Why stress can HELP your hormones (and improve your life)
“We need stress to survive.”
-Every physiology textbook
“I’m so stressed out!” “Stress is the cause of all disease!” “I’m seriously so f’ing stressed all the time. I have no idea what I’m doing- I can’t sleep, I can’t lose weight, my mind is racing 24/7.” Usually followed by “I need a drink/chocolate/snack or a vacation - or all of it at once.” Deep breath (seriously, 4 counts in through your nose, hold for 1, out for 8 counts through your mouth). Stress CAN harm us, but we also need stress to survive. In fact, the same physiological pathway that makes our hormones like estrogen and testosterone, also makes our stress hormone, cortisol.
As with anything, too little or too much is no bueno. Just like hormones- estrogen can help women lose weight, keep us happy, help prevent heart disease, etc. but too much or too little can cause weight gain, increase anxiety and depression, and can place us at higher risk for heart disease. In men, too low testosterone (not usually too high unless something else going on) can contribute to low energy, low libido, anxiety/depression, poor sleep, and either testosterone is turning into estrogen, or dihydrotestosterone (DHT) a more potent version that can trigger male pattern baldness. On the other hand, DHT Is responsible for a deeper voice and muscle growth, to name a few. Like these hormones, cortisol also needs to be on a bell curve for us to be in balance.
Stress is good for us because it can make us more equipped to deal with averse circumstances- a certain level of stress actually imprints the scenario into our brain so we remember it in case it happens again. Psychologically, it helps us be better able to handle life’s difficulties, and improve our confidence the next time around something happens. Studies have also shown that people who never experience stress block themselves off from taking reasonable risks, therefore less likely to reach their goals in relationships and life, and can lead to feels of depression and boredom. Shifting your mindset to stress being positive/chance to learn can actually help lower levels too!
So where does stress come from? Relationships, friendships, work, finances, health issues, diet, how we talk to ourselves, environment, beauty/cleaning products (i.e. chemicals), alcohol, smoking, drugs, etc. In other words, we know there will be stress in our life, so because we need cortisol/stress to survive, it’s all about management-aka which places in your life can you make healthier to balance out the stress? If you’ve felt tired but wired, need 10 cups of coffee to function, or a few Red Bulls, feeling like you’re on a verge of breakdown because everything just seems out of your control, your adrenal glands, the two glands that sit on top of your kidneys that make cortisol, are feeling the exact same way!
Here’s how you can learn your stress levels & balance your hormones:
Saliva & urine tests- These are great ways to test both cortisol and sex hormones (like mentioned above), as these ways measure the active/free metabolites (blood combines inactive and active forms). These tests are done throughout the day so results come back on a graph of exactly what cortisol is really doing in our body. Sometimes people can have similar symptoms but their curve can either be super high or completely flatline, so this helps guide treatment. Cortisol wakes us up in the morning, and slowly declines throughout the day. I’ve seen zig zags- yes, that can explain a lot.
Check your vitamin D- We pretty much all need to supplement these levels, as even though the blood test says a range of 30-100, aim for levels around 50-60, as this is actually part hormone, and the precursor to ensuring our sex hormones and cortisol is balanced.
Take an epsom salt bath- It’s a fabulous way to get in Magnesium, nature’s relaxer, a super important mineral that’s depleted with caffeine, stress (when there’s too much, of course), and alcohol. It’s also wonderful for self-care, and a time to just be zen.
Stress is something we all have, and we will continue to have as long as we’re alive. Demonizing it will only make us more miserable, so I challenge you to get curious (I accept these challenges too all the time- and once in awhile with gritted teeth.. where a few deep breaths and reminding myself there’s a solution brings down that response) about how and where you could mitigate stress. Here’s some recipes and additional strategies about how you can regularly live in that bell curve of health!