We all have moments of stress in our lives and our bodies are designed to cope with small bursts of it. However, in our modern society where the pace of life seems to be progressing full speed ahead, many people report feeling stressed on a regular, if not daily, basis.
When we feel stressed quite consistently, it has a flow-on effect to all of our body systems and can send our hormonal balance out of whack. This is because our body is wired to perceive stress as impending danger. It doesn’t understand that you’re feeling stressed because it takes so long to get the family out the door and now you’re late to your meeting, for example. To your body, stress—whether perceived (i.e. based on your thoughts) or real (i.e. based on actual physical danger)—means that your life is under threat.
Since your body’s primary objective is to preserve your life, it hijacks your biochemistry and sends messages to prioritise the production of stress hormones and vital processes over everything else.
Here’s how this can impact on your other hormones.
The female body links progesterone to fertility however, its production is impacted by stress as it is made in small amounts by our adrenal glands, where our stress hormones are also made. Not to mention that if our body perceives the message that there is persistent danger in our lives, it won’t want us to bring a baby into the world and so it downregulates reproductive system function. Chronic stress can contribute to irregular ovulation, and ovulation is what stimulates the surge in progesterone in the second half of the menstrual cycle.
Insulin is a hormone that is produced in response to an elevation in our blood glucose levels. Its role is to help glucose move from the blood into our cells, which helps to bring our blood glucose back down into the normal range. However, it is also a fat storage hormone. When we are churning out stress hormones, biochemical changes that lead to an increase in our blood glucose levels are triggered, as the body thinks it needs an ample supply of a fast burning fuel to allow us to fight or flee the danger it perceives we are in. Chronic stress may contribute to the development of insulin resistance.
Stress promotes the formation of reverse T3, which is the inactive form of T3, our thyroid hormone. Reverse T3 does not have the same metabolism-driving effects of T3, which every cell in the body relies on.
Chronic stress can contribute to elevated prolactin levels, which interferes with other hormones involved in the menstrual cycle. When prolactin levels are too high, we may experience irregular periods or they may stop altogether for a length of time.
So how do we reduce the impact that stress has on our hormone balance? Quite simply we need to look at our stress response. Unless we stop our body from perceiving stress, it is going to continue sending the message to our body to prioritise our survival and downregulate the function of other body systems—including the production of various hormones.
When I suggest this to people, they often share with me how it feels impossible to reduce the stress in their lives. And while it’s true that some periods of our lives are genuinely and unavoidably stressful, we often forget to consider that a lot of our stress is created by how we perceive the world and the way we need to be. Reducing stress can be aided by simply exploring our perception of pressure and urgency and becoming aware of any tendency to run ourselves ragged because we don’t want to let anyone down. I say simple because it’s not a complex solution, but it certainly can be easier said than done to change our beliefs. Yet, it may be that nothing in your life needs to change except your perception in order for your body to stop responding to certain external stimuli as stressful. And this may lead you to experience your life in a whole new way, that better serves your health and happiness.