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Stress Effects: Hormonal Imbalances + Natural Remedies

hormones stress Jan 23, 2023

Stress Effects: Hormonal Imbalances + Natural Remedies

Stress is a normal part of life.  None of us will be able to avoid it.  Maybe deadlines are tight at work, or something unexpectedly breaks, or you experience a sudden loss.  

Whenever we feel stressed, our body and brain undergo specific changes to adapt and handle the stressor.  These physiologic adaptations include a shift from our brain's hypothalamus to trigger the release of stress hormones from our adrenal glands (little organs that sit on top of our kidneys) and a shift in our vagus nerve and social engagement system to reduce parasympathetic activity.  These shifts combine to prompt our "stress response."  When the stress is over, we should return to normal....

Or sometimes we don't. 

Chronic stress may contribute to long term changes in many hormones.  Cortisol, one of the body's main stress hormones, lives in close relationship with other well known hormones, especially insulin, thyroid, estrogen, and testosterone.

Many modern women experience major ongoing stressors, such as juggling parenting and family life with work and endless responsibilities. Some sources suggest that up to 80% of women experience hormone imbalance at some point in their life. Additionally, stress may contribute to or impact up to 90% of chronic illness. 

 Recognizing Hormonal Imbalances

Here are commonly overlooked signs of hormonal imbalances:

  • Fatigue
  • Low libido
  • Mood changes
  • Rashes or acne
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Frequent infections
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Blood sugar issues
  • Hair loss or thinning
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Painful menstrual cycles
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Hot flashes and night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Difficulty losing weight despite trying

Hormonal Imbalances and Health

Hormones are one of the main ways our body communicates internally. Many hormones are involved in metabolism and energy. Not surprisingly, when hormones are out of balance, we can feel the effects in a wide variety of ways.

Cortisol has a direct impact on heart rate, function, and blood pressure, thus has an impact on the development and management of heart disease.  Additionally, as mentioned before, cortisol exists in relationship with other hormones, meaning when there are changes in cortisol, there are changes in hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and thyroid.

For example, cortisol, testosterone, progesterone and estrogen are all made from the same parent hormone- Pregnenolone. Some research suggests that when needs for cortisol are elevated (such as during periods of acute stress), our bodies intentionally shift pregnenolone production towards cortisol instead of progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone (known as the "cortisol steal").  This may lead to low testosterone, estrogen or progesterone.

Though testosterone is primarily talked about as a male hormone, females need it too.  Testosterone gives us a sense of vitality and drive, builds muscle, stimulates red blood cell production, supports healthy cholesterol levels, promotes sleep, heightens libido, and maintains a healthy metabolism and weight.  Low testosterone may contribute to gaining weight, development of obesity, muscle loss, joint or muscle pain (such as with fibromyalgia), trouble sleeping, high cholesterol, osteopenia/osteoporosis, and infertility.

Estrogen is responsible for healthy reproduction, regulation of menstruation, supporting energy and drive, and moods.  Low estrogen may cause irregular periods, weight gain, night sweats, fatigue, hot flashes, moodiness, and vaginal dryness among other things. Low estrogen is also associated with development of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) after a traumatic event. 

Elevated cortisol levels and chronically high stress are some of the biggest contributors to low progesterone.  When progesterone is low in relationship to estrogen as well, this may trigger estrogen dominance. Progesterone contributes to fertility, moods, and a sense of calm and peace.  Low progesterone may cause unusual bleeding or spotting, irregular periods, short periods (less than 24 days in a cycle), headaches, migraines, anxiety, weight gain, low libido, breast tenderness, and uterine fibroids. It may also contribute to gallbladder issues.

Other hormones or systems impacted by chronic stress and cortisol levels include:

  • Leaky gut and inflammation through cortisol induced disruptions in the microbiome, reduced vagal tone, low production of stomach acid (hypochlorhydria), slowed peristalsis, and impaired mucus lining.
  • Thyroid hormone (hyper or hypo-thyroid) through changes in the gut including inflammation and activation/de-activation of thyroid hormone
  • Insulin, typically causing hyper-insulinemia through excess blood sugar production in the liver, contributing to Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus 
  • Ghrelin and leptin, hormones responsible for regulating appetite and hunger often causing increased hunger and reducing satiety, leading to overeating
  • Melatonin, contributing to restlessness and insomnia
  • Inhibition of the immune system leading to susceptibility to infections

Promoting Balance

Thankfully, there are things you can do on your own to promote healthy hormones and bring things back into balance.  You may consider

  • Mindful breathing
  • Meditation
  • Mindful eating
  • A 1 minute pause before meals
  • Regular restorative exercise (such as yin yoga)
  • Sauna or hot baths
  • Getting 6-8 servings of cruciferous vegetables daily
  • Exercise, such as 10-20 minutes of walking
  • Regular meal times
  • Circadian fasting (eating within a 12 hour window and aiming for most intake in the middle of the day when your body is most insulin sensitive)

When to Dig Deeper

For some people, the above practices can be helpful but still may not go deep enough. You may benefit from deeper investigation and Functional Medicine support if you have:

  • High blood pressure or other diagnosed cardiac illness
  • Diagnosed mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic infections
  • Gut issues such as food sensitivities, leaky gut, bloating, or constipation
  • Autoimmune issues
  • Infertility
  • PMS or other menstrual irregularities
  • Hypo- or hyperthyroid
  • Being told "your labs are normal" when you know you don't feel well

Using specialty Functional Medicine tests, we may be able to identify root causes of symptoms and use precise tactics to address issues. 

For example, hormonal imbalances are common amongst my clients.  We often use a variety of testing not only to identify the hormone imbalances, but to identify contributing causes, such as micronutrient deficiencies or chronic infections.  Based on their results, I work directly with my clients to help them make adjustments to their nutrition, lifestyle, and supplements to treat their root causes. In many cases, these natural tactics that are designed to deal directly with the underlying causes, reduce or even reverse their chronic conditions and symptoms, often in a matter of weeks.

Learn more about the Functional Medicine difference 

May you have everything you need to heal,


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