Stress can bring about a host of medical conditions such as: high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, depression, skin issues, arthritis, anxiety and a compromised immune system. So it’s no wonder that we view stress in a totally negative way.
However stress is a normal bodily function, designed to keep us safe when we feel threatened, (perceived or real). Our ancient communication system can’t tell the difference, so responds to all stressful situations in the same way; by sending a message from the brain to tell the adrenal glands to start producing the stress hormones; cortisol and adrenaline. This response puts glucose into the muscles so that you can fight or flee, it also raises your blood pressure to ensure enough fresh oxygen gets to your brain to help you focus and problem solve.
Cortisol is also the key hormone to protect our overall health and wellbeing, by regulating metabolism, helping to reduce inflammation and assist with memory formulation. Put simply its fundamental role is to control our energy levels to get us through the day; more in the morning, less during the day and then very little at bedtime as part of the circadian rhythm, (your bio chemical and physiological sleep – wake cycle). At night when cortisol should be at its lowest, your cells perform their greatest repair and healing. If its too high at night, caused by excessive stress, your body cannot do the repair work needed for a healthy body and mind.
Characteristically stress is needed for us to grow and to function, as well as to build resistance to it, we build muscles through lifting heavy weights and become better at handling work deadlines with practice. But over time too many stressors can lead to dysfunctions. It contributes to speeding up cellular ageing, disrupting metabolism and putting us more at risk of developing diseases, mental health issues, hormonal imbalances and is directly linked to excess belly fat. Symptoms appear before diseases are diagnosed and could serve as a warning all is not well. These could include emotional stress, digestive issues, pain, inflammation, dark urine and toxicity, fatigue, sleep disruption, low muscle mass, frequent injuries, water retention, wrinkles and skin conditions, sexual dysfunction, addictions, cravings, weight gain, and allergies.
As we all can appreciate life doesn’t usually fit into perfect categories. More often than not, life is messy and disorganized. The same is true of our hormones. Women already face a largely unacknowledged scourge of hormonal imbalances without unremitting stress getting into the mix to exacerbate the issues. When we take on too many stressors both within and beyond our control, it can become overwhelming. Excess Cortisol is produced with continued stress and this reduces our levels of Progesterone, (our feel good hormone and sleep enhancer) leading to; fluid retention, low mood and sleep disturbances. Reduced levels of Progesterone then puts us at risk of Oestrogen dominance (more commonly associated with peri-menopause and menopause) which is linked to this frustrating list of symptoms; irregular or heavy periods, uterine fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, Thyroid dysfunction, weight gain, low libido, fatigue, depression, infertility and irritability.
How we deal with the symptoms of stress and stressful situations vary from person to person; we all make choices several times a day that will impact either negatively or positively on our health or how we feel. Yet do we always consider the consequences of our decisions? Are our choices making the most of our health or setting us up for more serious side affects and health issues down the line? The healthier we are the more resistant we can be to the cumulative effects of stress and hormonal balance, leading to feeling and looking good and being disease free. Of course we all have our weaknesses; our habits and attitudes that we believe help us to deal with uncertain times and frustrations in life. It can be difficult to let go of that daily chocolate bar or glasses of wine in the evening, not taking exercise or looking after our emotional health. Often we believe that by letting them go could somehow make life less fun or fulfilling.
When we have a desire to make a change we need to define them in a positive way; what you want to achieve rather than what you don’t want to do. Wishing for change is not a commitment and doesn’t achieve goals. It only reinforces the distance between where we are now and where we want to be. Becoming acquainted with our strengths and using their potential to drive away less helpful habits can be useful. For example if you want to have a healthier diet, focusing on the healthy foods you do like and considering portion sizes is better than looking at what you should eliminate from your diet. Moving away from our usual habits and not replacing them with something else is not particularly sustainable either. Consider what you will put in its place, rather than trying to exercise willpower day after day. Linking our values to our new habits is a helpful way to frame a new behaviour and give us purpose to change. Few of us write down our goals or objectives, yet evidence suggests that by doing so you are 40% more likely to achieve it.
Handling stress is key to good health but this isn’t the only consideration, the solutions to improve our health are nuanced; you maybe dealing with an individual (Cortisol) hormone imbalance caused by stress alone or having to deal with several hormonal issues through other health or age related concerns. The most effective approach is one that diagnoses the imbalances and then establishing why your hormones have gone awry. A process should follow that adjusts the behaviours that got you out of balance initially, along with realistic diet, exercise, supplements and BHRT if necessary, rather than succumbing to extreme diets, exercise regimes and medications.