of their morning anxiety. If you want to test if low blood sugar could be behind your stress and anxiety, try eating something substantial when anxious for a few weeks to see if your symptoms improve. (18, 19)
Even though stress has a negative connotation, not all stress is bad for you. Have you ever heard of hermetic stress?
Hermetic stress is a type of beneficial stress. You experience it if you expose yourself to certain stressors in small doses. If done excessively though, it can still cause harm to your body and hormones. Still, in the right amounts, it can be beneficial, especially when it comes to ageing. (20, 21) So, what counts as hermetic stress?
- Exercise—exercising can make you more insulin sensitive and help treat and prevent insulin resistance. When done excessively, however, intense exercise can increase cortisol levels and cause other complications.
- Intermittent Fasting—it is a hermetic stressor that can also improve insulin sensitivity. And as with exercise, doing it too much can lead to higher cortisol levels.
- Calorie Restriction—restricting your calorie intake is another form of hormesis. But once again, too much can put your body under too much stress.
- Cold shock therapy—cold exposure for short periods of time like taking cold showers and cold plunges and doing cryotherapy also puts stress on the body but in a beneficial way.
Heat shock therapy—sitting in a sauna or steam room, or taking a warm bath might be relaxing, but is still a form of hermetic stress. (22, 23, 24, 25)
If experienced in the right amounts, hermetic stress can help your body become more resilient to various stressors in life.
So, now that you know more about stress itself, how does stress affect your hormones and what hormonal imbalances can it contribute to?
Cushing syndrome (also known as hypercortisolism) is a condition that occurs due to cortisol levels that are chronically high. This is arguably one of the most obvious imbalances. After all, cortisol is the primary stress hormone in the body.
Stress makes the liver produce glucose, which then raises insulin levels. This is because, when you’re in the fight-or-flight state, your body wants to ensure you have enough energy to run away from danger or fight if needed. Stress can therefore lead to insulin-related problems like insulin resistance. (29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35)
To treat insulin resistance and improve this hormonal imbalance, you need to reduce overall stress and focus on improving insulin sensitivity through reducing your carb and sugar consumption, exercising regularly, losing weight, getting enough sleep, and reducing your carbohydrate consumption. (36, 37, 38, 39, 40)
PCOS is a hormonal condition that affects 5% to 20% of women. It's associated with high insulin levels and an increase in androgens (male hormones). While high insulin is a commonly known cause, many people don't realise that stress can also cause PCOS and make symptoms worse. If you're stressed and you have high cortisol levels, that can also cause a rise in androgens like testosterone and lead to PCOS symptoms like acne, hair loss, irregular periods, weight gain, excessive hair growth (hirsutism), ovarian cysts, and infertility. (41, 42, 43, 44)
Reducing stress and hormonal imbalance while improving insulin sensitivity should be the main focus in treating PCOS. Low-carb diets have proven to be quite effective in improving PCOS symptoms. Doctors can also prescribe you medication that helps with blood sugar and insulin regulation like inositol, berberine, and metformin. Exercising regularly is also advised and losing weight has also been shown to improve symptoms (45, 46).
Did you know that, other than using cholesterol, the body can use progesterone to create cortisol? If you're under too much stress, it can lead to low progesterone levels, causing a hormonal imbalance between estrogen and progesterone, and leading to estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance occurs when your estrogen levels are too high in comparison to other hormones, resulting in a hormonal imbalance. (47)
Symptoms of this estrogen dominance include fatigue, low moods, anxiety, weight gain, low sex drive, irregular periods, worse PMS symptoms, and bloating. (48)
Even in those who don’t have PCOS, stress and hormonal imbalance can cause the skin to break out. Many people with hormonal acne find that when they reduce their stress levels, their skin improves. (49, 50)
Stress can contribute to thyroid-related conditions like hypothyroidism, Graves’ disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. As you know, stress increases your cortisol levels. But what you may not know is that stress can inhibit thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) production by the thyroid gland. While stress doesn’t cause thyroid problems by itself, it can worsen your symptoms, which in turn, puts the body under even more stress. (51, 52, 53)
Those with hormonal imbalances related to stress will benefit greatly from reducing the amount of stress in their lives. These are some of our tips to help you fight stress and hormonal imbalance symptoms!
Reduce psychological stress as much as possible if you want to improve hormonal imbalances. Do things that help you relax like reading, taking baths, spending more time with loved ones, meditating, doing yoga, spending time in nature, journaling, and watching a movie.
Identify things that trigger you to feel stressed like being late, opening your email inbox, having uncomfortable conversations, being in social situations, being late, worrying about what other people think, and work deadlines. Then, try to come up with strategies to help you respond better to the stressors you cannot reduce or eliminate entirely. If there are any you can cut out of your life completely, do it. You can make notes on your phone or a notebook whenever you feel stressed and can identify what triggered the stress.
You can also seek professional help and start to see a psychologist to help you navigate through your emotional stress and any past trauma that is affecting your stress levels and emotional state currently. If you find someone that also specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy, they can help you identify stress triggers and help you learn how to respond to these triggers differently. Cognitive behavioural therapy can also help you change your underlying thought patterns. (54, 55)
We're not saying you can never do intense exercise again, but maybe cut back on it a bit and incorporate more low-intensity exercises like yoga, Pilates, and walking, which can actually help reduce stress. It might be a good idea to cut out intense exercise entirely for a few weeks or months to help your body recover from a hormonal imbalance.
Here are some dietary changes we highly recommend:
- Reduce your intake of caffeine to help reduce any stress on your body.
- If you do intermittent fasting, try to reduce the number of days you do it in a week or month, and reduce the duration of your fasts. If you're really stressed and/or want to reduce your overall stress levels as quickly as possible, you can stop doing intermittent fasting completely. While this practice does have benefits and you might be resistant to reduce how much you do it or stop completely, consider the fact that if it is putting your body under too much stress and your hormones are negatively affected as a result, intermittent fasting could be doing your body more harm than good.
- Change your diet and lifestyle to help you regulate your blood sugar more effectively and reduce/prevent blood sugar fluctuations and crashes. For healthy blood sugar regulation, avoid foods high in processed sugar and carbs. Consider switching to a lower-carb diet or at least a low-GI diet. Eat protein and fat at every meal, as they help reduce the glycaemic impact of your meal, and try not to eat too frequently during the day. Going too long without eating also isn't ideal. It's best to aim for 3 proper meals a day. (56)
- Supplement with micronutrients that can help reduce stress like magnesium and B vitamins. (57, 58, 59)
Focus on improving the quality of your sleep. It's arguably one of the best things you can do to reduce overall stress on the body. When sleeping, your body should be relaxed and focused on recovery. There are different ways of improving sleep quality, such as:
- Sleep 7 to 9 hours a night. (60)
- Try to go to bed and wake up at a similar time each day. (61)
- Exercise during the day. (62)
- Don't eat a large meal before bed. Stop eating 2 to 3 hours before bed to give your body enough time to digest your food. Being too full can make it harder to fall asleep and to sleep well. (63)
- Avoid blue light exposure from electronic devices like your television, phone, or laptop before bed. Exposure to blue light can interfere with melatonin production and disrupt sleep. You can get a blue light filter on your devices and also get blue light blocking glasses to wear before bed. (64, 65, 66)
- Make sure your room is as dark as possible. Any light can disrupt your sleep, even if it's just very small.
When suffering from stress and hormonal imbalance, many people only try to treat their symptoms with medication. But, if you're truly going to manage your symptoms and also address the cause of your hormonal imbalance (like stress), it's important to take a complete lifestyle approach to treatment. You need to look at your diet and exercise routine and find different ways of reducing your stress levels.
Now, if stress has already altered your hormone levels and is affecting your life, you may need some extra help to recover from a hormonal imbalance. A life-changing solution for this is the Hormone Harmony. This potent and 100% natural hormone-balancing supplement can help reduce stress and ease symptoms related to hormonal imbalances, such as fatigue, mood swings, low libido, and weight gain.