Stress is a physiological or emotional response to change or a threat.
There are many different forms of stress. A perceived threat could be emotional, psychological, physical, chemical or nutritional. The body’s response is the same in every situation but ongoing stress depletes the health reserve capacity of an individual, consequently increasing their vulnerability to health concerns and problems, including hormone imbalances.
When the body is stressed, it produces a fight or flight response, in which many hormones are produced due to a trigger response from the brain. One of the major hormones produced during this response is cortisol, our main stress hormone. While in the short term this can be healthy as it increases alertness, productivity and physical performance, in the long term it’s an entirely different story.
In fact long term stress has been associated with biological ageing, oxidative stress and inflammation, suppression or abnormal regulation of immune function, impairment of brain structure and function, increased susceptibility to some types of infection and worsening of conditions like depression, heart disease and some types of cancer.
Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands and while it is needed to maintain normal physiological processes during times of stress, prolonged elevated cortisol levels can lead to hypertension, glucose intolerance, diabetes, fatigue, muscle loss and increased infections. Furthermore, excessively prolonged or severe stress (i.e. trauma, infection) and poor nutrition can lead to abnormal messages from the brain causing dysfunction of the adrenal glands.
The next step is ‘burnout’, which is a result of a decrease in the brain’s ability to stimulate cortisol secretion at rest and in response to a stressor. This state is also known as adrenal fatigue.
Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Stress
There are a number of symptoms of chronic stress. It’s important to be aware of them because if you are struggling with excessively high stress levels, it may be to the detriment of your health.
- You feel tired for no reason
- You have trouble getting up in the morning, even when you go to bed at a reasonable hour
- You are feeling rundown or overwhelmed
- You have difficulty bouncing back from stress or illness.
- You crave salty and sweet snacks
- You rely on coffee (caffeine) and other “energy” drinks for a pick me up
- You experience an afternoon low between 2pm and 5 pm
- You feel tired at 9-10pm but may resist going to bed
- You get a second wind at 11pm
- Anxiety/nervousness, irritable
- Decreased libido
- Light headed when rising quickly from sitting or lying
- You suffer from food sensitivities and/or allergies
- Increased muscular weakness
- Mental “fog” and poor memory
- Mild constipation or diarrhoea that increases under stress
- Chronic fatigue and/or infections
- Increased susceptibility and duration of colds and flu
If you are experiencing these symptoms, consult a healthcare practitioner who may advise on performing a salivary hormone test of cortisol over the course of the day and evening.
Once you have the results, work with an expert who can help you with an individualised management plan to get your health back on track.
How to manage hormone/cortisol imbalance
Stress management – it’s important to control unhealthy stress levels by identifying and minimising the emotional and physical stressors, and by increasing your psychological and physical ability to tolerate stress. Yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, stretching, breathing techniques and visualisation are some good examples.
Diet– a diet consisting of unprocessed foods, healthy fats, vegetable or fish protein, 7+ brightly coloured vegetables and fruits per day, whole grains, nuts, and pure water will help manage a hormone imbalance.
Minimise refined carbohydrates/sugars, animal fats and meats, dairy products and eliminate trans fatty acids (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats, shortening).
Nutraceuticals– There are a number of brilliant supplements on the market that were created to assist with various hormone imbalances. Work with a professional to get a nutritional and herbal supplement program together for you. This will help to assist in brain and adrenal gland repair.
Quit smoking– If you are a smoker, stop immediately. If you need help doing so, contact your GP or the QuitLine to find out how. Also, avoid caffeine, alcohol and recreational drugs as they will heighten your stress and inflammation response.
Exercise– depending how chronically stressed you are, rest and recovery is very important, so if you plan on exercise, aim for a very low intensity session. Otherwise aim for 30 minutes of exercise on most days with as much incidental physical activity as possible.
Sleep – It’s important that you sleep during regular hours. Aim to be in bed by 9pm as for a good nights sleep you need 5 cycles of uninterrupted sleep, consisting of 7.5 hours or more.
Ensure that you don’t eat, drink alcohol or caffeine, or exercise for 3 hours before your bedtime.
Sleep in a dark, quiet, cool room or use ear plugs or an eye mask if necessary. Also refrain from watching the tv or checking your phone/ email before bed.