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The Cortisol Connection – How stress affects your hormones

We all know that stress is bad for us, and can even kill us! But did you know that it can ruin your hormones too? And your immune system, digestion, sex life and brain function?

The hormone behind many stress related issues is cortisol. Cortisol’s job is to keep us alive, so it’s pretty damn important! It’s released from the adrenal glands to wake us up in the morning, keep us alert during the day and help us manage any dangers or threats that come our way.

In caveman times, this would help save our lives from a lion attack or a famine. Our ‘fight or flight’ response would kick in – the brain would send a message to the adrenals to release adrenaline (the big initial rush), and cortisol (to keep us on high alert).

These hormones;

  • raise blood pressure
  • pump sugar in to the blood so that your muscles and cells have the energy to run or fight
  • suppress other systems to conserve energy

These days, not so many lions….But plenty of modern day stresses like demanding bosses, deadlines, relationship issues, traffic jams, kids, money worries, the list goes on….

Unfortunately we only have ONE stress response. That’s the ‘fight or flight’ one that evolved to keep us alive.

Our brains are amazing things. But they can’t distinguish between a real danger (lion) or a perceived danger (traffic jam). So our bodies react as if we’re being attacked and we might die.

Great if you’re actually being attacked. Not that helpful if you’re just feeling overwhelmed!

Why our evolutionary stress response can be problematic;

  • it’s designed to be temporary – once you escaped or killed the lion, you could rest in your cave and recover. We can’t escape from our modern day stresses – there is no rest & recover time – it’s unrelenting
  • all that sugar that is mobilized for energy to fight or run from your source of stress isn’t being used up (unless you go kick boxing after work every day) – so it gets stored as FAT – usually around the middle where it can be easily accessed
  • cortisol has priority over everything. When you are in danger, all your reserves are diverted to survival mechanisms. That means no energy for;
    • digestive processes – digesting and absorbing vital nutrients, keeping out toxins
    • immunity – fighting infection
    • sex hormones – reproduction, monthly cycle, sex drive, bone health

Our bodies have evolved and adapted in many ways since caveman times, but our adrenal stress response is exactly the same.

Sources of stress

the cortisol connection - sources of stress

Sources of stress

You may think of stress as that overwhelm feeling when you’ve got a lot on your plate. But it’s not just the obvious things that put a stress on our bodies. There are many potential stressors that we may not even be aware of, including physical stress (eg pregnancy, injury), digestive stress (eg food sensitivities, microbial infection), chemical (eg environmental toxins), dietary stresses (eg alcohol, sugar, food additives), lifestyle (eg lack of exercise, smoking, poor sleep).

Effects on other hormones

Cortisol is the life saving hormone, so it takes priority over all the other hormones –

  • Thyroid – when stress is prolonged, this can affect our thyroid function. Thyroid hormones ensure every cell has the energy it needs to function properly. When we are low, everything struggles and we can suffer sluggish symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, memory loss, weight gain, constipation, hair loss, poor nails, PMS, low mood.
  • Insulin – when cortisol raises blood sugar, insulin is needed to take the sugar to our cells for use as energy. The more insulin around the more fat storing is likely!
  • Oestrogen/progesterone – you need a good level of progesterone to balance out the effects of oestrogen. Cortisol and progesterone are made from the same mother hormone pregnenolone. So when the body needs cortisol, the production of progesterone gets sacrificed, leaving higher levels of oestrogen in your system. This can result in PMS, bloating, breast tenderness, heavy/painful periods, and increased risk of fibroids, endometriosis and breast/ovarian cancer.

How do you know if you have a cortisol imbalance?

High levels of cortisol can leave you with any of the symptoms below. After a while, your adrenal glands can start to suffer with the high demand. This is when you can start to have too low levels of cortisol, and it will be hard to get up in the morning and your resilience will be low. This is often referred to as adrenal fatigue.

Symptoms of cortisol imbalance

Symptoms of cortisol imbalance

TESTING

Symptoms however are just an indication. Testing can be done to identify where your cortisol levels are, and therefore how to best get them back in to balance.

The test I do routinely for clients is a salivary cortisol test. It measures your cortisol output over 4 points during the day which gives a good indication of how your adrenals are functioning.

HOW TO RESET YOUR CORTISOL

1. Reduce your stressors

  • Identify your particular stressors – everyone has different ones! Go through the list of potential sources of stress and tick any that may be a problem for you.
  • Put a plan in place to reduce or eliminate them. You may need some expert help to do this, and it may take some time, but if you don’t go for the source, you will always be dealing with the consequences.

2. Support your adrenals

  • Switch off more – counteract your flight or flight response by switching on your parasympathetic nervous system (rest & relax mode). To do this, you need to slow right down;
    • Deep belly breathing
    • Meditation or mindfulness
    • Yoga, pilates or something that makes you concentrate on one thing only
    • Getting into nature – walking, fishing, gardening, jogging – whatever gets you outside and smelling the roses!
  • Sleep – sleeping is our natural anti-stress remedy. And of course it’s more difficult when we’re stressed! A tricky one, yes, but if you can improve your sleep you will naturally improve your cortisol balance.
    • Keep your room very dark – artificial light impairs our production of melatonin, our sleep hormone
    • Keep gadgets out of your room
    • Relax before bed (no checking emails or watching a thriller right before bed)
    • Take a warm bath in Epsom Salts
    • Calming herbal teas can be helpful (eg chamomile, licorice, valerian)
  • Restore nutrients – the adrenal glands use up a lot of nutrients to keep pumping out stress hormones. The main ones are;
    • B vitamins – found in oats, nuts, seeds, leafy veg, organic meat, fish, dairy
    • Vitamin C – eat a rainbow of fruit and veg, especially bell peppers, kiwi fruit, citrus fruit, green leafy veg
    • Magnesium – dark green leafy veg, nuts, seeds, brown rice, beans, avocado, dark chocolate, many fruits & veggies (you can also absorb it from Epsom Salts baths)
  • Supplement – in therapeutic doses, supplements can work very quickly to restore balance (always check with your doctor or health practitioner before starting any new supplements);
    • A good quality B complex – especially B5 and B6
    • Vitamin C
    • Magnesium (citrate or glycinate are better absorbed forms)
    • Herbal adaptogens – rhodiola, aswaghanda, holy Basil, lemon balm

It’s so important that as women we start to prioritise ourselves. We often come way down the list, but if we’re not looking after ourselves, we’re no good to anyone else!

Want to learn more about stress and how it might be affecting you? Click here to download your FREE Hormone Balancing Guide.



Nicki WilliamsThe Cortisol Connection – How stress affects your hormones

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