As a functional nutritionist, I help women to identify and address the root causes of their hormone and digestive symptoms. Say goodbye to fad diets, my mission is to empower you in your health and create change that sustains.
Get ready! In this article we will talk about how adrenal stress might just be the missing link is what is straining your hormone health.
Adrenal stress is one of the most overlooked areas when addressing hormone health in my opinion. I see it as a piece of the puzzle in all of my clients with period problems, PCOS, missing periods, and infertility. I mentioned this in my recent instagram post too!
“Avoiding the impact of stress in the journey to fix your hormone problems is like trying to fill water into a bucket full of holes”.
Here we will take a deeper dive into what that stress can really look like.
The stress response is NOT intended to be bad! It is here with purpose to support the body in an acute event of stress and allow it to jump to action as needed. An example of this could be needing to jump out of the way of a moving car in the street or the ever used example of needing to run from a bear or predator in the wild. Cortisol, a hormone produced in the stress response, is really a “survival hormone”
Let’s walk quickly through the response together.
Well we would hope…
When stressors continue to be present, the fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on, stuck like a gas pedal.. there is bound to be a crash.
The issue here is that many modern experiences for women can also be perceived as a stressful threat when the sympathetic nervous system is on tilt. Examples of this stress might be:
Just to name a few..
Long-term activation of the above stress response system overexposes the body to cortisol. Chronic high levels of cortisol can be SUPER tough on the body and your hormones, unraveling a collection of other associated symptoms.
Under normal circumstances, cortisol has a flow or curve throughout the day. Cortisol is higher in the morning to help with waking, and slowly lowers throughout the day. Melatonin, “your sleepy time hormone”, is inversely proportional to cortisol i.e when cortisol is high, melatonin is low and vice versa!
Adrenal stress happens when the stress response gas pedal has been going and there becomes an imbalance in this cortisol rhythm. Cortisol is either low when it should be high, high when it should be low, or always low or always high. Back to our discussion of the stress response, the problem isn’t isolated in your adrenals, it is really a dysfunction of your brain’s communication with your adrenals and the perceived threat.
Your adrenal glands regulate many critical hormonal jobs in your body including electrolyte balance, inflammation, sleep and waking cycles (circadian health), blood sugar, body weight regulation of other hormones, and the stress response which we have been speaking of.
When the stress response is activated, the body must prioritize where its resources are going. Under the impression of a high prolonged stress, the body is not prioritizing the pathways that would support hormone production for ovulation and becoming pregnant.
When cortisol and adrenaline are high, the body suppresses gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), the hormone that starts the relay of messages that stimulate ovulation and your cycles. Cortisol also inhibits pituitary LH and FSH production, making your ovaries more resistant to these hormones, and blocks maturation of ovarian follicles (hello PCOS!). That’s not all, cortisol also blocks progesterone receptors so that even if you do ovulate, your body isn’t getting the full caliber of benefits that progesterone provides to the brain or the body.
Essentially what we see here is a recipe for hormone disaster related to high prolonged stress. Biochemical changes that could negatively impact cycle symptoms and fertility outcomes as well as be direct contributors to conditions like amenorrhea, PCOS, and dysmenorrhea.
There are a collective of typical symptoms associated with being stuck in the stress response. This is related to that gas pedal presentation and also a strain on sex hormone production.
Waking up in the middle of the night
Trouble falling asleep
Low sex drive
Cycle specific symptoms include
Irregular or skipped periods
Increased cycle length
The stress response is normal, but when it is chronically activated it can cause serious problems for hormone health, resulting in a number of symptoms and conditions like PCOS, amenorrhea, infertility, and period problems.
When we are looking at hormone conditions, we want to remember that nothing in the body exists in a silo. Everything in the body is connected and where one domino falls, the others will eventually follow unless something is adjusted.
If you realize that stress is playing a bigger role in your hormone story than you thought, you are not alone, and I’m here to help!
If you are struggling with hormone symptoms, TTC, or looking for natural solutions to support PCOS, understanding how your adrenal function intersects with sex hormone production is essential.
“ Avoiding the impact of stress in the journey to fix your hormone problems is like trying to fill water into a bucket full of holes”.
In my practice I first recommend diet and lifestyle foundations to build the momentum of re-regulating the HPA and HPO (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Ovarian) axis – these are small daily habits that can make TREMENDOUS strides in your hormone health!
The next step? Collecting specific data points to help my clients further fine tune their hormone healing journey with the DUTCH Comprehensive Hormone Assessment – this looks at those cortisol (above images)/cortisone curves, melatonin levels, and the intricacies of how your sex hormones (i.e. estrogen, progesterone, testosterone) and their metabolites speak to one another in your body. This test is THOROUGH and I find it so helpful it up-leveling my clients results!