As I was scrolling Instagram the other day, one post stopped me in my tracks. Sara Gottfried, hormone help doctor and one of my favorite authors, reposted a photo from her Twitter. It read, “In my experience, excess stress is the central story at the root of hormonal imbalance for women over 35.” As soon as I read this, I was like YES YES YES. It’s so wild to me that more doctors and practitioners don’t talk enough about the profound impact that dysregulated stress levels have on the body. It’s time to start taking stress more seriously. In this article, we’re talking about the root causes of hormone imbalances and why reducing stress is the number one thing you need to do to balance hormone levels.
Stress and Hormone Levels
It’s not news that stress is a common theme in most of our lives these days. And in my experience (with both clients and hormone imbalances myself), perceived stress is the main driver of hormone imbalances—shall I say “root cause.”
When I say “perceived stress”, I am referring to situations that come off as a threat to us but are actually non-threatening. Perceived stress can be anything from thinking that someone is laughing at you from across the room when they are laughing at a joke to a triggering story on the late-night news. It can be an “off” look from a stranger, a song that brings up a bad memory, or a mean comment on Instagram. It can be getting stuck in traffic, consistently poor sleep, relationship troubles, a mean boss, running late, low blood sugar episodes etc., etc.
Basically, what is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another person and vice versa. Stress looks different for everyone. Childhood trauma (I know, it’s a big word, but everyone has some form of childhood trauma) is at the root of perceived stress.
Stress, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. We need it to survive! But excess stress leads to high cortisol levels, and eventually, levels that swing too high and too low, sometimes multiple times a day! The thing is, if stress is ongoing and left unchecked for too long, it can lead to a host of problems.
For starters, you may develop glucocorticoid resistance. Think of it as similar to insulin resistance. Cortisol may become chronically low, not necessarily to the failure of Addison’s disease, but low enough to flatten the daily slope, contributing to immune dysfunction.
The effects of stress hormones like cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline, have major implications for adrenal function. In my adrenal healing journey, regulating stress was one of the most essential pieces of recovery. Because here’s the thing: not only do stress hormones impact the adrenals (where they are made) but they also have a profound ripple effect on other endocrine organs, including the thyroid, ovaries, testes, and gut.
Stress and cortisol typically disrupt communication that allows for hormonal homeostasis in the body. Now, while stress can look like many different things, including a meal that doesn’t serve your highest health, it can cause inflammation in the body. For the sake of this article, we’re going to focus on emotional stressors. Our mental health doesn’t take priority most of the time, but I’ve got news for you: when it comes to hormones, it should.
In another article, I talked about Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation being the root cause of adrenal fatigue. What’s the root cause of HPA dysregulations? Well, one of the big ones is perceived stress! Think of the HPA axis as your innate alarm system. This warning system activates two tiny parts of your brain called the amygdala (aka your fear center!). If danger is perceived, a message goes to your HPA axis.
Here’s how it works.
Your hypothalamus sends a 911 chemical alert to your pituitary gland with a threat notice. Your pituitary then relays the message to your adrenal glands where adrenal and cortisol (think of them as police and firefighters) get ready to respond to danger by putting you in fight, flight, or freeze mode.
When our HPA axis is chronically activated, we are in a state of ongoing survival mode, which can lead to:
- Poor immunity
- Weight gain (especially around the tummy area0
- Chronic exhaustion
- Sugar, salt, caffeine cravings
- Insulin resistance
- Brain fog, memory, and concentration problems
- Hormonal issues from irregular periods, infertility, PCOS, hypothyroid
Now, stress obviously impacts the adrenals first and foremost, but as we learned, it can also impact other hormonal organs, including the thyroid.
Adrenal and Thyroid Connection
Your thyroid is the gland at the front of your neck that performs thoughts of essential functions related to metabolism, growth, utilizing and conserving energy, and more. When you are in a state of chronic stress, your HPA axis responds by slowing down energy-expending activities like reproductive function, sex drive, and metabolism. Cortisol also halts proper thyroid function.
Stress has a direct impact on thyroid function. It reduces thyroid function, active thyroid hormone production, thyroid hormone sensitivity. ,
A slow, poor functioning thyroid makes you feel depressed, exhausted, sluggish and can lead to serious issues like Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism.
Stress and Gut Health
Chronic stress diverts energy from important bodily functions, and this includes digestion. Not only can this have an adverse effect on thyroid function, but it can also harm the microbiome and cause a leaky gut.
Under stress, blood flow gets diverted away from the lining of your gut, which can lead to inflammation of the body and even cause autoimmune conditions. Our gut produces a lot of the hormones that support a happy mood, like serotonin. When our gut health is compromised, so is our hormone health.
Stress and Estrogen
Cortisol and stress reduce our ability to flush excess estrogen from our system through the liver. Estrogen dominance increases the production of a carrier protein called thyroid-binding globulin (TBG), which binds to the thyroid hormone. Bound forms of thyroid hormone are not active, meaning it reduces thyroid function.
Reducing Stress for Happy Hormones
1. Notice your stress response.
Becoming familiar with your stress response can be hard at first because you are literally in an animal model. Once you recognize if you tend toward fight, flight, or freeze it will be easier to combat it with a relaxation response.
2. What is causing your stress?
This part is huge. If it’s financial, relationships, work, etc. It’s time to rethink those areas of your life. This part can be hard, but it’s essential to happy hormones and happy life!
3. Find a stress-release practice that works for you.
Regular self-care is necessary, but when we experience spot stress, we need a tactic that we enjoy and works for us. This can look like grounding to change your frequency, a breathing technique, dancing to your favorite song, singing, walking, journaling.
4. Keep blood sugar levels stable.
Eat balanced meals, consistently throughout the day if you tend towards imbalanced blood sugar levels. This means healthy fats, adequate-protein, and lots of veggies.
For other tips on regulating stress and the HPA axis for balanced hormone levels, check out this guide.
I hope this article helped you understand the science behind the root causes of hormone imbalances. I hope you are inspired to start a stress management practice to help with adrenal fatigue, hormone health, and more. Happy healing!