Our body naturally produces the stress hormone 'cortisol' which enables us to function during our day to day activities, as well as react to pressure when required with the 'fight or flight' response. However continuously high levels of stress, such as constant work pressures, can do serious damage to your health, throwing your hormones out of balance and causing everything from sleep problems, fatigue, cravings, weight issues, anxiety, low libido, thyroid disorders and even depression. All of these issues can directly impact our productivity, moods and relationships, so learning how to cope with stress is imperative for a healthy hormone balance.
So how can you tell if you have a hormone imbalance?
Low energy and poor sleep: a vicious cycle of being stressed is poor sleep quality despite fatigue. Having difficulty switching off or falling asleep, as well as waking through the night, especially at that 3am mark, are all indicators of high stress which is causing unstable blood sugars, and causing you to wake intermittently, sometimes for a long period of time causing even more distress and fatigue.
Weight gain: our bodies are not designed to metabolise the stress hormone cortisol, and insulin (glucose from sugars and carbs) at the same time. This was due to us requiring more blood to pump to the nervous system in times of 'fight or flight', and less blood being required to digest food - basically the metabolism of cortisol wins over the metabolism of insulin. During prolonged or continuous periods of high stress, your body cannot metabolise the food you eat properly, leading to that all so common weight gain around the waist, which is difficult to lose no matter how much exercise and dieting you inflict on yourself.
Low libido: it may seem inevitable that low energy and poor sleep equates to a poor sex drive, but it's actually deeper than that. Heightened stress levels start to affect our sex hormones, often increasing oestrogen or decreasing testosterone, leaving you feeling far less than sexy or in the mood for sex.
Thyroid malfunction: hyper and hypothyroidism are a result of your thyroid not producing hormones in the correct amounts and may be due to high stress/cortisol levels, and/or an imbalance in your sex hormones. Symptoms range from the inability to lose weight or steady weight gain, fatigue, loss of hair, thinning of the outer half of the eyebrows, to weight loss or the inability to put on weight, irritability, anxiety and sleep issues.
PMS, Endometriosis, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) - all of these female conditions are directly related to hormone imbalances. Endometriosis sufferers struggle to detoxify oestrogen from the body. This is often indicated by painful periods, heavy bleeding, PMS symptoms such as anxiety and depression, tender breasts, painful sex and/or weight gain predominantly on the hips and thighs. PCOS symptoms include jawline acne and excess hair growth from increased testosterone, irregular periods, weight gain around the midsection, and a tendency towards more aggressive, irritable moods.
So how can you combat stress?
Clean up your diet
There's no doubt that when you're overly stressed and/or tired, many of us tend to gravitate towards comfort foods that are often high in processed nasties such as refined sugar, salt and starchy carbohydrates. Unfortunately these foods cause inflammation in your body, which can leave you feeling more tired and sluggish, increase cravings and leave you feeling worse than before eating. As a result your concentration levels decrease, your guilt increases, and the stress and pressure of getting through your To Do list builds up, causing sleep issues later that night, and so the vicious cycle continues!
My suggestion would be to start by cutting the processed, artificial and stimulating food from your diet. Even coffee can make the situation worse by exacerbating stress and anxiety levels, as well as leaving you chasing your next energy hit. Cut out all processed food (anything that comes in a packet), alcohol, energy drinks, and caffeine and try to eat foods in their most whole state with an abundance of nutrients and healthy fat for nutrient absorption and brain function.
Yes you may be tired but exercise is imperative for counteracting the effects that stress can have on you by releasing those happy endorphins, making you feel energised and allowing you to focus on the day ahead. On the other hand, too much exercise can cause your body to hold onto weight as a stress reaction, so it's good to find a balance.
For someone who is stressed, I recommend that you try to fit in a 20-30 minute walk or jog a few times a week. Anything that elevates your heart rate for over 40 minutes could leave you feeling worse if your stress levels are too high, so take it easy. Best exercises for stress include yoga, pilates, walking, jogging, swimming and short sharp HIIT sessions to help take your mind off your worries.
Stick to the same sleep/wake cycle
When you're stressed it's common for sleep to become disrupted and therefore it's important that you try to keep a normal bed routine to remind your body when to switch off and turn back on again.
Having rituals here can really help here. Try a warm cup of almond milk with a tsp of raw honey before bed to help regulate blood sugar levels and help you sleep more soundly; taking a quality magnesium supplement and a warm shower or Epsom salt bath before bed can really help your muscles relax and allow your body to recognise that it's time to sleep. In the morning, set your alarm at the same time every day, don't allow yourself to snooze and try a quick stretch, workout or brisk walk to tell your body to wake up.
Fix the problem!
If your stress is more than that a few tight deadlines, then perhaps it's time to get to the root of the problem. Identify what the problem is and build a strategy to help you get through it. Even consider seeking the help of an expert as they are qualified to listen, offer advice and to help assist your body's coping mechanisms, be it through diet or supplements. A health expert should also be able to help decrease and reverse the effects stress has on you.
Pip Reed is a qualified, certified and registered nutritionist, personal trainer and yoga-fit instructor, with over ten years experience in the health and fitness industry. Pip specialises in women's health, weight loss, hormone imbalances, stress and healthy aging.
She is also the co-founder of Australia's first online nutrition clinic thehealthclinic.com.au, which offers a free 30 minute initial consultation to everyone - no strings attached.