3 Ways Chronic Stress Messes with Your Hormones (and 5 Ways To Nourish Them!)
Updated: Jun 17
Who isn't stressed these days? The trouble starts when stress becomes chronic and your hormones can't cope leading to a host of health issues. Read on to see if chronic stress is messing with your hormones and learn how real food can help!
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Fight, flight or freeze!
Our bodies have some incredible built-in survival mechanisms.
If we are dehydrated, our kidneys will reabsorb water. If we eat some unwashed lettuce at a restaurant, our stomach acid will kill off any dangerous bacteria. If a car swerves out in front of us on the road, our nervous system kicks on in the blink of an eye so we can slam on the breaks or get out of the way.
This life-saving reaction is often referred to as our “fight, flight or freeze” response. This is also known as the stress response and is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system. It comes in handy when running from danger, watching over rambunctious children, and even when competing in athletic events. This superhuman energy flows from our adrenal glands, which sit like two guard dogs atop our kidneys.
When a stressful event occurs the brain sends a message down to these guardians to pump out the stress hormones—adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine)—so we can rise to the challenge. This makes our heart rate go up, our breathing fast and shallow, and blood to flood our extremities so we can run, jump, throw or put a stop to anything coming at us. It’s an automatic safety device that works faster than we can think!
When Stress is the Enemy
While this powerful protective response keeps us alive and alert, it can also go into overdrive. In the presence of chronic stress, the body fails to downshift into a “rest, digest and heal” mode, or parasympathetic state. Instead, our nervous system remains on high alert. This happens because our brain doesn’t recognize the difference between a 9-1-1 emergency and an unpleasant conversation with our boss. Either one of these situations will trigger the same message centers in our brain that tell the adrenal glands to keep pumping out the stress hormones.
This is where sweaty palms, a pounding heart and a shaky voice take over. The flood of adrenaline is unleashed!
Other modern day “emergencies” perceived by our brain may include:
The morning commute
Getting the kids ready for school
Or nowadays: homeschooling while working from home!
Coffee and other stimulants
Disease or chronic illness
Emotional stress/relationship conflict
Lack of sleep
Fasting/not eating on time
Sugary foods and beverages/high glycemic foods (like refined carbs)
Suspenseful movies/TV shows
Caregiving for loved ones… or just raising kids!
In other words... LIFE!
And yes, some of the things on the above list may be relaxing when enjoyed in the right circumstances, but when they are used in excess to cope with stress they can often perpetuate the cycle.
And some things are just out of our control leaving us subject to a non-stop flood of stress hormones!
Three Ways Chronic Stress Messes with Your Hormones
When we are “always stressed out” our adrenaline/noradrenaline storage runs dry causing our body’s chronic stress back-up system to come to the rescue.
So what is this wonderful superpower?
This magical hormone with a seemingly endless supply of energy is known as cortisol.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone made by the adrenal glands. It is triggered during times of extended stress and has many powerful functions like:
Raising blood sugar levels to give us more energy to deal with stressors
Suppressing the immune and digestive systems so we can deal with surviving instead
Helping with pain by acting as an anti-inflammatory
While this may be helpful in the short term, in the long term this chronic output of cortisol causes major problems.
Let’s look at three of the main effects of the elevated stress hormone cortisol on your hormones:
1. Liver Log Jam & Estrogen Dominance
The liver is a metabolic powerhouse that serves the entire body. Among its many duties, the liver takes care of excess and worn-out hormones. It does this by means of deactivation and conjugation wherein the old or over-produced hormones are broken down, inactivated and removed from the body, or repackaged and recycled for other bodily functions.
When cortisol is in demand non-stop due to ongoing stress, this gives the liver a lot of extra work to do such as raising blood sugar so we can keep up our energy to deal with stress.
This ongoing rush job to keep our blood sugar/energy up is carried out by the liver on top of metabolizing other hormones... plus nearly 500 other critical body functions!
All this activity in the liver causes a traffic jam in the detox pathways. One result of this backlog is that the hormone estrogen does not get broken down. This results in a common condition known as estrogen dominance.
In women, estrogen dominance can cause an imbalance in the progesterone/estrogen ratio contributing to unpleasant health effects like:
Weight gain (especially around belly and hips)
Irregular menstrual cycles
Decreased sex drive
In men, estrogen dominance can lead to an imbalance in the estrogen/testosterone ratio can contribute to:
Decreased sex drive
Weight gain (especially around belly and hips)
While these conditions may be common, they certainly aren’t the normal way our body was meant to function.
2. Panicked Pancreas & Insulin Resistance
Another danger of chronic stress and elevated cortisol is its effect on our pancreas and insulin production. While cortisol is busy ordering the liver around to keep our blood sugar levels up, the pancreas is busy cranking out insulin to make sure our glucose doesn’t get too high.
Insulin is the hormone that is responsible for lowering our blood sugar.
Over time, with so much cortisol and sugar in the bloodstream, insulin receptors on our cells get overwhelmed and resist lowering blood sugar. When this happens we are left with elevated blood sugar AND insulin roaming around our bloodstream.
This condition is known as insulin resistance and can be very dangerous for our hormones as well as our brains and cardiovascular systems.
In women, this state of progressive insulin resistance can contribute to androgen dominance which can often lead to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)—a female hormonal condition that can manifest in a myriad of symptoms such as absent or irregular menstrual cycles, unwanted facial hair growth (due too many androgens like testosterone), acne, weight gain, infertility and cystic ovaries. This is often a very stressful condition for women thus perpetuating the cycle of cortisol output.
In men, chronic stress leading to high cortisol production and high blood sugar can also contribute to low testosterone which can perpetuate insulin resistance. Low testosterone symptoms are listed above under the liver and estrogen dominance. What a vicious cycle!
In addition to devastating hormone imbalances, this highly inflammatory combination sets both men and women up for disease risk factors such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease.
3. The Hormone Thief
So how exactly does our body keep up with this cortisol monster who feeds on all of our chronic stress? Doesn't cortisol run dry like our adrenaline does?
Unfortunately, under prolonged seasons of chronic stress our body steals certain hormones to make more cortisol.
This is sometimes called the “pregnenolone steal.” Pregnenolone is a building block hormone from which other hormones are produced—namely adrenal hormones and sex hormones.
In times of stress, the adrenal glands divert this vital hormone from making more progesterone and DHEA (the precursor to all the sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen), and instead grab it for more cortisol production.
This stealing of pregnenolone leads to downstream hormonal imbalances such as low progesterone and low testosterone, both of which have devastating impacts on male and female fertility. When the body is chronically stressed the hormonal focus shifts to survival versus reproduction.
Additionally, this imbalance of hormones also makes female perimenopause, menopause and male andropause even more of a hormonal roller coaster ride creating chaos with sex drive, sleep, weight gain and moods.
No one is immune to the ravages of this cortisol hungry hormone thief!
Breaking the Cycle
So how can we break free from the powerful effects of chronic stress and the subsequent cascade of cortisol-induced hormone imbalance? After all, this flood of “energy” is sometimes what keeps us going!
Our culture often treats being “stressed out” as a normal way of life and even as a sign of productivity or responsibility.
But if you don’t break the cycle, it might break you—as seen in the above hormonal upheavals.
While you may not be able to change your circumstances, there are some simple ways you can stop feeding the cortisol monster and instead nourish all your hormones:
5 Ways to Nourish Your Hormones with Real Food
Replace refined carbohydrate snacks (cookies, crackers, muffins, bread) with complex carbohydrates -- fresh fruits and veggie snacks -- all you can eat! Refined carbs often have white flour and sugar, which quickly spike your blood sugar and make your hormones go whacky! Fresh fruits and veggies give you clean energy, cleansing fiber, and vitamins and minerals that your hormones crave!
Add some hummus, nut butter, cheese or plain yogurt (if tolerated) to turn your veggies and fruit into a complete meal or filling snack! By adding some healthy protein, carbs and healing fats to your fresh fruit and veggies, you will keep your blood sugar in balance, which makes your hormones calm, happy and healthy!
Replace processed cooking fats and oils (corn oil, peanut oil, safflower and sunflower oil) with healthy fats like grass-fed butter, ghee, coconut oil, avocado oil (and fresh avocados) and olive oil. Enjoy nuts and seeds (soaked and sprouted if possible)! Check ingredient labels to see which fats are used in your snacks. Fats are the building blocks of hormones. Processed fats are produced with chemicals and are often rancid (and get worse when cooked) contributing to a toxic burden on your hormones. Healthy fats found in nature give you slow burning energy and make excellent building materials for your hormones at any age!
Enjoy wild-caught fish, grass-fed/finished beef and lamb, and pasture raised poultry and eggs as often as you can! Add in some goat’s, sheep’s or cow’s dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk) if tolerated. These ancient protein sources have been feeding our grandparents for years. We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t enjoyed these nutrient dense animal foods which contribute to our cellular energy, brain function, solid bone and muscle structure and fertility!
Eat some slow-burning carbohydrates with dinner (or before bed) -- like beans, peas, or sweet potatoes, or a slice of whole grain toast or a small bowl of oatmeal, low-sugar granola… or even some yogurt or cottage cheese (which have some carbs in addition to protein and fat). Slow-burning, healthy starches and grains will help your blood sugar remain steady while you sleep instead of triggering the 3 am cortisol rush that steals your hormonal vitality and keeps you wide awake thinking about all you have to do!
There are many other holistic things we can do to calm our stress levels and nurture our hormones like:
Finding an exercise program we enjoy and do regularly
Getting outside as much as possible
Finding fun and relaxing hobbies or family activities
Getting enough sleep/napping when needed
Anything that gets you into the “rest, digest and heal” state—or parasympathetic state versus the “fight or flight” state—will be critical for healing any hormone imbalance.
Start with one or two changes that seem do-able and enjoyable and see what else you can add in over time. You may be surprised how a little TLC can calm down cranky hormones and clear your hurried mind!
Let me know in the comments below what you've tried or would like to try!
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Yan, Y.-X., Xiao, H.-B., Wang, S.-S., Zhao, J., He, Y., Wang, W., & Dong, J. (2016, July 5). Investigation of the Relationship Between Chronic Stress and Insulin Resistance in a Chinese Population. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4919480/
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About the Author
Roxie Daggett is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) with a virtual practice in Sedona, Arizona. Her passions include studying nutritional research pertaining to memory, brain health, genes and longevity. When she is not geeking out on nutrition she enjoys messing around in the kitchen with old world recipes, reading and hearing stories from elders and farmers about traditional food sourcing, and wandering around the Red Rocks with her heroic husband and Staffordshire bull terrier.
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