Is Stress Causing Havoc With Your Hormones?
Your Body & Stress: A Three Part Series (3 of 3)
This is the final blog in our three part stress series. The first two blogs discussed how stress affects our immune and digestive systems. If you missed them, make sure to go back and read them both. Both include tips you can do to reduce the effects of stress on you body.
As promised, today we will be discussing how stress affects our endocrine system – which is our hormones. Before we begin, lets talk about hormones. We have many different hormones and hormone systems in our bodies. Hormones act as chemical messengers between different organ systems in our body. If our brain needs to talk to our stomach to prepare it for digestion, one way it does this is by releasing hormones into the blood stream.
Each hormone has it’s own message and target tissue(s). For example, insulin is a very important hormone that helps your cells take up glucose from the blood stream. After a meal, insulin is released to lower blood glucose. When either we don’t produce enough insulin, or our cells aren’t listening to the insulin it can lead to diabetes mellitus (Type II Diabetes).
As you can see, our hormones play a very important role in keeping our body functioning properly.
So how does stress affect our hormones?
Well as mentioned in our first two stress blogs, when we are stressed we release cortisol. Cortisol is designed to help our bodies adapt to stress. One way it can help us adapt to stress is to make sugar available in our blood stream, so we have energy to run away or to react to our stressor. In short term stressful situations this is extremely helpful. When we are experiencing long term chronic stress, this can lead to higher blood sugar levels, and in turn cause our bodies to produce and secrete more insulin. When we have higher insulin levels circulating for long periods of time, this can lead to insulin resistance and dysglycemia. Dysglycemia is when we have trouble controlling our blood sugars, and we can have too high or too little glucose in our blood. Poor blood sugar regulation can lead to hypoglycemia episode and down the road to type II diabetes.
Another common system that I see disrupted by stress in my practice is the reproductive system. When our demand to produce cortisol goes up, it can lead to lower estrogen, testosterone, DHEA and progesterone levels. The phenomena is called the pregnenolone steal. (Read more here).
In women, estrogen and progesterone are the two main hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle. They each need to be in balance with each other for a healthy and regular menstrual cycle. When progesterone falls low in comparison to estrogen, we often see more severe PMS symptoms such as cramping, breast tenderness, water retention, migraines and heavy bleeding.
In men, stress can lead to lower testosterone and DHEA levels. Low testosterone can leave men feeling fatigued, losing muscle mass and having sexual difficulties.
With all the above symptoms mentioned above, it is always important to talk to your health care practitioner to determine the root cause of your symptoms. Stress can contribute to these conditions, but is not the only cause of why we can experience these symptoms. Proper evaluation and diagnosis is critical for proper treatment.
In the mean time here are 3 things you can start doing today to help reduce stress and improve your stress response.
- Meditation – Research has shown that performing mindfulness meditation lowers serum cortisol levels.
- Vitamin C – Your adrenal glands require Vitamin C and when we are stress our demands for vitamin C increases. Taking a good quality vitamin C supplement can improve your adrenal health.
- Protein with each meal – To help combat any changes in blood sugar, it’s important to incorporate some sort of protein with each meal. This helps your body regulate your blood glucose levels, help preventing your blood sugars from going to low or high.
To wrap up this three part series, I’d like to focus on the importance of stress management. We won’t be able to eliminate all of our stress in our lives, but we can change how we react and recover from stress. In each blog, I’ve provided tools to help improve your stress response, and you should try and implement as many of them into your daily stress management routine as possible.
Best in Health,
- Turakitwanakan W, Mekseepralard C, Busarakumtragul P. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand: Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. The Association; 01/01/2013;96 Suppl 1:S90.
- Maduka IC, Neboh EE, Ufelle SA. The relationship between serum cortisol, adrenaline, blood glucose and lipid profile of undergraduate students under examination stress. African Health Sciences. 2015;15(1):131-136. doi:10.4314/ahs.v15i1.18.
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