How’s today? I ask this fully knowing that our emotional well-being is literally changing by the minute/day/hour. So really – how are you feeling these days?
Maybe a little uncertain? Anxious? Stressed?
All of these feelings are totally normal.
And, realistically, they are to be expected during times like this.
While riding this roller coaster of emotions, chances are you’re experiencing all kinds of ‘weird’ things that you haven’t experienced before – cravings, weight gain, missed periods, etc. – and all of these things are likely caused by stress.
Stress doesn’t only affect cortisol – your “stress hormone” – it wreaks havoc on a whole bunch of hormones and, while these hormones are imbalanced, you’re going to continue feeling a little … off.
Stressful situations can cause a surge or reduction of certain hormones, which can, in turn, affect your mental and physical health. It’s important to tune into your body and make relevant lifestyle adjustments to help manage stress and get your hormone levels back in check.
Understanding those hormones, and how they affect your body, can help get you back on the right track. In addition to the spike in cortisol that stress brings on, here are six other hormones that are impacted by stress:
When stressed, your adrenal glands release epinephrine (aka adrenaline). Adrenaline is that wonderful hormone that kicks in when you’re about to do something exciting – whether it’s jumping out of a plane, or taking a big risk at work. It increases your heart rate, pumps up your blood pressure, and can make your palms sweaty.
Norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline) is another hormone that gets released from the adrenal glands and brain during stressful times. Chronic stress can lead to prolonged higher levels of norepinephrine which cause disrupted sleep patterns, high blood pressure, and anxiety.
There’s a direct correlation between insulin – a hormone made by the pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar levels – and the increase of cortisol that happens when you’re stressed. When cortisol levels spike, it causes a surge release in insulin, which negatively affects glucose metabolism. As a result, you’re likely to crave more sugars, carbs, and sweets which, in turn, perpetuates the vicious cycle and triggers cortisol release.
Another hormone that rises with exposure to stress is prolactin. You’re likely familiar with prolactin as the hormone that produces breastmilk; however, it’s a hormone found in both men and women. Stress-induced spikes in prolactin triggers an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone which directly impacts emotional regulation.
When a woman is chronically stressed, estrogen levels can be suppressed. In addition to confusing your menstrual cycle, this dip can have an impact on your mental health. Women are 1.5 to three times more likely to have a major depressive episode in their lifetime than men, and scientists are now investigating whether the link between estrogen, serotonin, and mood could be to blame.
During times of chronic stress, testosterone can decrease, too, causing fatigue, muscle loss, and low libido in both men and women.
Real talk – it’s okay to be stressed sometimes. BUT long term or chronic stress has REAL, and sometimes nasty, side effects. If you are currently experiencing any of the symptoms listed below, we have to come up with a stress management plan for you ASAP (keep reading!).
If that’s your norm, it’s not something to be too concerned about. However, if you’re as regular as the moon cycle, and you’re noticing that your cycle is shorter or longer than usual all of a sudden, it’s a good sign you’re experiencing a hormone imbalance. Other symptoms can include premenstrual spotting, blood clots, heavier than normal bleeding, or increased (and more painful) PMS symptoms.
This one is a doozy – and it’s directly related to your circadian rhythm. If you’re feeling tired during the day and wide awake at night, your cortisol isn’t aligned with your circadian rhythm the way it should be.
The Circadian Rhythm is an approximate 24 hour bodily cycle called the circadian clock, which is based in the hypothalamus. The circadian clock is responsible for orchestrating numerous biochemical functions at specific times throughout the day and night. The circadian clock controls our neurotransmitters, hormone production, enzymes, behavior, appetite, body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, metabolism, and libido (among others).
When experiencing these crazy fluctuations between exhaustion and being wired, some people increase their coffee or stimulant consumption, or rely on sleep aids, but both of those will further intensify the underlying hormone imbalance.
When stressed, we tend to grab comfort foods which are generally high in salt, sugar, and fat. This could be because stress hormones increase the hunger hormone ghrelin. Sodium is one of the main fuel sources for our adrenal glands. It also acts as an electrolyte and helps to regulate blood pressure, which stress can greatly affect. That means the body may be trying to protect itself by inducing a salt craving. And those sugar cravings occur because stress causes insulin resistance, in turn making your body unable to regulate your blood sugar properly. While it may feel like eating a whole bag of salty or sugary treats will help you feel better, it’ll just further exacerbate this cycle.
Reigning in the chaos and bringin’ those hormones back to their happy and healthy state is crucial, and it starts with not only decreasing the roots of the stress, but also gaining long term stress management skills.
Eating nourishing, hormone-friendly foods definitely counterbalance the impact of stress by strengthening the immune system, stabilizing moods, providing the nutrients to feed your adrenal glands, and reducing blood pressure.
Important Nutrients for Stress-Reduction
Vitamin C: Consuming foods high in vitamin C, such as oranges and other citrus fruits, can boost the immune system and help lower levels of cortisol and blood pressure during high-anxiety situations.
Complex Carbohydrates: Complex carbohydrates, such as non-gluten whole grains, fruits, and veggies, can induce the brain to increase serotonin production and stabilize blood pressure as a way to reduce stress.
Magnesium: Obtaining an adequate amount of magnesium is essential for avoiding headaches and fatigue. Oral magnesium can also successfully relieve premenstrual mood changes. Additionally, increased magnesium intake has been found to improve sleep quality. Healthy sources of magnesium include spinach or other leafy greens, salmon, and pumpkin seeds.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna) and nuts and seeds (such as flaxseeds, pistachios, walnuts, and almonds) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce surges of stress hormones and also offer protection against heart disease, depression, and premenstrual syndrome.
And for those of you with a sweet tooth 👋:
Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate can not only satisfy your taste buds, but it can also help relieve stress at the molecular level – chocolate stimulates your sweet taste receptors, which actually triggers a dopamine (our feel-good neurotransmitter) release. More pleasure = less stress.
Raw cacao is chock full of magnesium and can even improve cognitive function and mood. Researchers also found that daily dark chocolate consumption can be beneficial for individuals suffering from high levels of anxiety. Now I’m talking 85% cacao content or higher here – no milk chocolate or anything less than 85%!
While my number one recommendation is to always get your nutrients from food first, I understand that we don’t always have total control over the quality of our food, the health of the soil where our food was grown, or what nutrients our body actually absorbs. Using specific, targeted, high-quality vitamins and supplements as part of a healthy lifestyle is a failsafe to make sure that on those days when you end up missing a meal, eating out, or not getting enough sleep, your body still has access to the nutrients it needs to keep your hormones in perfect balance. You can read more about the vitamins and supplements that I personally recommend for balanced hormones here.
Honestly, I can’t say this enough – MOVE YOUR DAMN BODY EVERY SINGLE DAY. I understand that in times of stress, it’s often tough to find the motivation to exercise, but it is so important for both your mental and physical health. Find a movement that you like and look forward to – something as simple as walking (get out in nature and enjoy some forest bathing!), to at-home HIIT workouts, yoga, biking, pilates, or anything in between.
Exercise produces endorphins which help decrease tension, elevate mood, improve sleep, and boost self-esteem. All these are factors that can lead to reduced stress. AND research has found that exercise can increase emotional resilience in the way you handle stress
I’m personally a big fan of yoga – it moderates the nervous system, balances hormones, and regulates nerve impulses, three factors that can reduce stress levels, making you better equipped to handle stressful situations. A regular yoga practice can also reduce blood pressure and heart rate, lower cortisol and inflammation, and promote beneficial changes in the brain.
This can be challenging, I know. Honestly, it might even be a little scary to start a meditation journey if you’re new to it. But here’s my challenge for you – sit, in silence, with no distractions, for 5 minutes a day. More is better for sure, so sit as long as you desire! Give your mind the chance to completely shut down and rest. You’d be surprised how much more willing you are to face the day and it’s challenges when you do this! Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, increase focus, improve memory, and boost creativity.
If you aren’t comfortable with sitting in silence, do a guided meditation! There are so many free guided meditations options online, where you can specify exactly what you want to target – anxiety, stress, sleep, mindfulness, compassion, etc. – that I’m confident you’ll find one that works for you.
Sleep is a major component in reducing stress and balancing hormones – when resting, your body is able to take inventory of what your body needs, and repair what needs fixing. Here are my fav five tips for getting a good sleep:
Black out your room. Like, REALLY black out your room. No LED lights from alarm clocks, fire alarms, TV’s etc. Blackout shades are the best, but a great eye mask will work as well. Light exposure at night diminishes melatonin production. Find out more about why complete darkness is essential at night here.
Go to bed early and get at least 7-9 hrs of sleep. You should wake up without an alarm, feeling refreshed! The adrenal glands have a specific circadian rhythm that they adhere to. Cortisol (one of the major adrenal hormones) is the highest first thing in the morning which naturally wakes us up and gets us out of bed, and then cortisol levels begin to naturally fall throughout the day until they are at their very lowest levels around 10:00pm. When we stay up late, we force the adrenals to start working again to produce cortisol.
Skip the sugar and large, heavy meals right before bed. Eating sugary foods (i.e. chocolate, ice cream, cookies, dessert) late at night causes a large rise in blood sugar. In response, the pancreas releases a surge of insulin to get the sugar out of the blood and into cells. This causes a drastic drop in blood sugar, or a crash. A blood sugar crash alerts the adrenals that there is an emergency. The adrenals now come online and secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which results in the body waking up – often with a rapid heartbeat, sweating, racing thoughts, etc. Think about it – your body just got the message there was an emergency – so now you’re wide awake. The other thing that happens when blood sugar crashes in the middle of the night and cortisol levels rise is that melatonin production diminishes.
No alcohol after dinner. Remember that alcohol is essentially sugar. The same thing that happens when you eat high-sugar foods after dinner (see above), happens when we drink alcohol before bed. Give your body time to process the alcohol you’ve had before you try to sleep – on average it takes an hour to process one unit, but this can vary widely from person to person.
Get frisky. Seriously. Sex encourages the production of oxytocin (helping you and your partner to “bond”), in addition to inhibiting the release of the cortisol. This hormonal reconfiguration, if you will, leaves the body feeling naturally more relaxed, resulting in a deeper, more relaxed, state of slumber.
How are YOU managing your stress?
I’ve love to support you, with whatever you’re going through. I am always available to have a one on one chat.