The fight between Stress and your Sex Hormones
Do you know how disastrous chronic stress can be for your body?
Your sex hormones play a big part in maintaining your bodily functions and its dysfunction affects your menstrual health and more. All hormones are derived from fats - they are chemical substances synthesised in small amounts and carried between tissues in the bloodstream to affect every organ in the body. Hormones travel throughout the body via various receptors. Examples include our stress hormone cortisol, sex hormones progesterone and estrogen and testosterone and thyroid. It is no wonder healthy fats in the diet is important for adequate hormone function!
When your hormones are out of balance, you might be feeling or having:
weight fluctuation difficulties - buildup of fat storage
emotional - anxiety, depression
menstrual issues - irregular periods
irregular blood sugar levels
hirutism - excessive hair growth especially in women with PCOS
Our sex hormones are made from cholesterol. (Surprised?) Cholesterol is both synthesised in our body and received from food. It is the precursor to pregnenolone which in turn makes progesterone, DHEA, testosterone and estrogen down the road. This is important information to remember before we get to the section about how stress impacts sex hormone production!
Our sex hormones are incredibly important because besides regulating your menstrual cycle and making you fertile, they affect your libido, moods, energy levels, fat metabolism and more. Sex hormone production starts from the release of gonadotropic releasing hormone (GnRH) from the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus will decide to start the production and release of these hormones based on the current levels of sex hormones within the bloodstream. This means it is a natural feedback mechanism. It is worthy to note that the hypothalamus is also affected by stress, which we will cover later.
For women, our two main sex hormones are oestrogen and progesterone. I explained the roles of estrogen and progesterone in my Youtube video about the basics of our menstrual cycle.
Just a quick recap, progesterone is made from pregnenolone and is the main hormone during the luteal phase following ovulation. It is a calming hormone and acts to calm your body and relax it to prepare it for pregnancy. It also maintains the lining of the uterus to make it possible for that fertilised egg to settle in and is really important for libido!
Estrogen is responsible for fat storage and is higher in women which contributes to the development of our breasts, hips, butt and thighs. It is the main driver during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle towards ovulation. It is common for women especially with PCOS to have a higher level of oestrogen compared to progesterone, causing a hormonal imbalance which can result in that unwanted weight gain.
It is worth to note here that due to fluctuations of estrogen and progesterone in our monthly cycles that can affect our mood, energy levels and water retention rates, the metabolism in women is far more complicated and thus can create a complex weight loss issue.
SEX HORMONE BINDING GLOBULIN
A word on Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) - it is a protein made by the liver and one of its roles involve binding testosterone. SHBG levels is increased on the birth control pill. It binds both testosterone and oestrogen and this is the reason why women on birth control experience more pain with orgasm/sex and low libido long term.
HOW STRESS CAN CAUSE A HORMONAL IMBALANCE AND IS DISASTROUS FOR WEIGHT LOSS
Cortisol is being pumped out by our adrenal glands and it is usually in response to a stressful situation.
Earlier, we talked about how cholesterol converts into Pregnenolone and turns into the other sex hormones down the line including progesterone, estrogen and testosterone. When we are stressed, instead of making progesterone, cholesterol is converted into cortisol!
High amounts of cortisol can impact progesterone production because it steals the resources of cholesterol and pregnenolone.
Survival is a priority over reproduction in nature.
This graphic in this article explains it really well. Your end result due to chronic stress: you are low on sex hormones. This results in lower progesterone and estrogen dominance - weight gain, mood swings, breast tenderness. Estrogen dominance is common and definitely something to look at to fix especially when you have PCOS.
HOW TO SOLVE A HORMONAL IMBALANCE DUE TO STRESS
Asking how do we fix this hormonal imbalance is just like asking any other health related question because it boils down to the same answer - good clean nutrition.
As our hormones are ultimately made out of fats, having good sources of healthy unsaturated fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, wild caught fatty salmon, sardines are great to have in your diet! These fat sources are amazing when paired with cruciferous vegetables (kale, spinach, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli. you know the drill) that contain fat soluble vitamins A,C,D and K in order to maximise absorption of these vitamins. Dr Brighten gives a good overview of the varying levels of sex hormones and the accompanying nutrition that can help. Save your adrenals by getting good quality sleep and ensuring time for relaxation. Forms of movement like still yoga and meditation can help to calm your nervous system down too.