We’ve said it before and we won’t be stopping any time soon: the number one thing you can do to balance your hormones is take care of your stress levels.
Stress hormones directly affect the production of our sex hormones and the way they ebb and flow with one another. When stress levels are high, it's going to have a huge impact on how we think, feel and act day to day.
In our last blog, we broke down 7 main types of stress in our modern world. In this post we’ll be digging into how our body react to stress, how this affects our sex hormones and a few ways you can support your bod in the process.
Hold tight, she’s a goodie.
The human response to stress
Our bodies have one stress response; regardless of the source of stress, we react exactly the same way physiologically.
Here’s how it goes down. It’s kind of like hormone Chinese whispers.
It all starts when a stressor appears. The hypothalamus (a gland in you brain) registers it, and quickly tells the pituitary (another gland) that you’re in trouble.
The pituitary passes the message onto the adrenals (more glands) and instructs them to ramp up the production of stress hormones. Adrenaline is released instantly and cortisol follows later on. (The increase in stress hormones often also means reducing the production of other hormones, such as progesterone.)
When we are exposed to real danger (like an oncoming car or a child in danger), the effectiveness of our human stress response can be the difference between life and death. After all, we evolved this mechanism to keep us alive.
Adrenaline and cortisol trigger the release of glucose into the bloodstream to fuel the brain and body through the dangerous situation, and nonessential functions like digestion and reproduction are ‘temporarily’ shut down. Our heart rate increases and blood is directed towards the muscles to help us do what we need to, fast.
This response is what’s referred to as the ‘sympathetic nervous system’; commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Modern stress, ancient systems
The thing is, most of the time the events that are triggering our stress response are not dangerous. Our lives aren’t in jeopardy. We’re just sitting at our desks while our bank statements load on the computer screen. Or witnessing our child having a meltdown in aisle 4.
It’s not really necessary in these instances for our blood sugar to rise and digestion to be compromised, but until we as humans evolve another stress response (which could take a few more millennia), it will happen anyway.
Another factor to consider is that our stress response evolved to deal with short stress triggers such as a tiger chasing after us. Such an event would be incredibly stressful, but only for a matter of minutes. The stressors we face today often aren’t short lived - in fact the stressors we encounter today can last hours, days, weeks or even longer - yet we’re reacting to it with a physiological response that’s calibrated for intermittent threats. This is one of the key drivers of the hormone imbalances we are experiencing today and in many cases, accepting as ‘normal.’
Cortisol and sex hormones
Cortisol is our both our daytime hormone and primary stress hormone. By nature of it’s shared biochemical pathway in the body, it has a significant impact on our sex hormone structure as well.
When it comes to female sex hormones, what cortisol says, goes; and oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone respond accordingly. This means that if your cortisol is out of whack, you can bet your bottom dollar that your sex hormones will be as well.
In someone experiencing stress, burnout and ‘adrenal fatigue’ (or HPA axis-dysfunction if you want to get technical), cortisol levels might be high, low or peaking and falling at the wrong times.
The Eve Stress & Adrenal Test measures both cortisol and cortisone (its inactive form), 4-5 times in a day to find out exactly what’s going on for you and provide you with personalised recommendations to help you balance your stress levels.
With imbalanced stress hormones, sex hormones follow suit. The common hormonal profiles we see in test results associated with stress are:
1. Low progesterone
Progesterone is our lovely calming and soothing hormone that helps us sleep and supports our mood.
Both cortisol and progesterone are made from the same precursor hormone, pregnenolone. When we are stressed, the production of stress hormones and survival will always be prioritised over sex hormones and reproduction, meaning cortisol is going to take priority over progesterone every time.
The only way we can make a nice juicy quantity of progesterone is through ovulation, and stress can actually get in the way of this process as well.
If our bodies believe we are constantly in danger, they won’t risk releasing an egg in case we were to fall pregnant. If the world isn’t even safe for us, how could a baby possibly survive?
As you might have noticed, the stress-progesterone connection is a tricky one - without progesterone we’re more likely to feel anxious and emotionally stressed; but at the same time stress levels can prevent us from producing progesterone in the first place.
2. High androgens.
Androgens are a group of hormones that include Testosterone, DHEA, etiocholanolone and androstenedione, all of which are tested for in the Eve Hormone Balance Test.
50% of our androgens are made by the adrenal glands and the rest is made by the ovaries and fat cells. When we are stressed, our adrenal glands don’t only increase production of cortisol; androgens get pumped out as well.
In addition to increased androgen production, stress can also change the metabolic pathways of these androgens (how it’s broken down and processed out of the body). A pathway lovingly referred to as ‘5 alpha-reductase’ is considered more inflammatory than its ‘beta’ alternatives. In many women, we’ve observed stress driving androgens down this pathway and leading to androgenic signs within the body.
Excess and inflammatory androgens in females have been linked to PCOS, absent or irregular cycles, weight gain, acne, unwanted hair growth and infertility. In most cases, this hormonal profile the result of stress, insulin resistance or a combination of both.
What you can do
Aside from working to reduce and manage all kinds of stress in your life; there is more you can do to help your body manage stress. Consider adding or increasing the following in your life:
Magnesium is a mineral that supports relaxation in our bodies. In times of stress, our cells actually dump magnesium out of our systems, to rev up our sympathetic nervous system. This is done with the right intention; survival, but is also somewhat inconvenient when we aren’t dealing with ‘real’ stressors.
Magnesium regulates cortisol, aids sleep and improves insulin sensitivity, so it’s our best friend in times of stress. Load up on magnesium rich foods such as leafy greens, avocado and almonds or take a quality supplement before bed. The Eve team love BePure Magnesium Restore.
B-vitamins, particularly vitamin-B6, are not only essential for ovarian function and healthy progesterone production, but immensely beneficial for adrenal health as well.
B6 is found in small amounts in foods such as fish, poultry and nuts. BePure One contains high, bioavailable doses of all essential B-vitamins.
Carbs aren’t the enemy! Many people, women in particular, need to include the right kind of carbs in their diet to keep their hormones happy.
Quality sources of carbohydrates such as brown rice and sweet potato can actually help to calm the nervous system and improve cortisol response. When eaten at dinner time, these ‘gentle’ carbs help to set up our hormones and nervous system for a quality, restorative sleep.
‘Adaptogens’ is the name given to a unique group of herbs that nourish the health of the adrenal system and support the body’s hormonal response to stress. Some of the most popular adaptogens for stress include ashwagandha, rhodiola and asian ginseng.
To really find out what’s going on: test your hormones
While these recommendations can be great places to start, they might not be the answer for everyone. We are all unique and our individual hormone profiles reflect that. The Eve Stress & Adrenal test uncovers just how well your body is handling life’s stressors and the Eve Hormone Balance test helps you find out whats really going on with your sex hormones.
Both tests provide you with personalised diet, lifestyle, nutritional and movement recommendations to support you and all your uniqueness.