Manage Stress to Fix Your Hormones

I want to start by saying stress isn’t all bad! Cortisol, our main “stress hormone”, actually plays a foundational role in our health and is essential to life. Without cortisol we die! Aside from regulating our stress response, we need cortisol to help regulate our blood sugar (glucose), metabolism, blood pressure, immune function and sleep-wake cycle! But we can have too much of a good thing and as I tell all my clients, you first need to manage stress to fix your hormones.

Our bodies are made to handle stress — provided it is short-lived, and resolves fully. We have a built-in “stress response system” called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (a mouthful, let’s just use HPA axis for short!), that kicks in whenever we sense a threat (real or perceived). The system is designed to ensure we can respond quickly – physically and mentally – to stresses (evolutionarily, we’re talking a “quick sprint from a sabre tooth tiger” type of stress), before regaining our equilibrium and quickly returning to normal.

So the PROBLEM is not stress itself, but the type of stress and the lack of resolution. Because the stresses we all face right now are not the occasional mad dash from a flesh-eating beast, but a pervasive, ever-present stream of “life stress”. Think: the morning rush to get everyone out the house; the toddler meltdowns; the stationary traffic when you’re running late; the demanding boss; the irritating colleagues; the cost of living crisis; the relationship issues; our obsession with social media and being “connected” at all times; the barrage of bad news 24/7; the caffeine, alcohol and sugary junk we rely on to give us a boost and get us through the day; the lack of sleep; burning the candle at both ends with zero chance to just BREATHE…..)

Modern life is chronically stressful! In todays world, we’re running from the sabre tooth tiger ALL THE TIME. Or that’s how our HPA axis sees it anyhow. The last few years have been especially tough. Depression incidence has dramatically increased since Covid. Women are worse affected statistically. Trauma is a BIG hormone disruptor, and the impact of stress on our hormones isn’t talked about enough!

When our stress response system is always “ON”, our HPA axis is constantly over-stimulated and can, in time, becomes over-sensitive & dysfunctional. Cortisol, our main stress hormone, is often chronically raised until the HPA axis effectively stops responding and cortisol drops too low. And this is when we see chronic fatigue and “burnout”. The usual daily rhythm of cortisol is lost so that we no longer experience the necessary peak in the morning (known as the cortisol awakening response) which we need, literally, to get us up and out of bed in the morning.

And there’s more….You see cortisol happens to be our master hormone. It reigns supreme at the top of the hormonal hierarchy such that, if we’re super stressed and our cortisol is off, ALL our other hormones are thrown off. That includes insulin, thyroid hormones and there’s frankly little hope for our sex hormones! If you’re dealing with any kind of hormonal imbalance, there’s just no getting away from this fact. You won’t fix your under-active thyroid or your oestrogen issues without getting on top of your stress. Nor will you balance your blood sugar or lose weight…So I’ll say it again: You need to manage stress to fix your hormones. Chronic stress, and the “HPA dysfunction” that often results, is also associated with pretty much every chronic disease known to man. Including being a major driving of heart disease.

But you don’t need me to tell you stress is bad for you; you already knew that (though hopefully you now understand why in a little more detail). The question is, what can you DO about it? Since stress isn’t going away, it’s all about how we manage it….the tools we have in our toolbox to mitigate the impact of stress on our hormones and general health.

Here are my TOP 10 TIPS when it comes to managing stress to fix your hormones:

  1. Make sleep sacred! Just one bad night can elevate cortisol level and lead to erratic blood sugar and insulin the next day. We make poorer food choices when we’re tired (HELLO coffee and cake). And so the vicious cycle continues. Women are especially vulnerable during pregnancy and postpartum, then again in peri/menopause. Good sleep boosts resilience: we all know we can “cope” better if we’ve had a decent night.
  2. Set your body clock. Expose your eyes to daylight first thing (or use a full spectrum light box in the winter) & use blue light-blocking glasses in the evening. Use blue light filters on your devices. Blackout blinds in the bedroom are essential too as even the dimmest light can suppress melatonin, our sleep hormone
  3. Regular exercise is vital BUT be very wary of high intensity or endurance cardio if you’re already stressed, fatigued or suffering with any kind of hormonal issue. Avoid exercising fasted which can puts female bodies under a lot of stress. Yoga is fabulous: Studies show it measurably reduces cortisol and inflammatory markers.
  4. Step away from work for a few minutes every hour. You can use one of the many free apps available to remind you take these breaks and do a few breathing exercises, a 3 minute meditation, make a cup of tea etc
  5. Make your out breath longer than your in breath. Breathe into your belly so your tummy sticks out (not your chest) which activates our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest” state)
  6. Focus on protein and healthy fats at breakfast and skip the refined carbs! This is the reason I recommend savoury breakfasts to my clients as it makes hitting these targets easier. Picking the right foods stabilises blood sugar and insulin which in turn stabilises cortisol (blood sugar crashes are a huge stress on the body)
  7. Avoid caffeine on a empty stomach. This can spike cortisol and blood sugar, though the response can be very variable between individuals. Have breakfast first to be on the safe side.
  8. Choose your carbs wisely. Think nature’s versions- loads of veggies, pulses, some wholegrains. Skip the ultra-processed, white, beige and sugary types most of the time! This will support blood sugar balance
  9. Don’t eat foods you are intolerant to eg gluten, dairy- you know you.
  10. Our adrenal gland that make cortisol needs lots of vitamin C so pack in the fruits and veggies! B vitamins, including vitamins B5 and B6, are really important too. Lemon balm, L-theanine, holy basil, and magnesium glycinate or taurate can all be really useful as supplements, but ALWAYS consult with a registered nutritionist, nutritional therapist or your doctor before starting any new supplements.

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