When I was in nutrition school I was totally amazed when I learned about how stress hormones affect the entire body – especially the relationship cortisol has with other hormones.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that has a direct impact on the entire hormonal system. It affects thyroid hormones, blood sugar hormones (insulin) and sex hormones (progesterone, estrogen etc.)
Personally, I have been affected by this my whole life. My own cortisol levels were sky high for many years. I was living on adrenaline, over-consuming caffeine (which spikes cortisol!), over-exercising, dieting, not sleeping well and was totally disconnected from my own body – all creating huge amounts of stress. As a result, I had a terrible relationship with my body – I felt awful. I woke up exhausted every day with a pang of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I felt anxious/guilty/fearful around food. I developed PCOS (Poly-Cystic Ovary Syndrome). I found my weight very difficult to control/manage and my menstrual cycle was all over the place.
Stress and hormones
People often ask me, “How can I balance my hormones?”. My response is, “You need to take care of your stress levels – first and foremost”.
Stress directly affects the synchronicity of your hormones. If you’re feeling stressed, your hormones will be out of whack. When cortisol levels are constantly high, they affect the production of sex hormones, slow down thyroid function and imbalanced blood sugar levels. They also make it hard for your body to create those ‘feel good’ hormones like serotonin.
Stress and weight gain
It breaks my heart when women walk into my office or write to me via my blog saying “I’m doing all the right things, Jess. I’m eating well, exercising daily and I’ve given up processed food – but my weight still isn’t going down! Why?”
My mind immediately goes to stress. While digestion and liver health play a role in weight gain, usually high-stress levels keep them from reaching their optimal and healthy weight. And they don’t even know it.
From a physical perspective, high cortisol levels are linked to lower thyroid function as well as weight gain, especially around the stomach area. Cortisol also throws off our blood sugar levels, which triggers cravings and overeating. Ever wondered why you eat more when you’re stressed? Or crave chocolate? This is why. Some people lose their appetite when they’re stressed, but then tend to overeat later when their appetite returns. On the other hand, low cortisol levels occur when your stress levels have been high for so long and then crash – aka adrenal fatigue. This can also make it harder to lose weight, as your energy levels lower (who has the motivation to exercise then?!) and you start to crave sugar. Low cortisol can also impact healthy thyroid function.
From an emotional point of view, I believe that when we worry and stress about our weight – like so many women and men do – we are more likely to gain weight. Worrying spikes our cortisol levels. Personally, I’ve noticed that when I’m fixated on my weight, it seems to go up. When I relax and forget about it, my body feels lighter. It’s fascinating.
Stress also takes a toll on your energy, which makes it much harder to get up and exercise and make healthy food choices.
So what can you do?
Take a break from excessive and intense exercise – try swapping one or two of your High-intensity exercise classes for gentle forms of exercise (e.g. yoga, Pilates or walking). Do this for a trial period of two to four weeks, to see if it lowers your stress.
Include good fats and good-quality organic protein sources in your diet – healthy fats (think avocado, nuts, extra-virgin olive oil, tahini, oily fish like salmon, anchovies etc.) and good quality proteins (chicken, fish, lean red meat, tempeh, and legumes) can work wonders in balancing your hormones. My blog is full of delicious and healthy recipes to help!
Breathe – make a conscious effort to relax and breathe deeply for 10 minutes every evening. Pop your legs up against the wall while you do this.
Try my daily stress-reducing exercise – Every night, I pop my legs up on the wall. Literally. It’s the easiest (and cheapest) way to restore balance to the body and hormones after a long day. Give it a go! And don’t worry, my husband always thought I was nuts – until he tried it for himself…
Because many of the symptoms of chronic stress are also associated with low hormones, such as sleep loss, fatigue, and low testosterone levels, we recommend getting your Hormones and Stress levels checked if you experience any prolonged, unusual or unexplained stress. At AAI Clinic, we can measure your Hormones, Testosterone Injections, and Stress and make recommendations regarding any hormone replacement therapy or supplements that could alleviate your stress-related symptoms.
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Jessica Sepel is a clinical nutritionist, author, and blogger. For more information, visit http://www.jessicasepel.com.