“I’m so stressed out.”
As we become busier and feel the pressure to do and be it all, this sentence has become commonplace in our culture and society. From overextending ourselves in day-to-day obligations and priorities like our careers, relationships, finances, and health and well-being – not to mention the unpredictable curveballs that life throws our way, including the collective trauma of a global pandemic – it’s no wonder stress is at an all-time high.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, stress became “sexy.” We wear stress like a badge of honor that shows the world we work harder, longer, and have more responsibilities than our peers. While stress may seem widespread, the impact on our overall health and well-being is anything but sexy. Stress can result in low energy, headaches, digestive issues, insomnia, a weakened immune system, and loss of libido. Chronic stress can have an even larger impact, leading to inflammation in the body and chronic disease.
In addition to this nonexhaustive list of negative impacts on our minds and bodies, stress can also cause hormonal imbalances – specifically those who menstruate. But by understanding what stress is and how it impacts us uniquely, we can take mindful steps to managing stress to improve our overall health.
What is stress?
The simplest way to think about stress is to consider how your body perceives a threat. The threat the body perceives can be a real and serious threat, like when you’re in physical danger, or it can be psychological, like when you have a big deadline coming up at work and not enough time to meet it.
Regardless of whether you’re experiencing physical or psychological stress or whether the threat is real or perceived, the body’s reaction is relatively the same. We all know what the onset of stress feels like in the body – pounding heart, shaky hands, inability to focus, and sweating. This is all part of the stress response, an incredible mechanism for survival.
Upon perception of a threat, your brain sets off an alarm that puts your body into fight-or-flight mode, activating your sympathetic nervous system, which is ready to respond and take action. This is the beginning of the stress response cycle, where nerve and hormonal signals send cues to your body to release stress hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is the hormone that causes the symptoms we can all recognize, increasing blood pressure and boosting energy supplies. Meanwhile cortisol, the primary stress hormone, releases glucose into your bloodstream, which enables you to take quick action to mitigate the threat. Cortisol also helps reduce bodily functions that aren’t essential in that moment, like digestion, immune function, and the reproductive system.
Stress is a natural and normal part of life. In fact, when experienced in small doses, it can even be a good thing – that’s called eustress. Stress can even motivate us to execute better work, build resilience, and support our interpersonal relationships. However, when the stress response is activated over a prolonged period, it becomes chronic and leads to many health complications.
How Stress Can Cause Hormonal Imbalances
Many individuals have experienced the symptoms of a hormonal imbalance at some point in their life, including:
- Brain fog
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings
- Weight gain
When the root cause is examined, it has been found that elevated levels of stress hormones are to blame. The prolonged activation of stress hormones have a domino effect on other hormones, including sex hormones and thyroid, which are key players in the regulation of hormone health.
The dysregulation of these hormones can lead to irregular periods, PMS symptoms, poor sleep, and even infertility since cortisol triggers a hormone that suppresses ovulation.
Tips and Strategies for Stress Management
It’s important to remember that while we all encounter and experience stress, the level to which stress will impact us will vary. Our stress response is based on both genetics and previous life experiences. This explains why some of your friends may seem easy breezy about things that activate your fight-or-flight mode.
However, regardless of when your stress response is activated, there are strategies we can employ to decrease the number of stressors in our lives so we can live longer, healthier lives.
Try the following to decrease your stress levels:
If you’re interested in learning more about hormones and your health, check out IIN’s Hormone Health Course.