Although your diet is super important to support your hormones, in my experience helping many hundreds of women going through perimenopause, I now think the number one indicator of how bad your symptoms will be is STRESS.
I can't prove it (haven't done a clinical trial on this) but in our clinic, there does seem to be a direct correlation between how stressed you are (internally or externally) and how severe your menopause symptoms are.
And although it is talked about a lot (especially by me!), it's STILL something we are finding difficult to manage.
What's stressing us out?
There may be good reason for more stress in your life if you're a woman over 40!
1. Menopause – this itself is a stressful event! The hormone changes that are happening during menopause can last many years, and these imbalances can be a stress on the body.
2. Life stresses – including; kids (whether they're teenagers or you had them late and they're still young), relationships (divorce or family breakups), health issues (yours or your loved ones), grief or bereavement, financial worries, elderly parents or the whole JUGGLE of keeping everything (and everyone) happy!
3. Work stress – the Health & Safety Executive says that midlife women report more work related stress than any other group.
4. Physical stresses – this can include ageing, health conditions, infection, illness, surgery, toxins, food intolerances, medications, nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar imbalances, dehydration and more!
5. Emotional stresses – including feeling lonely, angry, frustrated, sad, insecure or carrying around unresolved emotional or psychological stress such as past trauma or PTSD.
Why stress can make menopause worse
Cortisol is our main stress hormone – and it's good in the right amounts. We need it to wake up in the morning and keep us alert and energised til bedtime. But it’s unrelenting high levels of cortisol over a prolonged period that can exacerbate our menopause symptoms and accelerate the ageing process.
Through menopause, when your ovaries reduce production of oestrogen and progesterone, the adrenal glands become the primary source of oestrogen and progesterone. If your adrenals are already pumping out cortisol to deal with your life, work, internal or emotional stressors, it can severely impact this back up source of sex hormone production.
This can exacerbate symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, mood swings, hot flushes, night sweats, low libido and vaginal dryness.
Cortisol can also interfere with progesterone production, which can lead to symptoms like anxiety, depression, and poor sleep.
And if your sex hormone levels are too low, it can increase your risk of osteoporosis, heart disease and dementia.
Obviously, HRT will help to replace some of these low hormones, however if you don't deal with the cortisol imbalance, its effects will be limited and you're still likely to have unwanted symptoms.
Other health effects of chronic stress & cortisol
Cortisol not only affects your menopause symptoms, but it's also a risk factor for other symptoms and health conditions. Some of these include;
- Skin ageing – too much cortisol can make your skin loses its elasticity and becomes more prone to wrinkles. Cortisol can also cause acne breakouts and other skin issues.
- Brain fog – prolonged exposure to cortisol actually damages brain neurons and reduces your ability to think clearly and efficiently.
- Belly fat– excess cortisol can also cause weight gain, especially around the belly. We've got lots of cortisol receptors in the abdomen area, it's a handy place to store fat if we're constantly in ‘survival mode'!
- Immune weakness – too much cortisol for too long can weaken your immune system and make it harder for you to fight off illnesses.
- Digestive issues – cortisol can mess with your digestion and cause problems like acid reflux, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This is because cortisol can slow down the movement of food through your gut and affect the way your body digests and absorbs nutrients.
- Heart health – High levels of cortisol can have negative effects on the heart and cardiovascular system. Chronic stress and high cortisol levels have been linked to an increased risk of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
- Bone health – High levels of cortisol can cause the breakdown of bone tissue and decrease bone density, increasing the risk of fractures and osteoporosis.
Tips to Manage Your Stress
1. Lighten your load – if you can look at your commitments and see if you can reduce them, this will be the first place to start. Some things can usually give, as we tend to say yes way too often. See what you can cancel , see which ‘friends' you can ditch (you know the ones), work out what else can go. Stop doing things you don’t LOVE – if you can. Each small win here will feel so good!
2. Slow down – spend some time just doing nothing. If it feels boring or you feel twitchy – it's a sure sign that you need to slow down even more. It's easy to get addicted to adrenaline! Start slow with just 5 minutes sitting still, doing some breathwork (try OPEN), listening to a mindful meditation or chill music. Build up slowly as your body starts to thank you.
3. Make your down time non-negotiable – schedule your relax time in your calendar, and make it sacred. If you don't want to sit still, there are lots of other ways to switch off, whether it's a walk in nature, a warm bath, listening to your favourite playlist, reading a book, gardening, chatting to a friend, watching a comedy – do whatever works for you, just do it DAILY!
4. Spend more time in nature – green spaces are a huge stress reliever. Switch off your cortisol while getting your steps in! Create a calming playlist for your walk, or listen to your favourite podcast. Or better still, just listen to the sounds of nature as you walk.
5. Prioritise your sleep – sleep is when your body gets to properly restore. Get to bed by 10.30pm, and get off your phone or gadgets well before that so your brain has time to switch off.
6. Be strict about work/home boundaries – make sure there’s a cut off between work and home. If you work from home, shut the office door when you're done, and don’t do any more work til the next morning. Tell people you’re not available between certain hours and on your days off.
7. Try a regular digital detox – if you're on screens a lot, try putting your phone/tablet away in the evenings or for one day a week (this one is one I'm still working on!).
8. Change your state – when you feel anxious or stressed, change your state. Stop and take deep breaths for 5 minutes, phone a good friend, listen to some music or go for a walk. It's amazing how well this works.
9. Take your holidays! I'm astounded how many women tell me they don't always take their full holiday allowance. You don't need to spend money going away, just taking time out from work is SO important.
10. Get connected – it's easy when you're busy to feel disconnected from people. Loneliness and isolation are huge stressors. Make an effort to regularly see or speak to the people you love. And if you want new connections, join a group, start a new hobby or do some volunteering.
We love a helpful tool here at Happy Hormones! Here are two of our favourites;
- Sensate; a brilliant little device designed to calm your stress response in just 10 minutes a day. Use code HAPPYHORMONES for a 10% discount. Learn more.
- Open App; a fantastic all in one online studio where you can practice Mindfulness, Meditation, Yoga, Pilates and BreathWork. Sign up for a free 30 day TRIAL and see how good it is!
Supplements for Stress
Don't forget to support your adrenals nutritionally with my Top 5 supplements – including a good multivitamin, some Vitamin C and Magnesium will help to replace the nutrients that are often depleted quickly when you’re stressed. And don't forget your Vitamin D during the winter to support your immune system. You can add in some adaptogens too that can really help to support your adrenals.
We also love the Feel formulas which you can bundle into monthly subscriptions for the biggest discounts. Here are my Top 5 FEEL formulas to consider.