After reviewing hundreds of adrenal and hormone functional medicine lab tests, there’s one thing I know for certain – there is a strong connection between stress and hormone imbalances.
Not all stress is bad stress. Using a sauna, exercise and cold therapy are examples of positive stressors. Even the stress of a big deadline can be a positive because it may get you closer to achieving something that’s special to you.
Chronic stress is not positive. This is when you get stuck in a sympathetic nervous system state (fight or flight). The biggest challenge I see with my female clients is that they dismiss low-grade chronic stress. “Everything is fine, really, I’ve got no big stressors.” But what may really be happening is that she hates her job or dreads meetings with a certain coworker. Perhaps she’s just stressed every morning trying to get the kids out the door for school or worried about what to cook for dinner every night. There are just so many layers of these seemingly very mild stressors AND never a real break from the stress. This is chronic stress and shouldn’t be dismissed.
Here’s a snapshot of the most common connections between stress and hormone imbalances.
Stress and Weight Gain
The connection between stress and hormone imbalances can lead to weight gain. Chronic stress can cause or contribute to insulin resistance . Insulin resistance is the most common cause of weight gain I see in clients. Stress can increase cortisol output. Cortisol can do two things, it can increase blood sugar levels and can also make it harder for your insulin to work properly. Over time, your body must produce more and more insulin to bring down your blood sugar levels. Insulin is the main fat storage hormone so as your insulin resistance increases so does your weight.
Stress and Adrenal Fatigue
Besides weight gain, the biggest connection between stress and hormone imbalances I see has to do with the adrenals. Chronic stress can lead to adrenal fatigue. There are four stages of adrenal fatigue.
Stage 1 – the Alarm Stage – This stage may feel pretty good. Your body produces more cortisol throughout the day to tackle whatever stressors you have at the moment (big deadline or new job). You may feel like you can work through the night!
Stage 2 – Wired and Tired – At this point, stressors have gone on long enough that you may see dysregulated cortisol levels throughout the day. You may feel like you need coffee to get you going in the morning but you have trouble falling asleep at night. At this point, your thyroid gland may be affected. You could see increased TSH levels and lower Free T3.
Stage 3 – Just Tired – At this stage, your body is stealing from your sex hormones to keep producing cortisol just to keep you going. So, you’ll see a drop in libido, your energy level is lower throughout the day and your anxiety level may go up. Your overall quality of life drops noticeably.
Stage 4 – Crashed – At this stage, your cortisol levels throughout the day are very low, all your sex hormones are low and you may feel like you can sleep all day long. Note some doctors may tell their patients that their adrenals have died and they will never bounce back. I tell clients that this is absolutely not true, however, the road to recovery takes time.
Stress and Estrogen Dominance
The connection between stress and sex hormone imbalances really becomes clear during Stages 2 and 3 of Adrenal fatigue. Your body begins to siphon off sex hormones to produce cortisol to keep you moving. The master hormone pregnenolone can go down two pathways, the cortisol pathway or the sex hormone pathway. One of the first sex hormones to start to be depleted is progesterone (which is so important for fertility). When progesterone levels drop and estrogen levels stay steady, it creates an imbalance known as estrogen dominance. Your progesterone ratio to estrogen should be over 100. When clients are stressed, I see this ratio drop to below 20. Over time, in Stage 3 or 4, all sex hormones can drop significantly.
Common symptoms of estrogen dominance include:
- Irregular or heavy periods
- Water retention
- Breast swelling and tenderness
- Headaches, or migraines
- Fibrocystic breast changes
- Weight gain
- Mood swings
- Hair loss
- Painful periods
- PMS is often caused by too much estrogen
Stress and Thyroid Health
Stress can also affect your thyroid hormones. As I mentioned before, Stage 2 Adrenal Fatigue can begin to affect your thyroid. The most common functional medicine lab results I see are a drop in free T4 and free T3  an increase in reverse T3 and an increase in TSH. TSH is when your pituitary gland tells your thyroid to make more T4.
Symptoms of low thyroid;
- Increased anxiety
- Low libido
- Hair loss
- Increase in dark thoughts
- Weight gain
How to Improve Stress Response
When I work with clients to improve their stress responses, my first goal is to help them identify ways they can reduce or remove stressors. This may be something like teaching their children how to make their own lunch in the morning or to share cooking with their partner or spouse. I’m a big believer in simplifying!
Next, I work with clients to help improve their stress response by using awareness and creating pockets of calm. Awareness of what triggers a stress response can help you begin to identify how to reduce those triggers. You may find it helpful to stop reading the news, reduce social media exposure, or reduce time with a friend or family member that makes you feel drained or anxious.
When you do find yourself triggered, creating pockets of calm can help you get back to your rest and digest state. This could be simply taking three deep breaths or going to a quiet room (at your office) for 5 minutes. Perhaps you have a meditation you love to listen to or getting outside for a walk without looking at your phone is your pocket of calm.
Check out my article Are Your More Stressed Than You Know for my favorite tips on creating calm.
For more ideas on changing limiting beliefs, check out my article here.