It’s the beginning of the year and as we all settling back into work and life the pressures and stress can begin to creep up again.
Female reproductive health is an area I work a lot with in clinic and a very common theme with many of my clients is the impact stress has on the female reproductive system.
Before we get into how stress impacts sex hormones I really want to get to the core of what stress is and how it can present itself.
Stress is defined as “a state in which homeostasis is threatened or perceived to be threatened.”
It can be actual (happening to us at any given time), anticipated and imagined. The interesting thing is, that regardless if the stress is actual or imagined, the body reacts to it in the EXACT same way. A stressor can be physical, emotional or even environmental.
What happens inside the body when we are stressed?
The nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord and the millions of nerves that go off into all areas of the body.
When we experience an actual or perceived threat the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional processing, interprets the sound and image associated with the stressor. Once it’s processed this incoming information, the amygdala then sends it as a distress signal to the hypothalamus. Now think of your hypothalamus as a command center if you will. The hypothalamus is responsible for figuring out what to do with the information it’s given and communicating this with the appropriate area of the body through the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system can be broken up into two primary states, the parasympathetic and sympathetic.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is in charge of regulating homeostasis (AKA balance) and is responsible for the body's "rest and digest" functions. These include salivation; digestion and absorption of nutrients, sexual arousal, and you guessed it reproductive function.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the body's “stress” response to a perceived threat and activates the "fight or flight" response. This is where the amygdala sends a distress call to the hypothalamus that then speaks to the adrenal glands. The adrenals then respond by producing the stress hormone adrenaline and this is instant. Adrenaline causes pupils to dilate, heart rate to rise, breathing to increase, blood sugar spikes and blood to be pumped to the peripheries all in a bid to preparation for said threat. This only takes a few split seconds to occur.
Now if this threat continues then the HPA axis gets triggered. This is a cascade of events where by the hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals speak to one another. The hypothalamus sends out corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), which tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone, which tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
Studies have shown that short bursts of stress are actually healthy and needed for adapting to our environment and we should naturally move back and forth from a PNS and SNS state. This was the case for our Neanderthal ancestors whose SNS would be activated by the threat of a predator. However, in our modern day weno longer have to worry about predators. Instead the threat is an email from the boss, a deadline, or a pile of bills to pay and this “threat” does not go away or if it does it’s quickly replaced with another.
This means that we are constantly in SNS dominance, where this cascade is constantly switched on, and in the long term can cause havoc with our health. Research has shown that SNS dominance is associated with:
· Cardiovascular disease
· Weight gain (particularly in the abdominal area)
· Insulin resistance
· Sleep disturbances
· Type II diabetes
· Even memory and concentration problems.
How does this affect the female reproductive system?
Just as the hypothalamus and pituitary speak to the adrenals, they also speak to the ovaries. The hypothalamus produces a substance called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). This stimulates the pituitary gland to produce luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicular stimulating hormone, which in turn stimulates the production of testosterone and oestrogen.
Along with cortisol and adrenaline, the adrenals in times of stress also produce glucocorticoids, which act directly on the hypothalamus by suppressing its ability to produce gonadotropin-releasing hormone. This causes a flow on affect where the pituitary produces less LH and FSH and then less progesterone and oestrogen are produced.
These decreases in overall sex hormone production can then long term lead to:
· Reduced sex drive
· Menstrual irregularities like the length of a cycle or break through bleeding.
· PMS symptoms
· Impact fertility
· Exacerbate existing reproductive conditions such as endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome.
How can you reduce your stress levels?
While I am a big believer in removing the cause of stress, in today’s society that’s not always achievable. So as a holistic approach, here are some tips on how we can best combat our stressors.
1. Foods as medicine– Nothing heals us like a balanced diet. Ensuring to eat a wholefoods diet full of protein and healthy fats with provide the nutrients required for antioxidant support, sustaining energy, and keeping blood sugar levels stable. A diet high in refined sugars, simple carbohydrates and lacking fruit and vegetables can cause further stress on the body by causing spikes in blood sugar and causing inflammation.
2. Exercise – Exercise produces endorphins that make us feel good. Sweating is also one of the best ways to rid the body of cortisol. Low to moderate intensity exercise is recommended so as to not add more stress to the body. Think yoga, walking, swimming and dancing.
3. Switching off electronic devices– Are you a constant checker? The emergence of smart phones, social media and emails at the touch of a button has created a new type of person known as a “constant checker”. A 2017 American survey found that 89% of adults reported they constantly checked their phones. This attachment to devices and the constant use of technology was associated with higher stress levels. I recommend putting the phone away when you get home and spend time connecting with family and loved ones.
Of course there are many other ways to help manage stress so its best to speak with your practitioner and work out which is best for you.
How to know if your stress is affecting your hormones?
I use DUTCH testing that assesses sex hormones, their metabolites, adrenal function and neurotransmitters to gain an overall assessment of how your body is functioning. This allows for more precise evaluation and can be used to track progress.
Book a consultation or send me an email to find out more.