In our fast paced, modern world, stress has become such an integral (and accepted )part of our daily lives. In a world where so much emphasis is given on productivity and always being busy, it is almost considered admirable to always be on the go. However, did you know that stress can have an impact on your hormonal health and fertility?
What is stress?
Stress is a physiological response to a perceived threat; i.e. a hormonal reaction of the body and mind to a danger or fear. When the brain senses a threat or a strong emotion (such as fear), it triggers a hormonal reaction which starts of a series of processes to help us confront it. This is called our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, and it is a primal evolutionary program there to keep us alive and help us survive should we be faced with a life-threatening situation.
When we experience stress our adrenal glands produce a stress hormone called cortisol, whose function is to keep us alive by activating many physiological responses in the body, including:
- increasing blood pressure – pumping blood around our body to our limbs
- releasing sugar into the blood – to give us energy to either fight or flee
- heightening our memory and awareness – to be more aware of our surroundings and be able to make split level decisions
- suppressing the immune system – this is non-vital for survival if faced with a life or death situation
- suppressing digestive function – digestion is not important when we are being chased by a bear, is it?
- suppressing reproductive function – again, if we are in a life or death situation, it is not a safe time to have a baby.
In reality, cortisol is our ‘anti-stress’ hormone. The problem is that our body cannot distinguish the difference between being chased by a bear to being stuck in traffic or worrying about an upcoming work deadline. Our body will respond to these stresses in the same way, and when our stress response is constantly being activated and cortisol is being overproduced, it can impact our health in many different ways:
- It wreaks havoc with our blood sugar levels, potentially leading us to insulin resistance and diabetes, weight gain and cravings for fat and sugary foods.
- Chronic high blood pressure cause cardiovascular issues
- Suppressed immune function could predispose us to more illnesses and infections
- We may be more susceptible to digestive issues due to suppressed digestive function (stress is a big trigger for IBS, for example)
- We may experience irregular menstrual cycles, heightened premenstrual symptoms and fertility issues.
How does excess cortisol production affect our hormones and fertility?
A simplified answer is that under prolonged stress, our adrenals increase cortisol production to help our body cope. Because survival is our body’s primary concern, it will prioritise cortisol production over any other hormonal production. In order to meet the increased demand for cortisol, the body uses the hormone pregnenolone (the precursor to our sex hormones) to make more cortisol. This is called the ‘pregnenolone steal’ or ‘cortisol steal’. Without adequate levels of pregnenolone, we are unable to produce enough sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, which can lead to:
- menstrual irregularities
- low libido
- fertility issues
- low mood
So what can we do? Here are some of my favourite tips:
- Work on a mindset shift. The first thing I like to tell my clients is that most stress is perceived, which means that we do have some control over how we react to it. We have control on how we react to being stuck in traffic or to having a last minute deadline thrown our way. Changing the way we react to everyday challenges and demands can have a massive impact on our health.
- Do not skip meals. When we are under stress, our body needs fuel or it will start breaking itself down to get it. Fasting or undereating is a stress in itself, so we want to make sure we are giving our body the nutrition it needs and to keep our blood sugar levels stable. Make sure you are feeding your body enough carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
- Prioritise sleep. Our cortisol levels refresh during sleep, so ensuring we get adequate sleep every night can help us reset for the next day. When we do not get enough sleep, we are running on adrenaline the next day, starting our day off in a stress response.
- Avoid alcohol and processed foods – these all stimulate cortisol production and increase insulin production. Ever noticed how when we are stressed (or sleep deprived) we tend to gravitate towards sugary foods or alcohol? This is due to increased insulin production (and subsequent blood sugar crashes) which send us looking for instant energy, and it can become a vicious cycle. Keeping our blood sugar stable is a key to hormonal health. Alcohol is also an estrogenic substance, which can further exacerbate our progesterone levels.
- Incorporate relaxation techniques into our daily life. Including a daily meditation, yoga, or simple breathing practise can quickly shift you from a stress response to a restorative one. Do something every day to help you relax, be it reading your favourite book, laughing with a friend, a walk in nature or soaking in a bath surrounded by scented candles.
- Take an Epsom salt bath. Epsom salts are rich in magnesium, a mineral which is depleted in our body during periods of stress. Soaking for 10 minutes in an Epsom salt bath just before bed is also a great way to aid restful sleep.
- Prioritise and learn to say ‘NO’. This is something that my female clients to struggle with the most, but is a crucial step. Create boundaries and free up some time in your busy schedule for relaxation and self care. Slowing down and creating space can also send a message to the universe that this is the right time for a baby to come into your life 🙂
You may also want to consider some supplements or adaptogenic herbs if you have been under prolonged stress. (I would recommend doing this under guidance of a practitioner rather than trying to figure it out yourself, especially if you are looking to conceive.) However, please note that if you are not working on the fundamentals, taking supplements or adaptogenic herbs will not be of much help.
If you are struggling with stress and hormonal issues and would like more personalised nutritional and lifestyle advice, why not book a free discovery call to see how nutrition can help restore your zest for life!