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.
The amazing thing about the body is it’s innate desire to heal.
In last month’s article, we talked about the stress hormone connection and how chronic exposure to stress in various forms can negatively impact adrenal health and hormone conditions like PCOS, amenorrhea, infertility, and other period problems.
When it comes to supporting stress, we can’t usually control the work deadlines, family crises, illness, accidents, or a global pandemic …(cough cough), but what we can do is support our bodies PERCEPTION to stress. We can do this by building stress resilience.
We also can take greater ownership of some of the daily habits that can create chronic PERCEIVED stress like
When it comes to women’s health, ignoring these daily stressors can create many downstream problems in regard to hormone health, period problems, and fertility.
Did you know that PCOS in itself can be initiated by stress? It has been found that about 10% of PCOS conditions, androgens were produced by the adrenal glands, rather than by the ovaries. In my clinical experience, stress of some sort plays into the PCOS picture.
In one study women with hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA) were found to have 2x the amount of daily cortisol as women without HA in the comparison group
Several studies have underlined a possible relationship between high levels of perceived stress and higher levels of cortisol, and infertility
Ladies, really what I am saying is that these things aren’t small fish when it comes to your hormone health and goals.
My clients find the greatest progress when they are working *consistently* on foundational habits to address whatever their identified mini chronic stressors are.
Are you ready to up-level your hormone game and cool down the stress? Let’s get started with my top 8 foundational strategies to support stress resilience.
If there is one lifestyle habit I could talk about indefinitely related to perceived stress it would be this! Keeping your blood sugars stabilized during the day is one of the best ways to keep hormones like insulin in balance and cool the inflammatory cascade that can come from blood sugars surging.
My top tip?
Choose meals with the 3 T’s
- Type: Aim for a protein or fat with every carbohydrate option
- Timing: Eat a balanced meal or snack every 3-4 hours to prevent dips in blood sugar and promote energy
- Total amount: use the Nourished Plate as a visual method to keep portions of carbohydrate balanced to protein and fat. Carbohydrates are actually GOOD and we do not want to avoid them! What we want to be careful of is that we don’t have an excessive amount of carbohydrate at meals in relation to protein and fat. A good rule of thumb is about ½-1 cup carbohydrate paired with a small palmful of fat and a large palmful of high quality protein (organic grass-fed, or wild caught) .
Did you know that sleep deprivation was once used as a form of torture in warfare and interrogations? Your body RELIES on your ability to sleep. While you are sleeping, your body has many jobs, it is really a time of clean up and repair.
A few things that happen when we sleep..
What time you wake up and what time you feel sleepy are controlled carefully by your adrenal glands, this timing is called your circadian rhythm. The pineal gland, responsible for making melatonin, responds to light and sends messages to your adrenal glands. There is a natural flow of melatonin (our sleepy hormone) and cortisol during the day, cortisol decreasing from waking to bedtime and melatonin decreasing from bedtime to waking.
Melatonin operates inversely to cortisol and when cortisol production is in overdrive, melatonin production is impaired at times when it is expected. This reduction in melatonin can overall impair sleep quality and the body’s ability to operate in the above mechanisms that occur when we sleep.
My top tips
- Aim for 8-9 hours of sleep per night. “But I don’t have time for sleep!” Sleeping more can actually allow for greater productivity! Give yourself a 1 week challenge to see what it looks like to get more sleep.
- Go to bed before 10:00 PM. In a study of young Australians, who slept the same amount, those who went to sleep later were likely to have higher BMI’s and be at greater risk for obesity than those who went to bed earlier.
Our brains control our sleep cycle based on the rhythm of sunlight and darkness. Artificial light and light pollution disrupts this cycle when we are spending our afternoons and early evenings consumed with computer screens and then the night time with TV’s, phones, Kindles, or ipads for relaxation. Artificial light has more of the blue wavelengths than natural light does. Extra blue light exposure has been found to reduce melatonin production, increase rates of insomnia and other health conditions including cancer.
My top tips:
- Start your day with 20-30 minutes of light exposure. This can be best provided by sunlight with a walk at the start of the day (Studies have shown that exercise done outdoors leads to greater reduction in cortisol than exercise done indoors), but this light exposure can also be supported with a light box. Sunlight exposure before 10:00 AM is a fantastic way to support the circadian rhythm.
- Filter out blue light. Use blue blockers in the evening and download f.lux for your portable screens to reduce the negative impact of blue light into the evening.
When we express gratitude, the brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two
neurotransmitters responsible for mood boosting. Consciously practicing gratitude on a daily basis, you can strengthen neural pathways increase consistency of a grateful and positive nature within yourself which builds inner strength to combat stress.
Spending time with loved ones and feeling joy is another way to support the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the biochemical pathways of stress.
I see this area often overlooked in chronic fatigue and adrenal stress presentations. While working on the other areas of support, remember to give yourself some grace and have fun along the way!
At the start or end of the day, jot down just 3 things that you are grateful for on a daily basis
Connect with friends or family who bring you joy and make you feel seen
If you feel presently discouraged with your environment ask yourself, “What truly sounds GOOD to me” and explore activities, connection, relaxation that support your answer!
Caffeine can be a vicious cycle with stressed adrenals.
You might feel like..
Caffeine causes neural excitation in the brain, which the pituitary gland perceives as an emergency and stimulates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. If your adrenal glands are fatigued already, then caffeine is just like adding fuel to a fire, causing your adrenal glands to overwork to make more cortisol, digging you ultimately into further burnout.
The reality is, the best way to have less reliance on caffeine is to work backwards, prioritizing the other areas of adrenal support WHILE starting to reduce your overall caffeine intake.
- Eat breakfast before having caffeine for the day. Caffeine on an empty stomach hits the bloodstream MUCH faster than with food in your belly. By eating before you can reduce over caffeination while being kinder to your adrenals
- Play around with reducing overall caffeine load by replacing with herbal teas, Four Sigamtic coffees or other beverages, adrenal mocktails, or green teas that have less caffeine and additional health benefit
- Avoid caffeine intake past 2:00 PM when possible to support the beneficial sleep component of strengthening your adrenal resilience
By reducing the number or calories consumed, you can trigger a starvation response in your hypothalamus that disrupts Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and shuts down ovulation. Undereating is another kind of stress that can stop your period and cause hypothalamic amenorrhea. Having a healthy period is fundamentally about being healthy and nourished enough to reproduce. When your body registers that not enough intake is coming in, this is going to put a big freeze on your reproductive hormones. Along with this follows an increased stress response, fatigue, and more of the symptoms outlined in my last post on adrenal stress. Another thing to note! You don’t have to be underweight to experience the negatives of eating too low calorie! Research shows that you can be normal weight or even slightly overweight and still lose your period or experience hormone disturbances due to undereating.
Signs you might not be eating enough?
Use visual wisdom to support plate building! I recommend the Nourished Plate as a tool to support application of portion sizes to play with and keep blood sugars stabilized at meals and snacks throughout the day.
Get to know your hunger and fullness cues – we don’t want you fighting hunger and trying to stave it off with water, gum, caffeine etc. It is important to be able to recognize what true hunger is and WHEN you are feeling hungry give yourself permission to satisfy it with a balanced meal or snack!
Aim for 3 balanced meals and 1-2 snacks throughout the day. After eating you should feel about 80% full and meals should be able to take you 3-4 hours before needing to refuel! If you aren’t feeling this way you could be underfueling, not eating enough protein, fat or carb, or need some additional gut and adrenal work to support your hunger.
You can get a ballpark idea of if you are meeting your needs by checking your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). From here you can map out a regular day of eating in a calorie tracking application to see where you are at. NOTE: I do not think that calorie and macro tracking is a primary solution to support hormone and adrenal health but I do think it can be a tool in this case to see where someone is at! I do recommend connecting with a trained dietitian to help you navigate this process especially if you struggle with yo-yo dieting or disordered eating.
Exercise can in fact be a form of stress! The hypothalamus (the control center) cares less about body weight and more about whether you are eating enough to keep up with your activity. Excessive exercise can not only put you in an extreme deficit, but also drive up your cortisol, reducing the resources and need for your body to support adequate sex hormone production.
One of the best ways to support adrenal stress recovery, metabolic function, and also align with other stress management practices is to incorporate more NEAT movement fueled strength training. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, describes the calories burned by the movements we make when we go about our daily business – walking is a great example of this! Eating before a strength workout and also including 60 second rests in between sets, is another great way to increase body strength, ahem, increasing metabolic flexibility, thus the energy you will burn during the day!
NOTE: when you are in a state of adrenal drive it might feel GOOD to engage in high intensity activity, hour long cardio sessions, and early morning workouts. Know that it will require intention to change this patterning and switch up your forms of movement! Also some patience :).
Prioritize lower intensity strength activity, yoga, and pilates– prioritizing breath work through the movement.
Incorporate daily walking as a way to increase NEAT activity and reduce demand on the adrenals with movement
Adopt a mindset of “how can I move my body to nourish it” and “what does my body need today” VS. a forced approach to exercise and movement.
As part of increasing stress resilience, breathwork is one of the best tools that we have. With breath work, we are able to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and tell the brain that we are thriving vs. surviving, even when stress is amongst us. With diaphragmatic breathing, we are also able to stimulate the flow of lymphatic fluid through the body.
I love this tool because it is portable and easily accessible. You can apply deep belly breathing at any time of the day in mini spurts for multiple sessions or for longer sessions if that feels better for you!
Take mini breathing breaks during the day. Even 30 seconds of deep breathing can be an incredible recharge for your mind and body during the stress driving work day.
Explore a morning or evening meditation routine that combines breathwork. I love the Insight Timer App and the To Be Magnetic App for guided meditations and support!
When you provide your body with the right tools and practices in the right environment with the right mindset, slowly but surely your health will improve.
Armoring yourself with the tools and practices for your body to better respond when stressful events come up really puts you in a better place of intention with your stress management and healing.
Prioritizing mini daily actions is one of the best ways to support daily stress resilience.
Through 1:1 coaching we can identify what YOUR personal needs to support symptoms, including personalized data collection to identify how your adrenal hormones and sex hormone are communicating. This kind of testing is far more specific than blood testing hormones with your PCP!
If you are ready to approach your PCOS or hormone problems from a different angle moving in to 2022 with personalization and a lifestyle approach that aligns with you, let’s connect for a Discovery Call to get you on the right track!
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Thank you for all the great tips on how to have a healthier body and mind. I can’t wait to try implementing some of these tools into my life and look forward to the benefits they will bring!
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